Scarlet Robes and Sandra’s Crayons

Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

Will Rogers

Have you ever heard of The Diderot Effect? The principle is named after the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, who, until 1765, lived his life in poverty. In order to provide a dowry for his daughter Diderot sold his library for a significant sum to Catherine the Great of Russia. He used a small portion of
the proceeds to buy himself a scarlet robe and that’s what led to his trouble. Diderot’s robe was so beautiful that it seemed out of place with the possessions he already owned and he soon felt the urge to buy new things that reflected and enhanced its beauty. These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect. I hadn’t thought about Diderot in years, but shortly before the start of the school year I overheard a conversation that set me thinking about him and the material things that fight to get into our lives, testing our ability to curate, eliminate and focus only on those that matter.

Two young boys more interested in computer games than the shoes their mother wanted to buy,  triggered memories that set this rumination in motion.  Only an aisle separated the exasperated mother from the row where I sat and I couldn’t help but hear her attempts to engage her  boys in the process of shoe selection for the new school year.  It was apparent that replacing the shoes they were wearing –  however battered they might be  – was at the bottom of the list of things the boys wanted to do. I had to smile. Back in the day, rituals were associated with the start of the school year. One of them was the purchase of new shoes and because they were expected to last at least half the year, fit was important.   At the time, local shoe stores used machines called fluoroscopes to x-ray feet, allowing  moms to make sure there was sufficient toe room to insure shoes would last for the duration.  That sounds almost too good to be true and as it turned out it  was.  At some point in the late 1940’s it was found that the machines leaked potentially dangerous radiation and they were banned, despite the fact that none of my generation ended up with feet that glowed in the dark. In the days before sneakers shoes were an important but not the only part of the back to school ritual. Do you remember the pencil box?

For those entering first grade the pencil box was part of a rite of passage. In the 1940’s, its contents depended on time and place, as well as access to a five and dime store. Organized boxes, whose content were selected by manufacturers, were not yet available, so depending on who your mother was you might get to pick the supplies for your box. In late summer the box itself caused a run on cigar stores whose “empties” were the perfect vehicle for storing school supplies.  Now I had the good fortune to be raised in a time and place when there really was a village whose women helped each other raise children. My mother was not a crafter and had only a passing relationship with the treadle machine she inherited from her mother. Our neighbor, Hannie, stepped in when we needed when anything that required needle work or creative assembly. I was able to “score” a cigar box early in the summer and Hannie took that box and covered it with red gingham she had quilted.  It was gorgeous! I was thrilled and absolutely certain that no one in the world had a box as wonderful as mine. On the day before school started I got to pick the things I wanted to add to it.  In went some pencils with dangerously sharp points, a pair of scissors, paste, an eraser and a box of crayons that held primary colors single row.   I was in paradise until I went to school the next day and encountered my nemesis, Sandra Sacks.

Sandra’s father was a doctor and her Mary Janes  immediately set her apart from those of us wearing irradiated oxfords. Unconcerned with fashion, we could have forgiven the shoes, but when she opened her pencil box the green eyed monster got the best of us. Sandra had a box of crayons that was five rows deep and  contained colors whose names we wouldn’t learn for another year or two.  I was eight years old before I had a box of crayons like hers, but once I had it I quickly learned there were colors in that box I might never use. There is rarely a call for a puce or magenta crayon. So while it may be true that “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp,” it behooves him to know what he is reaching for and why he needs it. I was eight years old when I learned I could be happy without five rows of crayons and that dreams can be far sweeter than their acquisition.

2 thoughts on “Scarlet Robes and Sandra’s Crayons

  1. Hi Mary,

    This is so cute – and sweet. I tried again to post a comment, but failed again. So I’ll post it on Facebook.



    “In music, in the sea, in a flower, in a leaf, in an act of kindness…

    I see what people call God in all these things.” – Pablo Casals



  2. Aha! I remember Barbara Philbrick, the doctor’s daughter, who wore the Mary Janes I coveted, but would never have, and, after 65+ years, I’ve almost forgiven her! Thanks for the memories.


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