When whimsy and utility collide

As a child, I loved to go to story time at the public library. The storyteller would come in costume — typically a supporting character from that week’s story — and a few dozen children and I would gather and intently listen to the tale. I looked forward to story time each week with the same fervor modern children might anticipate a trip to Disney World or meeting Justin Bieber.

I enjoyed the books shared during story time, spending time with other kids, and seeing the storytellers dress up in costume. My favorite part of story time, however, were the stools on wheels.

I now know these stools are called Kik-Steps and they are in many homes and businesses, but at the time I thought they were the most amazing and rare toys found only in my hometown’s public library. As it is with many desirable things, there weren’t enough stools on wheels for every child at story time. You had to get there early to get one. I would dream about them, tell everyone I met about them, and would cry if there weren’t any available by the time we got to story time. You could sit, stand, or push them around — they were magical!

I bought my first Kik-Step when I was 30, and seeing it in my home takes me back to wonderful childhood memories of story time. Even though I bought it for nostalgic reasons, it has surprisingly turned out to be one of the most useful objects in our home.

I use it a few times daily in the kitchen, to reach high shelves. I use it when I need to change light bulbs, dust, and put things away in closets. I’m 5’9″ barefoot and have an arm span of close to 5’11″, so I am genuinely surprised by how often I use it. It also provides a place to sit, if needed. As its name implies, the best thing about the Kik-Step is if your arms are full, you can simply kick it into place and then step right up on it. You don’t have to unfold it or carry it.

I don’t have a lot of things in my home that I purchased on a whim that turned out to be extremely useful. Usually, sentimental purchases fall into the knick knack category and are eventually passed along to someone else to enjoy for a few years. Have you ever made an impulse or sentimental purchase that turned out to have high utility? I’m interested in reading your stories of surprise in the comments.

39 Comments for “When whimsy and utility collide”

  1. posted by Norm Deplume on

    I, too, loved the kik-steps in my library. I don’t own one, but have had them in my Amazon shopping cart more than once.

    For my own whim? Once, when I wanted to weigh some mystery yarn that I had “harvested” from a thrift store sweater, I bought a digital scale. I spent $20 on it, and had a huge amount of buyer’s remorse for buying it to weigh one bit of yarn. But we have used it SO MUCH since then. I’ev weighed packages for mailing. I’ve weighed flour and sugar and pasta on it (its intended use). My husband has used it when brewing beer. When our daughter was studying mass in school this year, we experimented with it. Probably the best $20 we’ve spent on impulse in a long time.

  2. posted by Karen (scotland) on

    As a librarian, I too love these things. Unfortunately, in a library I once worked in, one of ours no longer rolled so when kicked – ouch! Our boss wouldn’t let us put us put tape or a sticker or anything on it (to ID it as the dodgy roller), so we all learned to approach, nudge gently with foot, THEN to kick.
    :-)

    Whimsy things I’ve bought then loved. Um, apple corer and segmenter in one? I have four kids (six and under) so this gets used at least four times daily and saves me a lot of time faffing around with the knife. Also means there is NO waste with the apple.
    A unitasker if ever there was one, but it works for my brood.

    Karen (Scotland)

  3. posted by Elle on

    (Sort of) Whimsy purchase: When we were renovating our kitchen a couple of years ago, I bought an electric “tea kettle” to boil water for my coffee. I was sure this was one of those things I’d give away as soon as the kitchen was finished. How wrong! We use it every day – many times a day. It is so much quicker than using a tea kettle on the stove, and I like not having a teakettle sitting out on the stove all the time.

  4. posted by Michael M on

    I have twin toddlers and a small house. Both of the boys need their own step stool so they can see what’s happening on the counter (when one has the stool, the other kid wants it).

    The rolling stool is nice but it has a large footprint. Instead, we bought a couple of these:
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obi.....tterer-20/

    –They’re light so the kids can carry them.
    –They fold open or closed very quickly and easily.
    –They fold to a very thin size and are easy to store almost anywhere (we keep both stools between two cabinets).
    –They hold plenty of weight so my wife or I can use them for reaching high cabinets.
    –They’re cheap.

    For my money, these are the ultimate uncluttered step-stools.

  5. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I had a trip back to the library in my mind when I saw this picture! I am a bit older than you , I believe, and so I remember these from when I took MY kids to the library! We homeschooled for 8 years so we spent LOTS of time at the library! I am sure my kids raced on those to see who could go the fastest!
    Bernice

  6. posted by CoffeeKimberly on

    Several years ago in a Crabtree & Evelyn store I saw a beautiful green tin with all sorts of paintings of cats on each side. It was too pretty to pass up, so I bought it without the faintest idea of where I’d put it; somehow it ended up with all of our medicines and first aid supplies in it on the top shelf in a kitchen cupboard, as we were baby-proofing for my now teenage son. It remains there to this day- the perfect size for both its contents and my shelf, and we take it down every day to retrieve needed supplies!

  7. posted by Marie on

    I found a set of silver-plated demitasse spoons at a church yard sale once. They are ridiculously cute and tiny, but a perfect size for eating ice cream out of a little bowl, gelato-style. Using those smaller servings (bowls, spoons) helps with portion control, and the specialness of it makes even a small serving more of a treat.

  8. posted by Sarah on

    Like probably every other person planning a wedding, I made two purchases of things that were in our wedding colors because…they were in our wedding colors: a little maroon suitcase, and four sage green fabric-covered bins.

    The little suitcase was a great way to carry tiny things–say, rings?–to the wedding site, then it was used to display programs in lieu of ushers, and now it’s the home of all the CDs of photos, a DVD, and various wedding keepsakes.

    The bins…they’ve made the drive to the in-laws just as often as we have, full of cookies on the way to Christmas, full of books on the way back. They’re great for moving projects around the house–want to do that hand-sewing in front of the TV instead of the craft room? Toss it in the bin.

    And because I read this website, every time I use one of those impulse buys, I smugly think to myself, “Ha! It wasn’t a stupid purchase after all!”

  9. posted by Jen on

    We also got what we thought was a silly item as a result of our wedding – it was a gift, but one we registered for and may have purchased ourselves had someone not given it to us. It was a fancy coffee maker, the kind that makes espresso/cappuccino also. I think it was about $200 at the time (10 years ago). We did not drink coffee, ever. But, we thought we’d need it if we ever had guests over who wanted coffee. Not thinking, of course, that we NEVER kept coffee in the house, nor did we have any clue how to use the thing. So if we ever did have a guest who wanted coffee, he would have to bring his own coffee and make it himself. We literally did not use it for at least 8 years.

    Fast forward a while (after our son was born…coincidence?), and we both became addicted to Starbucks lattes. Turns out those things cost like $4 each. So after a while I pulled that stupid coffee maker out and learned how to use it. Still never make coffee, but I use it 2-3 times a week now to make lattes for a fraction of the price.

  10. posted by Nan on

    I’m not quite 5’2″, so I find my Kik-Step to be a necessity for reaching things on the higher shelves in my kitchen. I use this thing every single day! It also comes in handy as a stool for putting on shoes in the kitchen before going outside. And it’s a great “toy” when kids are over for a visit.

    Love my Kik-Step!

  11. posted by jbeany on

    When I was in college I bought a tiny, beat-up 1950′s child’s school chair at a garage sale for a quarter. It’s got a metal back and bottom, with a pressed wood seat and two slats for the seat back bolted on. It was purchased on a whim, with the intention of giving it to my mother for displaying some of her doll collection. I set it in the living room of my college apartment, with the intent of taking it home to her when I visited weeks later. It never made it home. It was far to handy as a step stool. It was incredibly sturdy, and the back was at the perfect height to use as a handle. That was in ’92, and today, the little chair is sitting next to my desk as I’m typing this. I use it daily, and like that it makes a quirky display piece as well as being so useful. Well worth the impulse 25 cent buy!

  12. posted by Xarcady on

    I, too, loved the Kik-Step stools in the library when I was a kid. And in grad school when I got a job in the library. So of course I have one now in my kitchen, in red, to match the decor.

    It gets used all the time. When the smoke detectors decide the steam from the pasta pot is threatening the building. To get things off high shelves (I’m only 5′ 6″).

    I’ve found it to be helpful in decluttering low cabinets. It’s more comfortable to sit on the stool than the floor as I haul everything out and sort it.

    Small children gravitate towards it as a seat.

    As for my impluse buy, it’s a label printer. I live alone, so I kept telling myself that there was no need for a label maker–I could easily remember what bin was for what.

    But I’ve found that labeling stuff really helps me keep things organized. Yes, I designated that drawer for computer supplies years ago. But other stuff kept finding a way in there, because there was space and I needed somewhere to put the alien object. But, for reasons I do not completely understand, once I labeled that drawer with a printed label saying, “Computer Supplies,” I found that I don’t put anything but computer supplies in there. It’s a mystery, but it’s a mystery that has really helped me keep organized.

  13. posted by Matt Petty on

    We called Kik-Steps “Daleks” at school. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalek

  14. posted by danielle on

    I had no idea those things came in so many fabulous colors!! I didn’t know I needed one until I saw it in that wonderful bright green…

  15. posted by Karen on

    Oh, I would love one of those to replace the old wooden stepstool we bought our oldest when he was two. It’s serviceable, but so annoying when it’s in my way in the kitchen or bathroom.

    As for whimsey….when I was in college, we weren’t allowed to have any cooking appliances in our dorm rooms, except for a fridge and a hot pot–an electric kettle. I used the heck out of that kettle, to make tea and instant oatmeal and soups in my room for snacks. That’s when I developed my tea habit. I kept a selection of Celestial Seasonings tea in my cupboards, and if friends came over in the evenings we’d brew up some tea.

    Years later, looking to replace a tea kettle that had rusted, I remembered my beloved hot pot, and found that not only are they cheaper than a traditional stovetop kettle, but they are safer and faster. Mine turns off if I don’t get to it while it’s boiling. It’s easier to clean than a stovetop kettle, and I just like it more. It reminds me of those cold evenings in college, talking to friends over a cup of tea.

  16. posted by Marrena on

    Most of my sentimental objects are more knick-knacky (useless) or furniture (obviously useful). I use a childmade fired clay “ashtray” to keep my rings in when I do the dishes and a decorative cup thing painted at Plaster Fun Time with my kids to keep pens and pencils in, but those are kind of obvious practical uses for knick knacks.

    On the other hand, now that I’m trying to live a green and frugal life, remembering so many things my grandmother did have really come in handy, like clotheslines, pressure cookers, cast-iron skillets.

  17. posted by JustGail on

    I can’t think of a sentimental or impulse buy that turned out super-useful right now. There have probably been a few though.

    As for those stools, there are a few at work that I’d like to kick – right out the door. We have logs that need to be filled out and the only place to keep them is on top of the filing cabinets. Guess where the stools get left? Yup – right in the aisle. I have tripped over them when my arms have been full of stuff. One day, I’ll hit the floor.

  18. posted by empty on

    I also bought a label maker on impulse, as a gift for my 5-year-old son, who adores it and has labeled nearly everything in our house–chess board (“board”), chess pieces, place mats, his towel rack, his sister.

    And what he hasn’t labeled I have. Sure, our house looks like we all have Alzheimer’s, but my mother-in-law will never confuse the soap and the lotion again when she’s giving the kids a bath. My kids’ bento boxes and water bottles haven’t been lost in months.

    I never would have guessed it, but that thing is amazing. It even prints iron-on fabric labels for their clothes! And although we go through a lot of tape it still costs less than my toddler’s band aid obsession.

  19. posted by Karen (scotland) on

    Just have to ask – are electric kettles not the norm in the US?!
    I cannot think of a single person I know that does not own a kettle and use it every single day many, many times.
    Maybe it’s because we are a nation of tea (or instant coffee) drinkers but a kettle would almost certainly be the first thing to buy for a new home. And it’s the last thing packed on moving day and the first thing unpacked at a new house!
    The one I have allows me to select various temperatures (boiling for tea, 80 degrees for herbals or instant coffee) and allows one-cup boiling to save energy. It has a safety cut out if I switch it on and forget to fill it and it switches itself off once it has boiled. I also use it to boil water for cooking with – takes a fraction of the time.
    When my last one died, I tried to survive with a stove kettle (the camping one) but, OMG, it took FOREVER to boil. And I kept forgetting about it.

    Sorry, too lengthy a comment but, really, an electric kettle is an essential over here.
    :-)
    Karen (Scotland)

  20. posted by Karen on

    I used to work as a page in a library and, being short, loved the kik-step. Unfortunately, it did make a lot of racket and disturbed the patrons, so I would use a wooden stool instead. Kind of like the kikkerland stool mentioned above, but wooden with a hole in the seat for a handle. I saw one a few years ago in Target and grabbed it immediately. I use it all the time, great for reaching the top shelf that is out of reach. I’m only sorry I didn’t buy two!

  21. posted by Xarcady on

    @ Karen in Scotland. We have electric kettles in the US, but most people don’t own one. I think there are a couple of reasons why. More Americans are coffee drinkers than tea drinkers–nearly every house has an electric coffee maker. The traditional stove top kettle is still what most people think of when they think of buying a kettle. Few stores stock them–when I needed to replace my 20 year old electric kettle last year, there were a ton on-line, but almost none in the stores.

    I spent several months in London back in the early 1990s and loved the electric kettle in my flat there. So one of the first things I did when I got back to the States was to go out and buy one. Won’t be without one now. But I’m a tea person, not a coffee person.

  22. posted by The Other Jen on

    @Karen in Scotland. What Xarcady says is true. I’m in Canada, and Boil and Off Kettles are easily bought are found all over. My floor at work has three of the, two in the kitchens and one ‘busy time’ one in the HR call centre near my office. That’s for when they can’t get over to the kitchens! However, when my best friend went to Chicago for two years, one thing she bought on a short trip home was a boil and off, because they where 1) hard to find and 2) expensive when she did find them. Many Canadians drink coffee (Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup, etc.) and many also drink tea. Some drink both: coffee in the morning, tea after noon.

    Surprisingly high utility impulse purchases: Before I went to Japan, I bought a Palm Tungsten, and a few programs to go with it. I thought it would be an occasional dictionary. That Palm was my constant companion, with Japanese/English dictionaries, including one my school kids loved, because if we couldn’t understand each other, they could spell the word in Japanese kana or kanji, and i could see it in English. I could read e-books on it, carry maps, store photos of my family, even capture the latest chapter of a fanfiction that I was following from the school computer, and read it at my leisure on the Palm (mid you, that required an SD/USB card that I’ve never seen for sale in Canada.) Sort of like this: http://www.amazon.com/SanDisk-.....utterer-20

  23. posted by Leonie on

    as a Dr Who fan….I now may have to buy the Dalek…oh the kit-step I mean…this may be my impulse buy..

  24. posted by MessyMom on

    I once had this grand idea that I would start scrapbooking. I bought a paper cutter in the store, one of those that has a blade on an arm that comes down and cuts in a straight line. I still haven’t made a scrapbook, but I use that cutter all the time. It’s especially useful for cutting apart portraits or anytime I need to cut something to a particular size.

  25. posted by Another Deb on

    My impulse buy was a Dremel tool several years ago. Although I don’t use it daily, it is my go-to item for a lot of handywoman jobs. I can re-crease a stripped screw head, cut PVC pipe, grind through an old lock that has been hanging off my gym bag since the key vanished, and chop off long screws on the back of some earrings that were poking my head because they were too long.

  26. posted by Debbie M on

    I have a library-related story, too. When visiting a friend in Denver, I bought a magnet with a picture of their beautiful library and stuck it on the fridge when I got home. Not long after that, my library stopped stamping the due dates in the books and started printing them on receipt-like slips of paper. I now store these under the library magnet until I’ve returned all the books listed.

    My sister got me a coffee mug I admired–it has Santa dancing around the Christmas tree and says, “Santa Baby” on it. I never would have gotten it for myself because I already had so many mugs that I finally just got rid of most of them. I don’t even drink coffee, I’m not religious, Christmas only comes once a year, and “Santa Baby” is a scary song (someone warn Santa!). But whenever I make hot chocolate, this is the mug that comes out. Unless it’s still dirty from last time, then I use my elephant mug. All I need are two mugs, and I’m so glad my sister got me that one because it makes me happy every time I see it.

    Otherwise, most of the useful things I have were acquired because I thought they’d be useful. I really wish I could know better ahead of time what will be useful and what won’t be–at least I am to the point where I won’t buy pretty things sometimes because I can already tell that the poor design will get on my nerves (for example, things that are hard to dust). And all of my nostalgia stuff is just decorative (or hand-me-down furniture).

    Which reminds me. A carpenter friend was saving a large piece of butcher block and finally made a coffee table using that piece for the top. I always admired that workmanship and the beauty of the piece. One day he moved away and claimed he had no room for it, so now it’s mine. That coffee table has since been used as a weight bench, a dining room bench, a display table, and a step stool. It could also be a piano bench (but my piano bench has storage inside). No matter what furniture my roommates have had or not had, this bench has always found a home (except for my current roommate who has loads of furniture).

  27. posted by Sam on

    When I got married my husband added as an olive and caper spoon to the wedding list as a silly joke. Of course, someone bought it for us. We actually use it multiple times a week because we both love pickles and it’s really useful for fishing gherkins and mini pickled onions out of jars rather than trying to skewer them with a fork.

  28. posted by diane on

    @Leonie. We have a few of these where I work. I never knew what they were called so have always referred to them as the ‘Daleks’ and everyone knows what I’m talking about.

  29. posted by JustGail on

    Santa Baby is scary? Unless there’s another version I’ve not heard, I think it’s funny, and all too true. Someone is making a Christmas wish-list of stuff for Santa. Doesn’t everyone, even if only somewhere in the back corner of our minds? Although, I’d guess most lists don’t include things like deeds to platinum mines, blank checks, and ’64 convertibles – light blue.

  30. posted by gypsy packer on

    Some years back, while still a flea marketer, I purchased a two-drawer unit mounted on top of a table and painted with dime-store spray paint. I recognized it as an antique thread drawer, removed the table, and stripped the paint, in anticipation of realizing a nice profit. When stripped down to its natural oak, I could not bear to sell it. It’s now my stationery case, the perfect size to hold printer paper and envelopes in one drawer, with labels, index cards, pens, etc. in the other.

  31. posted by Aunt Cloud on

    My husband was sent on a mission to buy a food processor at a certain store that advertised a sale on that specific brand. He came home with the requested food processor, plus an unplanned Cuisinart panini press/griddle. I was not happy at this impulse buy, but three years later, the panini press/griddle is used more often than the food processor – an average of 3-4 times a week. This also cured me permanently of ever attempting to buy cheapo appliances – quality is pretty addictive.

  32. posted by Aunt Cloud on

    @Karen (Scotland) – it’s definitely the case in my house. We’re not from the US, so maybe that’s the point, but you said it – it’s definitely the last thing to get packed on moving day and the first thing to land on the counter in the new house. I also have the nice temperature-controlled kettle (same brand as my panini press!) and absolutely love it.

  33. posted by Cal on

    I need a stepladder of some sort. I’m 5’2″ and there are a lot of high places in my house I just cannot reach.

  34. posted by Cal on

    Oh, impulse-wise? My biggest impulse purchase was a vintage hairdresser’s table. It works as a console table in my hallway, which I use for dropping mail, keys, wallet, purse, etc. as I walk in.

  35. posted by Kelsey on

    I bought a small, two-tiered lazy susan because it reminded me of the fun, huge lazy susan a local Chinese restaurant kept at their tables to hold condiments. I use it in my bathroom to hold EVERYTHING- contact case, face wash, pill bottles- and it keeps it all organized. I just have to be careful not to spin it too fast or things will come flying off!

  36. posted by Robert on

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  37. posted by Karen Newbie on

    @Karen (Scotland) I am in the US and have had a countertop tea kettle for about 10 years. I’ll never go back to a kettle on the stove. Funny story – at a book club meeting once (we never really got around to talking about the book) the ladies were recounting what their favorite Christmas present from their husband had been. One lady talked of her engagement ring; another of a surprise trip to Paris; I piped up about my tea kettle. They all looked at me like I had 3 heads. I explained that it’s the one thing that I had actually asked for (and he researched online and bought for me), I used it multiple times a day, and that whatever I make with it brings me joy and peace. They were dumbfounded a) because my favorite gift wasn’t as noteworthy as a precious jewel or a monumental trip, but more importantly b) because most of them hadn’t ever seen or heard of one before. For the record, I don’t drink coffee – never developed the taste for it. I am definitely a tea junkie. In fact, it’s time for a cuppa tea now!

  38. posted by Rachel on

    I’m a librarian, so I’m very familiar with Kik-Steps. I’ve never thought of owning one for my home, though. I don’t have a lot of storage space, so a small fold-up stepladder works better because I can store it under a bed.

  39. posted by Henk on

    I too used to as a kid play all the time with those ‘kik-Steps’ in the library. We call those things elephant feet over here for some reason.

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