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The Trapper Keeper was a well designed binder and folder system that could organize up to six subjects worth of school materials. But Trapper Keepers didn’t work their way into the hearts of America’s youth with angled pockets or intelligent modular design. From Lisa Frank covers to the stickers and doodles students added on their own, The Trapper Keeper brought fun and individuality to the often-drab world of school supplies.

In this episode of Throwback, Erin (@erincmccarthy) traces the surprisingly windy road that led to three-ringed glory…or at least to a sweet binder with a picture of Sonic the Hedgehog on the front. She makes a detour to discuss some other high-water marks in recent school supply history, from scented Mr. Sketch markers to those tiny little erasers shaped like animals.

Throwback is a new series from Mental Floss where we take a deep dive into some of the most fascinating stories behind the toys, trends, and events you might remember from your childhood. This episode is all about one of our favorite school supplies from the 80s (even though it technically came out in the 70s).

For even more Trapper Keeper facts, check out Erin’s piece on the Mental Floss website, The History of the Trapper Keeper:

Subscribe here for new Mental Floss episodes every Wednesday:

In the late 1970s, a stationary expert from the Mead corporation slipped a bunch of consumer comment cards into his new product, a three-ring organizational binder called the Trapper Keeper.

He wanted to know if kids liked it, and if so why. Among the responses, one in particular stood out.

It came from a 14-year-old named Fred, who praised the Trapper Keeper’s ability to, quote, 'keep all my $^@%... like papers and notes.” This, my friends, is how educational history is made. We’re organizing a look back at the Trapper Keeper on this installment of Throwback. Welcome to the series where we take a deep dive into some of the most fascinating pop culture stories and events you might remember from your childhood.

I'm your host, Erin McCarthy. If you have an idea for an item or event from the past for us to dive into in another episode, let us know in the comments. Now, if I had to pick just one item that summed up my learning years, it would be the Trapper Keeper.

Inside this three-ring binder was everything I needed to prepare for a day of learning. There was enough room for papers and notebooks for six subjects, multiplication tables, a ruler, and best of all, an outer cover that let me express my true self. This particular Trapper Keeper isn’t the one that I had—mine had cats on it, obviously—but it is a pretty spectacular example.

Just listen to the Velcro! Takes me back. So who’s responsible for this textbook-perfect idea?

And how did it manage to wind up in backpacks all over the country? To find out, we need to wind the clock back to the early 1970s, when a man named E. Bryant Crutchfield was working for the Mead Corporation as its Director of New Ventures.

The company’s history dates all the way back to 1846, and it eventually became known for that familiar and abstract composition notebook found on desks everywhere. Crutchfield didn’t have a hand in that, but he was still something of a star employee. In 1968, he had won a $2500 award, largely for coming up with a stationary set with a floral design that kept envelopes in a special envelope caddy called the Valet.

While that might sound somewhat underwhelming, the set had sales of $1 million in its first year, and Crutchfield proved he could inject some new life into the paper industry. The Valet also hinted that Crutchfield liked to be organized. A few years later, he teamed up with researchers from Harvard to project what classrooms would look like in the coming decade.

For one thing, classes would be getting bigger. For another, students would be taking more classes. Sales of folders were going up.

And lockers were getting smaller. Crutchfield’s solution? A binder that could be easily carried, wouldn’t require repeated trips back to the locker, and could keep six subjects' worth of class materials organized.

When I interviewed Crutchfield about the creation of the Trapper Keeper in 2013 he told me, quote, A portfolio, by the way, is a folder. If this sounds like an idea that could be conceived of over a weekend, maybe that’s true of some people. But Crutchfield didn’t win $2500 awards for floral design sets by being sloppy.

In addition to his other duties for Mead, he spent years analyzing educational trends and pouring over how such a binder would work. The key, he eventually learned, was to emulate a product that half of the country had never heard of—the Pee-Chee folder. Pee-Chee was the brand name of a school supply that was first introduced in 1943 by the Western Tablet and Stationery Company.

It got its name from either the peach-colored stock used in its original incarnation or the phrase peachy-keen—the historical record is a bit hazy, as can often be the case with these kinds of fraught matters of national security. What we know for sure is that the Pee-Chee stored papers in vertical, rather than horizontal, pockets. When you closed the folder, your papers would stay securely in place and wouldn’t be scattered to the winds if you tripped, dropped the folder, or got shoved by the scary kid at the bus stop.

Mead acquired Western Tablet, which was then going by Westab, in the 1960s, just a few years after the Pee-Chee took on its iconic sports design. On the front and back of the folder were athletes playing basketball, baseball, and tennis, among other activities. These simple line drawings were done by Francis Golden, a popular illustrator who did work for Collier’s and Sports Illustrated.

While Golden could barely even remember doing the assignment when he was asked about it a few decades later, his work became familiar to millions of kids who stared at the drawings and used them as the basis for their own doodles. Golden might actually be the most defaced artist of all time, if you consider the number of kids who drew all over the basketball players. Western Tablet, by the way, took their regional mission pretty seriously.

While Pee-Chees were well-known on the West Coast, people east of the Mississippi had hardly heard of them. Mead tried marketing them on the East Coast, but there’s no indication they ever really took off. Crutchfield knew about the folders, but it wasn't until his West Coast rep explained that the vertical pockets kept papers from falling out of the folders that things felt into place.

While Crutchfield was busy realizing his three-ring dreams, school supplies were pretty straightforward. Aside from lunch boxes, kids didn’t covet much in the way of educational tools. There were some exceptions, though.

These are just some of the more memorable accessories you could pick up over the years at retail or at a school store, which, aside from the book club and the book fair, was basically where I spent all of my allowance as a kid. Mr. Sketch markers came around in the early 60s, but it would take a few years for them to implement the feature that made them so beloved by students: each marker was given a different smell to match its color—tantalizing cherry for red, invigorating lemon for yellow, and disgusting licorice for black.

Why, Mr. Sketch?? Kids dreading their next class could always look forward to taking a hit to get them through to the next period.

A little while later pencil grips came on the scene, which were hard plastic that supposedly lessened the pain of keeping an iron grip on your writing utensil, though I feel like they never really helped me that much. We also can’t forget pencil toppers, which came in a variety of animal or licensed character shapes and allowed for some livelier essay composition. I was also super obsessed with tiny erasers in the shape of various foods and animals.

Desks also had Weepuls, which were fuzzy little creatures that could stick to surfaces. Weepuls didn’t really do anything other than provide moral support, and now whenever I see that emoji with the two hands making, like, jazz hands, I think of Weepuls. And, of course, we can’t forget the original three-ring binder, which Crutchfield used as inspiration.

The modern American version is traced to a 1904 patent by William Pitt, who said in his patent application that he wanted to, quote, As it turned out, the rings held on to fingers as well as papers. Those things hurt. If Crutchfield wanted to join this storied assembly of essential school supplies, he knew he needed to get on the ground and consult with the people who really mattered—teachers and students.

He took his design sketches for a three-ring binder and folders to his potential customers and made tweaks based on their suggestions. Eventually, he had a binder that closed with a non-pinching plastic clasp, enough room for six subjects, and a slim profile that could fit inside desks and lockers easily. The folders had angled pockets to make the papers inside a little more visible.

He also had a flap which closed everything up with a satisfying snap of a button. For some flair, he taped a photo of athletes playing soccer to the front. But there was still the matter of what to call it.

Crutchfield found his answer while enjoying a lunchtime martini with another Mead employee, a development manager named Jon Wyant. Wyant suggested the Pee-Chee-style portfolios be called Trappers because they trapped the papers in their vertical pockets. The binder that kept the Trappers should be a Trapper Keeper.

It was catchy, it made sense, and it was all Crutchfield needed to hear. He was ready. And by ready, we mean he spent another year tweaking and testing his design.

By this point, it was 1978, and six years had passed since Crutchfield had done his preliminary research with Harvard. Now it was time to unleash the Trapper Keeper upon the world. In this case, however, the world was limited to Wichita, Kansas, Mead’s choice for a test market.

In the summer, just as parents were starting their back-to-school shopping, Crutchfield and Mead filled area stores with Trapper Keepers in a variety of colors for around $2.49, or about 10 bucks in today’s dollars. Customers could buy additional individual folders for 29 cents a piece. But that wasn’t all.

Crutchfield flew from Mead’s headquarters in Dayton, Ohio to Manhattan to supervise a television commercial that highlighted the appeal of the Trapper Keeper. It was unusual to see a commercial for a school supply, but it worked. Trapper Keepers flew off the shelves in Wichita—kids found its stylish method of organizing irresistible.

But this is Crutchfield we’re talking about. A man who valued organization and market research. He wanted more data.

So he stuck comment cards into the Trapper Keepers and promised that anyone returning them would get a free notebook from Mead. Roughly 1500 kids returned the cards and were full of praise, saying the Trapper Keeper could do everything from keeping their papers in one place to allowing them to take only part of the binder home. Then there was Fred, who got right to the point.

Remember Fred? [Can show image of Fred’s comment card.] For Mead, the answer was clear: the Trapper Keeper was a resounding success. Soon, kids everywhere would have a place to keep all their s**t. The very next year, in 1979, Mead rolled out the Trapper Keeper nationally.

For a few dollars, kids and their parents could have a secure, smart way to keep track of the increasing number of classes and materials throughout the school year. The designs were basic—you could choose between a photo of people playing soccer, a dog and cat, or the Oregon coast—but that was fine, since kids could easily customize their Trapper with stickers and doodles of their own inside. Word-of-mouth was probably the Trapper Keeper’s best form of advertising, but Mead still made an effort to publicize it.

Mrs. Willard, a ninth-grade teacher who had helped Crutchfield during the focus group testing, appeared in print ads touting the benefits of the modular organization system. Later, television spots aired on MTV, with actors worried they would be considered a “loose-leaf loser” unless they had a Trapper Keeper.

One of the spots even featured future Full House actress Lori Loughlin. The designs went from some of Crutchfield’s old vacation photos and a Saint Bernard carrying a bucket of flowers to more elaborate illustrations, including binders featuring Nike and the colorful work of artist Lisa Frank. Crutchfield’s years of hard work had paid off.

In the 1980s, Mead was selling $100 million in Trapper Keepers annually. One sure sign the Trapper Keeper was a success? It was one of the few school supplies to infiltrate pop culture.

Trapper Keepers have popped up in a variety of places. Napoleon Dynamite carried one in the 2004 cult classic bearing his name. In a 2000 episode of South Park, Cartman showed off his Trapper Keeper to classmates.

The cast of Dawson’s Creek appeared on the cover. For the Totally ‘80s version of Trivial Pursuit, the Trapper Keeper became a game piece, along with a Care Bear and a personal computer. And just last year, there was a Trapper Keeper card game sold at Target.

The object was to collect cards valued on a points system and stuff them in a miniature Trapper Keeper. You could even collect doodles to add to your score. I have not played the game, and there are no reviews on the Target website.

I would say it’s very hard to make a game based on an organizational folder. If you’ve played Trapper

Keeper: The Home Game, please let us know in the comments. As popular as Trapper Keepers became, there were still problems to overcome. The snap enclosure that had once seemed so promising was difficult for some kids to use. So Mead switched to a Velcro seal, which created another problem.

Teachers hated the sound of the Velcro ripping throughout class. The company eventually went back to a button snap, but teachers were still divided about Trapper Keepers. For one thing, fully opening a Trapper Keeper often meant expanding it until it reached another student’s desk, interfering with their work.

Some teachers also felt the multiplication and conversion tables printed on the folders was a low-key method of cheating. A small but vocal anti-Trapper Keeper contingent mobilized, with some teachers even insisting that parents not supply their kids with them while back-to-school shopping. This irritated the people at Mead, who pointed out that some of the more unwieldy binders produced by other companies were at fault.

So why were Trapper Keepers such a hit? They had personality. Specifically, they let kids show off their own personality, picking Trapper Keepers that reflected their love of sports, movies, or abstract designs reminiscent of a psychedelic Picasso.

When I spoke to Crutchfield a few years ago, he thought the product succeeded because school supplies were usually pretty plain and Trapper Keepers were fun. It was probably the only school accessory you could give a kid for Christmas or a birthday that they’d actually be excited about. Joshua Fruhlinger of Engadget declared it the “greatest three-ring binder ever created” and even compared its all-purpose design to the smartphone.

Today, Trapper Keepers are still being made and sold by Mead. There’s also a flourishing market for vintage Trapper Keepers on auction sites like eBay, where Trapper Keepers featuring Sonic the Hedgehog and others can command anywhere from $30 to over $200, depending on the condition and how much nostalgia bidders have for the cover design. The most popular?

Lisa Frank and sports cars. Less popular? Volleyball penguins.

Thanks for watching, and remember to check in with Mental Floss on YouTube every Wednesday for new videos. Bye!