14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, 'Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression' or does it mean, 'Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default'? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
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2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
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3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
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4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.
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5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
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6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).
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7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?
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8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
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9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.
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10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.
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11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
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12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
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13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
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14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

Update: Here are 11 more words that are their own opposites.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.
The Quest to Break America’s Most Mysterious Code—And Find $60 Million in Buried Treasure
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

A set of 200-year-old ciphers may reveal the location of millions of dollars’ worth of gold, silver, and jewels buried in rural Virginia. For the past century, the quest to break these codes has attracted the military, computer scientists, and conspiracy theorists. All have failed. Which raises the question: Are the ciphers and the treasure even real?

 
 

The medium gazed into the crystal ball and looked deeply into the past. The year was 1898, and the room in which he sat was dimly lit. But inside the mysterious orb, the year was 1819, and the scene was about to become blindingly bright.

The medium claimed he could see into the upper bedroom of Paschal Buford's tavern, an old watering hole below the Blue Ridge Mountains near modern Montvale, Virginia. The room was dark. Shades blanketed the windows and a wad of paper was plugged into the door's keyhole. Inside, a lone frontiersman named Thomas J. Beale eyed a pair of saddlebags resting on the bed.

Gently, he opened them. Light burst through the room. The medium shielded his eyes and shrieked.

“Jewels, by gosh! Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! Emeralds!!”

Inside the crystal ball, Beale stared at the gems, smiled, and gingerly tucked the saddlebags under a pillow. The light receded.

Back in 1898, Clayton Hart watched the medium with jittery anticipation. Clayton’s brother George, a skeptic, stood nearby in silence. The two were trying to gather potentially life-changing information: Seventy-nine years earlier, Thomas Beale had reportedly buried millions of dollars of riches in the foothills near Montvale. The readings were the Hart brothers’ last-ditch effort to divine its location.


The Peaks of Otter tower over the purported location of Beale's treasure.
iStock

Lucky for them, the medium claimed to see the pioneer's every move: Beale had arrived at Buford’s tavern on horseback with a rifle resting on his lap, a pair of pistols on each hip, and two jewel-filled bags slung from his saddle. Five covered wagons followed him, some hauling iron pots of gold and silver. After resting at Buford's, Beale and his men buried that gold, silver, and jewels deep in the Virginia woods, approximately four miles from the tavern.

As the medium described its location, Clayton clung to every syllable.

Months later, under the cover of nightfall, Clayton and George steered a buggy full of shovels, ropes, and lanterns into Montvale. Joining them—reluctantly—was their trusty medium. Clayton hypnotized the mystic, who led the brothers up Goose Creek, over a fence, and across a burbling stream to a slumped depression in the earth.

The medium pointed to the dirt. “There’s the treasure!” he said. “Can’t you see it?”

Guided by lanterns and moonbeams, the Hart brothers dug. Hours passed. The hole deepened and the sky reddened. As daybreak loomed, tendrils of morning fog began to roll between the ridges. Clayton Hart thrust his pick into the red, iron-rich dirt and heard a hollow thud.

The brothers exchanged glances. Clayton dug frantically. When a large rock emerged, the brothers excitedly flipped it over. Nothing was below it.

The medium (who had refused to help all night, opting instead to lounge on a bed of dead leaves) was re-hypnotized and told to explain himself. He pointed to the roots of an oak tree just feet away and exclaimed: “There it is! You got over too far! Can’t you see it?”

The Hart brothers, exhausted and annoyed, left.

One week later, Clayton returned to that same spot with dynamite. The sky rained dirt, pebbles, and the splintered remains of that old oak tree—but no gold.

These events, described in a pamphlet written by George in 1964 [PDF], convinced the Hart brothers that mesmerism was not the path to fortune. If they wanted to discover Thomas J. Beale’s buried treasure, they’d have to search like everybody else: By solving a puzzle.

 
 

Beale's first cipher, revealing the location of the treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

If the numbers above mean anything to you, congratulations: 2921 pounds of gold, 5100 pounds of silver, and $1.5 million of precious jewels—together valued at approximately $60 million—are yours for the taking, because you just cracked a cipher purported to reveal the location of the treasure Thomas J. Beale buried nearly 200 years ago.

The backstory of Beale’s treasure has been re-hashed countless times: Beale was a 19th century adventurer who supposedly discovered gold and silver on a hunting trip near the modern New Mexico-Colorado border. He lugged the riches home to Virginia and buried them, reportedly concealing the details—the location, contents, and heirs of the treasure—in three separate ciphers. So far, only one of those codes, Cipher No. 2, which describes the contents of the treasure, has been decrypted.

The codes are basic substitution ciphers. Each number represents a letter of the alphabet, which can be found by numbering the words in a “key” text. (Take the cipher [87 118]. If the key text is Mary Roach’s book Stiff, just number each word in her book. The 87th word starts with “h.” The 118th word starts with “i.” Therefore, the code spells “hi.”)

As long as a key is available, a substitution cipher is a safe, simple way to encrypt a message. The trouble with Thomas J. Beale’s ciphers, however, is that we don’t have the keys.

For the past two centuries, attempts to solve the Beale codes have been a guessing game. In the late 19th century, an anonymous amateur cryptanalyst stumbled on the key to Beale’s second cipher—the Declaration of Independence—and revealed this opening sentence:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground …

The message describes the treasure in detail and ends with this maddening sweetener: “Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.”

So far, it’s been nothing but difficulty.

Amateur and professional cryptanalysts have desperately searched for the lost key texts, consulting the Louisiana Purchase, Shakespeare’s plays, the Magna Carta, the Monroe Doctrine, the United States Constitution, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Lord’s Prayer, the Songs of Solomon, the Book of Psalms, old local newspapers, and even the thrilling text of the Molasses Act of 1733. “Cryptanalysts say a second-grader could break the ciphers if he lucked in on the documents on which they are based,” journalist Ruth Daniloff writes [PDF]. Until that happens, the other two ciphers will remain an unintelligible jumble of numbers.

That’s a problem. Like all good riddles, the Beale codes have an addictive quality that curious people can’t resist. But unlike most riddles, solving them could make you a millionaire. Because of those stakes, the codes have the potential to consume—and ruin—people’s lives.

 
 

They come with metal detectors and magnetometers, Geiger counters and dowsing rods, backhoes and pickaxes, psychic mediums on speed dial and sticks of dynamite stuffed into their back pockets. They come motivated by a quirky Virginia state law that says buried treasure is finder’s-keepers (even if it’s discovered on private property). They come gripped by a monomaniacal belief that they—and only they—know where Beale’s treasure hides: the foothills, a farm, a cave, a grave, a cistern, a creek, an abandoned road. One treasure hunter insists it's buried at a local visitors’ center, right under the ladies room.

For these treasure hunters, a survey of the past 70 years of newspaper headlines shows a bleak pattern:

MAN HOT ON THE TRAIL OF THOMAS BEALE’S TREASURE.

FOLLOW-UP: MAN WRONG.

There’s the Chicago refrigeration contractor, certain he had broken the ciphers in five days, who convinced local officials to dig up a graveless patch of a cemetery, only to find clothes hangers (metal) and horseshoes (unlucky). There’s the Texas man who drove to Virginia, wife and kids in tow, simply to borrow a local roadmap that he believed would lead to the treasure. (It didn’t.) There’s the Massachusetts man who jumped out of bed, jolted by a dream, and drove bleary-eyed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains to test his prophecy. There’s the Oklahoma psychic who surveyed the Goose Creek Valley from a helicopter. There’s the Virginia Supreme Court Justice who scouted the location by bicycle; the Washington state man who hired armed guards; the anonymous man who kept an armored truck idling on a nearby road.

Beale treasure hunters are overwhelmingly male, though locals still chatter about one Pennsylvania woman, Marilyn Parsons, who cashed a disability check in 1983 and rented a backhoe to test her theory that the treasure was buried in an unmarked plot of a church graveyard. When she unearthed a coffin handle and human bones, she was arrested and advised to never step foot in Virginia again.

Like the Hart brothers, many treasure hunters trespass under starlight. In 1972, The Washington Post reported that local landowners regularly fired warning shots at strangers tip-toeing on their property. “People would sneak onto their land and blow big holes out of the ground and leave them that way. Cows would step in and break their legs,” Ed Easterling, a local Beale expert, says. “Most people here have resented it.”

The federal government owns swaths of land near Montvale—the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail weave through the peaks near town—and it doesn’t take kindly to unpermitted treasure-digging either. In the early 1990s, a Pennsylvania church group tore up the Jefferson National Forest on federal holidays, believing they’d elude the fingerwagging of rangers if they worked on the government’s day off. (They were caught and forced to re-fill the pits.)

A map of some of the possibilities of the location of Beale's treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

Even those considerate enough to ask for permission are treated with hesitation, says Danny Johnson, a local farmer and winery owner. “A guy will sign a contract, saying he’ll put the land back in shape after digging. Then they go broke and leave! Then the landowner has to go and put their land back.”

A lot of treasure hunters, Johnson mentions, appear to go broke.

The guy who cracked the second Beale cipher is among them. Upon breaking the code, the anonymous cryptanalyst rode a wave of adrenaline that, according to one 19th century author, compelled him “to neglect family, friends, and all legitimate pursuits for what has proved, so far, the veriest illusion.” Peter Viemeister, a Bedford-based author who wrote the book The Beale Treasure: A History of a Mystery, said, “Once you get the Beale treasure in your system, it is hard to get it out. You could get possessed by it. Like drugs or gambling, it can lead a vulnerable person to stake everything on a dream.”

Families have crumbled, bank accounts have evaporated, and jobs have disappeared. One man, Stan Czanowski, spent $70,000 over seven years on dynamite and bulldozers. In the early '80s, one treasure hunter bankrupted himself after blasting rocks for six months. (He abandoned town still owing the local motel money.) An editor at the American Cryptograph Association spent so much time focused on the ciphers that he was fired. The researcher Richard Greaves, who investigated the Beale story for decades, called it “possibly the worst decision I ever made. If I would have devoted all the hours spent pursuing this treasure legend to the study of medicine, I would easily have become an accomplished neurosurgeon.”

Which makes it all the more painful to consider that Beale’s treasure—the ciphers, the story, the gold, the silver, and the jewels, even Thomas J. Beale himself—might all be a big, fat hoax.

 
 

In April 1817, Thomas J. Beale and a party of about 30 men reportedly left Virginia and moseyed west with the goal of hunting buffalo, grizzlies, and other critters frolicking in the wild frontier. When Beale’s party reached Santa Fe—then Spain’s domain—his crew split up and aimed for what is now the Colorado border. There, in a ravine, they discovered gold and silver. Over the following year, they mined thousands of pounds of precious metal.

The bonanza kept Beale looking over his shoulder. He knew his men were in hostile territory and eventually “decided that it should be sent to Virginia under my charge, and securely buried in a cave near Buford’s tavern, in the county of Bedford,” he wrote.

A mule train plodded east to St. Louis, where Beale exchanged some ore for jewels. When he arrived in Virginia, he buried the haul not in a cave as intended, but in a grave-sized plot about four miles from Buford's tavern.

Beale would repeat that trip once more before returning west for good in 1821. Prior to his final journey, he lodged at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia and befriended the hotel’s owner, Robert Morriss. As the story goes, before leaving, Beale handed Morriss a iron lockbox and advised him to open the box if he failed to return. Morriss didn’t know it, but that box contained the three ciphers.

That detail isn’t as fanciful as it may sound. Exchanging secret messages was common in the early 19th century—many men, especially veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, had basic ciphering skills—and it’s likely that Beale and Morriss knew something about secret codes. But Beale never sent a key. And after 10 years, he failed to return.


Morriss would spend nearly two decades attempting to unravel the codes. In 1862, a year before his death, he handed the materials to an anonymous acquaintance who lucked onto the Declaration of Independence as a key. In 1885, that unknown man enlisted the help of James B. Ward to publish a pamphlet telling Beale's story. In 1885, “The Beale Papers” was published as a thin blue booklet. The price was $0.50.

It has created controversy ever since.

 
 

If that whole story sounds fishy, that's because it is.

To start, the story of Beale's trip west overflows with damning anachronisms. If history books are to be believed, Beale’s men found gold more than 30 years before precious metals were discovered in that region. Furthermore, there are no records documenting a party of Beale's size—one that almost certainly would have been arrested for trespassing on foreign soil—going west.

There are also problems with the ciphers. As Dr. Todd Mateer of the N.S.A. notes in a 2013 paper for the journal Cryptologia, if you decrypt Cipher No. 2 with the original Declaration of Independence, you don’t get:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford about four miles from Buford’s ...

You get:

A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts ...

Beale’s letters are suspicious, too. In 1982, the linguist Dr. Jean Pival compared Beale’s prose to the writing of the pamphlet’s anonymous author and found that both used reflexive pronouns incorrectly, copied the prosody of the King James Bible, and overused negative passive constructions such as never to be realized and never be told. “The striking similarities in the Ward and Beale documents argue that one author was responsible for both,” Pival wrote. Further scrutiny by the myth investigator Joe Nickell showed that Beale’s letters contained words such as stampeding and improvised, terms Beale never would have used—because they did not exist when he wrote the letters.

This evidence (and much more) has convinced most casual observers that the treasure story, the codes, and even the character of Thomas J. Beale are part of a canard designed to sell pamphlets. In other words, the reason nobody has found Beale’s treasure is because there is no treasure to find.

Beale enthusiasts refuse to accept this. In fact, when they first encountered these anachronisms, few dropped their shovels or chucked their maps; rather they picked up books and dove into special archives rooms to start a new hunt—a search to find counter-evidence in the historical record that would pile doubt on the doubters. It’s here, in this madcap search for a factual knockout punch, that doing research on the Beale treasure story can become just as addicting as searching for the treasure itself. Because when you don’t find what you’re looking for, you might keep looking … and keep looking … and keep looking … until you can no longer afford to stop.

 
 

Jennifer Thomson drops a stack of nine books on my table at the Bedford County Museum and Genealogical Library with a thud. “That’s everything we have on Beale,” the resident genealogical librarian tells me. She recedes to a back room, and I begin leafing through the books—only to be startled by a sudden plop.

A 9-inch stack of manila folders stuffed with papers has materialized on my desk. “Oh, sorry,” Thomson says. “And these.”

She repeats this back-and-forth dance three more times. “And these ... Oh, and these ... Ahhh, yes! And finally—these.”

On this last assault, she sympathetically places the folders on the table, smirks, and whispers: “Have fun!

I look down. I can no longer see the desk.

The materials held at the Bedford Genealogical library near Montvale, Virginia are a mixed bag of serious historical research and total crackpottery: There are copies of ancient maps, genealogies of people related to the treasure story, unpublished academic papers, handwritten letters, manifestos alleging the National Forest Service is engaged in conspiracy, “solutions” to the ciphers, and tortured sketches that evoke A Beautiful Mind. It would take weeks to consult it all.

Beale's second cipher, which revealed the contents of the treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

Some people wave off Beale-ievers as nutters, but, looking at these materials, I think that’s lazy. People with legitimate talent have done legitimate work on the mystery. One of the top Beale experts, Dr. Stephen M. Matyas, was a skeptical IBM cryptanalyst with dozens of digital security patents. (He wrote a 700-plus page two-part book; one section was entitled The Hoax Theory Deflated.) Another Beale investigator, Victor Theyer, was a professional writer with proven research skills: He once found a missing woman who had been AWOL for nearly five decades. Dr. Albert C. Leighton, a professor of cryptology history, was a Fulbright Research Scholar who cracked a cipher linked to Pope Gregory XIII that had baffled codebreakers since 1573.

“Some of these people who come in here digging for it, heck no, I wouldn’t call them nuts,” Bedford County’s sheriff told The Ledger-Star in 1989. Thomson agrees. “There are people who want to solve the historical part of it—just to see if it’s accurate—and most of them are good, normal people just trying to solve a mystery.”

Many of these researchers believe the inconsistencies can be explained away. The archival research they’ve done to achieve this aim is, in some cases, hard to deny.

Take the criticism that silver and gold hadn't been discovered yet. The specifics, they point out, are blurry. Beale researchers have dredged up old reports showing rumors of precious ore swirling decades earlier, with small traces of gold possibly being discovered before Beale’s trip.

The lack of evidence that Beale went west? Carl Nelson Jr., an ex-C.I.A. agent, combed through old newspapers from St. Louis—what would have been Beale’s last checkpoint before the frontier—and discovered a postmaster’s notice in an October 1817 copy of The Missouri Gazette for an “S. T. Beall” and an 1820 notice for a “Thomas Beall” in The Franklin Intelligencer. As for Beale's ability to avoid arrest, researchers point to the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, which redrew the border between the United States and what was called “New Spain.”

The rebuttal to the clunky cipher solution is impressive. Stephen Matyas researched this discrepancy and compiled one of the world's most complete collections of Declaration of Independence copies. From 1776 to 1825, the Declaration appeared in more than 350 publications, each of which made slight alterations to the text: Unalienable over inalienable, mean time over meantime, institute a new government over institute new government. A single extra word or space, Matyas argued, can corrupt a decipherment. Choose the wrong version and your solution will resemble alphabet soup.

As for the consistent language and the linguistic anachronisms in the pamphlet? That’s nothing, researchers say. Have you ever heard of an editor?

Some of their most remarkable work is genealogical. Researchers discovered that there was not one, but at least two Thomas Beales living within 20 miles of Montvale, Virginia during the early 19th century—and there’s a curious wrinkle in their stories. In the early 1800s, one of them dueled a Lynchburg, Virginia man named James Risque. Afterward, Beale reportedly fled town. Risque, who suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to the gut, would stay and raise a family that included a grandson named James B. Ward; the same James B. Ward who would later help publish "The Beale Papers."

What this all means is anybody’s guess. Not every crumb of information passes the courtroom test, though each discovery has undoubtedly helped Beale-ievers deflect criticism—and has encouraged an ecosystem of theories to bloom.

Indulge here in a small sample platter:

It’s a hoax perpetrated by James B. Ward! (Ward’s children denied this. His daughter “believed the story as she believed the Bible," reported the Lynchburg News in 1934.) No, it's a Freemason plot! (Beale hunter Brian Ford argued that it’s a “brilliantly-crafted Masonic allegory that teaches its moral, not just by stating it but by having the reader pursue or be tempted to pursue an illusion.”) The treasure is real … but was dug up decades ago! (“We know that in the late 1800s people were working in the Montvale area doing construction, and the next thing you know: They’re rich!” Thomson tells me.) The federal government found the treasure! (“[I]t has long since been removed by an N.S.A. task force disguised as U.S. Forest Service workers,” treasure hunter Frederick W. Chesson wrote.) It’s all a cover-up! (The treasure was stolen from the Confederate Treasury and it’s now hidden in—wait for it—Jerry Falwell’s attic!)

 
 

The list goes on. For people like Nick Pelling, a British computer programmer who runs the website Cipher Mysteries, the speculation makes his eyes roll. “I don’t think anything in it corresponds to historical fact,” he says of the Beale story. “Discussions about the Beale have lost a lot of focus, lapsed into argumentation based on the minutiae of the pamphlet.”

Pelling belongs to the third species of Beale hunter. In his view, the endless bickering over the story's historical authenticity distracts from the true mystery: the codes. The real treasure isn’t what’s buried underground, but what’s buried in the numbers.

That's been the opinion of cryptanalysts for nearly a century. In the 1930s, William F. Friedman, leader of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, or S.I.S.—the forerunner to the N.S.A.—spent his leisure hours attempting to untangle the Beale codes. He took them so seriously that his legal counselor drafted an agreement in case he solved them.

He never did, of course. In a letter, Friedman wrote: “So far as my attempts to produce an authentic reading is concerned, I can most earnestly say I have tried to the best of my ability and now must confess myself beaten.”

But Friedman never quit. Instead, he included the ciphers in the S.I.S training program. According to Frank Rowlett, an S.I.S. cryptologist who helped crack Japan’s PURPLE cipher machine during World War II, the trainees concluded the ciphers were phony. Friedman’s wife Elizebeth, also an accomplished cryptanalyst, dubbed them as a lost cause with a “diabolical ingenuity specifically designed to lure the unwary reader …. In fruitless research … or searching for a key book.” Friedman himself shrugged: “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I think it is real,” he said. “On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I think it is a hoax.” (Sunday, it appears, was a day of rest.)


The U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, which used the Beale ciphers as a training exercise, in front of their vault in 1935. At center is William F. Friedman (standing, dark suit). Frank Rowlett stands at the far right.
Courtesy of National Cryptologic Museum, National Security Agency

Other cryptologists of the era approached the ciphers with similar ambivalence. Herbert O. Yardley, whose 1931 tell-all book The American Black Chamber revealed the workings of America’s cryptography units, believed the Beale ciphers could be solved—but also admitted they looked “a bit fishey.”

That attitude would reign among professional cryptanalysts until January 1970, when Dr. Carl Hammer, Director of Computer Sciences at Sperry-Univac, made a startling revelation at the Third Annual Simulation Symposium in Tampa, Florida. He had analyzed the Beale ciphers with a UNIVAC 1108 computer and compared the codes to the musings of a random number generator. The results showed signs of an intelligent pattern.

“Beale Cyphers 1 and 3 are ‘for real,’” Hammer concluded. “They are not random doodles but do contain intelligence and messages of some sort. Further attempts at decoding are indeed warranted.”

 
 

At Fort Meade, Maryland, a few hundred yards from the barbed wire fences surrounding N.S.A. headquarters, the National Cryptologic Museum library holds a printout of Hammer’s computer analyses from 1965 [PDF]. It’s an unassuming, carefully folded stack of perforated paper. If you stood at the window of an eight story building and unfurled it, the scroll would tickle the sidewalk. Its only distinguished feature is a stream of faded, indecipherable text:


Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

Hammer’s discovery, buried in a potpourri of text like this, reignited professional interest in the Beale ciphers. In 1969, an organization he kickstarted—later called the Beale Cipher Association, or B.C.A.—hosted a symposium in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to pool the best minds to tackle it.

Well, some of the best. Approximately 70 people showed up. The club attracted big names in the intelligence community such as Carl Nelson Jr., who had helped the C.I.A. intercept communist signals in a secret tunnel under Berlin; big names in data processing such as Per Holst, the Chief of Research at Massachusetts Foxboro Laboratories; and big names in government, including a U.S. District Judge and the Governor of Minnesota.

It also attracted people who, to put it kindly, had vivid imaginations.

With the aroma of Sanka wafting through hotel conference rooms, the B.C.A. symposiums presented a delicate balance of serious academic theories and New Age hocus pocus. Presenters raved about confusion matrices, 10x10 Hogg-Hugerman networks, and the application of neural networks to computer algorithms. Other presentations included a talk on inductive geodetic reasoning—a fancy way of saying, “If I hid treasure, where would I bury it?”—and a lecture on how to improve your dowsing rod accuracy. (One tip: Hug a tree.)

Over the following decade, the B.C.A. grew to boast more than 200 members from places as close as Michigan and as far as Holland. It hosted three more symposiums and published a quarterly newsletter, both of which presented sober scholarship and half-baked whataboutism.

Hammer, for his part, cared little for the treasure story. He saw the Beale ciphers as a cryptologic puzzle that could advance the field of computer programming. “I think it is fair to say that this effort has engaged at least 10 percent of the best cryptanalytic minds in the country, and represents much more than the value of the treasure even if it should be just as described,” Hammer told The Washington Post in 1979. “And not a dime of it should be begrudged; the work—even the lines that have led into blind alleys—has more than paid for itself in advancing and refining computer research.”

But for those who still cared about the treasure, the B.C.A. was a vital place to foster community. Beale researchers have always been a solitary, if not paranoid, bunch. They share a passion but rarely share detailed insights or leads with each other. “Why give away secrets only to find that someone else has found the treasure using your information?” Stephen Matyas once said. The consequence of keeping these ideas private, however, has turned the decoding process into a time-sucking vortex, with hundreds of researchers wasting hours as they test possibilities somebody else already ruled out. The B.C.A. was an organized attempt to overcome this atmosphere of distrust and streamline the search.

That said, most people's "solutions" made Thomas J. Beale sound like a hepcat who had been couchsurfing at a bad beat poetry club.


Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

Then, in 1980, James Gillogly, a computer scientist at the think tank RAND and the president of the American Cryptogram Association, discovered an even stranger message in the first Beale cipher—just not the kind the B.C.A. was hoping for.

 
 


Lucy Quintanilla

The alphabet never looked so depressing. If you decode Beale's first cipher with some versions of the Declaration of Independence, as James Gillogly tried in 1980, you'll get gobbledygook—with the exception of this pseudo-alphabetical string in the middle of the code. Gillogly published his discovery in a Cryptologia essay called “A Dissenting Opinion" and calculated the chance it could occur randomly was 1 in 10,000,000,000,000.

Gillogly offered two interpretations: that the message is buried under a second level of encryption; or that this measly string of text was the intelligent pattern Hammer's computer had detected. That is, the codes are almost certainly a hoax.

“I visualize the encryptor selecting numbers more or less at random, but occasionally growing bored and picking entries from the numbered Declaration of Independence in front of him, in several cases choosing numbers with an alphabetical sequence,” Gillogly wrote. In other words, a prankster was practicing his ABCs.

For the B.C.A., the news was deflating. Hammer could not deny Gillogly’s discovery but disagreed with his conclusion. It didn’t matter. Over the coming decade, enthusiasm at the B.C.A. waned. “Jim Gillogly’s article basically says ‘Give up,’” Pelling says. “And when one of the most respected historical codebreakers in the world says, ‘Pffft, don’t even try,’ a lot of codebreakers will say, 'You know, I trust Jim on this one.'”

By 1999, the Beale Cipher Association had dissolved. Today, many of its members are dead. Any centralized attempt to decode the Beale ciphers has faded with them.

Pelling is one of the few who insists there is still work to be done. Like Carl Hammer, he believes the "Gillogly string" is a sign that something lurks in the message, a code beneath the code. “The presence of a pattern is presence of a signal,” Pelling says. “The Gillogly strings are evidence that there is something going on. The level of improbability is so high that this is not a freak chance ... It’s just that the solution is one step sideways, and we don’t know where that step is.”

But computers might.

 
 

There are hundreds of supercomputers in the United States. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the supercomputer Titan has a memory of 693 tebibytes and is capable of running at a speed of 27 petaflops, or approximately 27,000 trillion calculations per second. Which begs the eternal question: Shouldn’t computers have solved this sucker by now?

“I get this all the time,” Pelling says. “For Every. Single. Cipher.”

Computers aren’t magic. To decode a cipher, a human must write a program that can break it—and that means a human must understand how that individual cipher ticks. This becomes especially difficult when a code contains typos (the Beales certainly do) or requires a two- or three-step process (the Beales certainly might). “The computer is not the answer," Hammer said at a Beale Cipher Association Symposium in 1979. "Even if it does all the work, we still have to find the type of work for it to do.”

To do that, a programmer has to grapple with two basic cryptologic concepts.

First, repetition. It’s easier to crack a cipher if the code contains repeated symbols. The short cipher [16 43 97 64] is impossible to crack without a key because it could signify nearly any four letter word. Now compare that to [16 43 43 16]. The repetition narrows our options. The code is clearly a palindrome—it could signify Anna, or Otto, or Elle, or deed, or peep, or poop, or sees, or noon, and so on. The problem is, without added context, we can never be sure which answer is correct. This problem is called unicity distance: When a cipher is too short, we might find multiple solutions.

These two principles are what convinced the great William F. Friedman to give up on the Beale ciphers decades ago: “I saw no hope at all of solving a cipher text so short and with so few repetitions of even single numbers,” he wrote. The first Beale cipher is 520 characters long and contains a whopping 299 unique symbols—an impossibly low rate of 1.74 repetitions per character. Friedman lamented: “[T]he application of scientific principles is impossible.”

Beale's third cipher.
Lucy Quintanilla

That, of course, hasn’t stopped cryptanalysts from assaulting the Beale ciphers with every vocabulary word you can find in a cryptology textbook: higher-order homophony, super-encipherment via a keyphrase, Chi-square values calculated on a vector, concatenation, 2-gram statistical analyses, visible outer cipher and hidden inner cipher, beam search approaches.

In 2014, this last method was used by a Ph.D. student named Malte Nuhn and two fellow researchers at Germany’s Aachen University. They were developing an algorithm intended to improve the accuracy of machine translations, and they occasionally tested the strength of their program by feeding it ciphers such as the Zodiac-408 and the Beale Cipher No. 2.

The Zodiac-408 cipher, created by the eponymous serial killer in 1969, is the easiest of the four Zodiac codes. It’s 408 characters long and contains 54 unique symbols. Originally, it took one week to solve. Nuhn's program, however, solved it in three seconds [PDF].

Meanwhile, the Beale Cipher No. 2—the longest and most repetitious of the Beale ciphers—took eight CPUs roughly 30 hours of work. The program muscled the correct solution with just 5 percent error. It was the first time a computer had automatically deciphered a Beale cipher without any reference to the key.

For fun, Nuhn and his colleagues fed the program the two unsolved Beale ciphers, which contain far less repetition and are much shorter. Nothing intelligible appeared.

“Maybe the algorithm is still not good enough,” Nuhn says. “Or maybe it’s because there’s nothing there.”

 
 

Treasure hunters. Researchers. Cryptanalysts. The Beale treasure mystery has defeated everybody who has approached it—and yet, despite it all, people regularly claim to have found the 'X' that marks the spot.

One Pennsylvania steelworker made 36 trips to Bedford County before asserting that he found an empty treasure vault under an abandoned icehouse. In 1989, the treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who previously discovered 40 tons of gold and silver in the Florida Keys, failed to find Beale’s loot but insisted he dug in the correct place. (“The treasure has been moved!” he reportedly grumbled.) Earlier, a 19-year-old high school graduate phoned journalists to tell them he had dug up the treasure and sent it to South America for smelting. "He was positive he found it," writes Estes Thompson for the Norfolk Ledger-Star. "But he was the only one who was."

The press has breathlessly reported countless claims of the codes being broken, sometimes with head-spinning results. In February 1974, after an an auto mechanic alleged he had solved the ciphers, the Roanoke World-News published two contradicting headlines on the same day.

CODE BROKEN, BEDFORD TREASURE A HOAX, MAN SAYS

CACHE LEGEND GENUINE, LOCAL AUTHORITY INSISTS

Such claims usually occur when a hunter has exhausted all other possibilities. Take Colonel J. J. Holland: Over his lifetime, Holland drove more than 150,000 miles—and spent untold dollars on gasoline, lodging, and digging equipment—pursuing Beale’s treasure, reports Norfolk’s The Virginian-Pilot. He passionately believed in the treasure's existence, and he spent the final three years of his life scribbling solutions during the midnight hours. But as his health crumbled, and any chance of finding the treasure evaporated, the wheezing Colonel made a stunning reversal that negated two decades of work: He claimed that the treasure was fake and that he had cracked the codes.

This is a familiar theme. Some Beale hunters would rather declare the mystery solved than admit defeat. The pursuit, after all, is more than a hobby or preoccupation—it's an obsession ingrained within one's identity. To declare the case closed not only validates the effort made, but validates life’s chosen purpose.

Perhaps that explains why so many people have gone to such great lengths to verify their theories. In the 1960s, the author Pauline B. Innis, an expert on the Beale mystery, received desperate telegrams, letters, and calls from people in places as far as Ethiopia. Once, a man dressed as an FBI agent demanded that Innis hand over her Beale files. Another time, somebody attempted to bribe her into spilling her secrets with a complimentary jar of pickles.

And perhaps it explains why most Beale hunters never dig at all.

“The people who think they know for sure where something is, they are the most likely not to dig at all because they don’t want to burst their dream,” Beale expert Ed Easterling says. “They enjoy the euphoria of knowing—well, thinking they know—where it is. Because if they go and it’s not there, it would take their dream away.”


Bedford County, Virginia
iStock

One time, Easterling received a call from one of these treasure hunters. The man explained that Jesus had revealed the location of the treasure in a dream. Easterling patiently listened, contacted the appropriate landowner, and secured the man permission to dig. He never showed.

One year later, the same man called with an update: Jesus had changed his mind. The treasure was elsewhere.

Easterling was less sympathetic the second time. “I’m a Christian. And knowing Jesus, I know that he’s not flippant,” he laughs. “I think if Jesus ever tells somebody where the treasure is buried, then that’s where it would be!”

Few people know as much about the Beale mystery as Easterling. He's lived near Montvale since his boyhood. He’s talked with old-timers and collected the oral history of generations who’ve lived there. He's studied brittle, yellowing maps and has wandered the woods looking for the overgrown stagecoach roads that Beale would have traveled upon. He wrote a book about the treasure (which he hesitated to publish, fearing it could spread an obsession that could destroy families). He's confident that Beale’s treasure is buried somewhere below his feet. He even owns a 2-box metal detector, just in case.

But when I spoke to Easterling over the phone last fall, he sounded resigned. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I know exactly where it’s buried,’” he sighed. “I pay no attention when I hear that anymore.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Cinzia Reale-Castello (Trapper Keepers) // Lucy Quintanilla (Illustration)
The History of the Trapper Keeper
Cinzia Reale-Castello (Trapper Keepers) // Lucy Quintanilla (Illustration)
Cinzia Reale-Castello (Trapper Keepers) // Lucy Quintanilla (Illustration)

In the fall of 1981, second grader Mike Ryan was walking through the halls of his new school when he realized something terrible: He was the only kid without a Trapper Keeper. “I'm sure there were others,” he says now. “But I certainly didn't notice them because they weren't worth noticing because they didn't have a Trapper Keeper.” After school, he told his parents his tale of woe, and his father picked one up—but it was the wrong thing, a rip-off made of what appeared to be denim. To Ryan’s horror, everyone noticed. “Trapper Keeper? That looks more like a Trapper Jeansper,” one kid sneered.

“It was that weird thing where having a knockoff was worse than having nothing at all,” Ryan, now senior entertainment writer at Uproxx, says. “Being the new kid, this was strangely devastating.” He would eventually get the real thing—bright red, with red, green, and blue folders. “It didn't make me cool, but at least I felt like I was conforming. Which, at that point, is all I had hoped for.”

Launched in 1978 by the Mead Corporation (which was acquired by ACCO Brands in 2012), Trapper Keeper notebooks are brightly colored three-ring binders that hold folders called Trappers and close with a flap. From the start, they were an enormous success: For several years after their nationwide release, Mead sold over $100 million of the folders and notebooks a year. To date, some 75 million Trapper Keepers have flown off store shelves.

“The Trapper Keeper is one of the most recognized school brands of all time,” says Jessica Hodges, Director of School Marketing for ACCO Brands. It’s also a prominent pop culture touchstone: Trapper Keepers have been featured on Family Guy, Dawson’s Creek, South Park, Full House, Stranger Things, and Napoleon Dynamite. They were transformed into a Trivial Pursuit game piece. John Mayer called Trapper Keepers “the genesis of OCD for my generation.”

These organizational devices would come to define childhoods across North America, and adults who had them remember their Trapper Keepers fondly. (And those who didn’t have them often remember exactly which one they wanted.) Joshua Fruhlinger at Engadget called it “the greatest three-ring binder ever created … Trapper Keepers—the way they combined all of one's desktop tools—were an early incarnation of the smartphone.” There is robust business in vintage Trapper Keepers on eBay, where unused binders can go for $50 or more.

But in the late 1970s, the people at Mead couldn’t have known that their product would eventually garner such cultural significance. In fact, Trapper Keeper inventor E. Bryant Crutchfield was just looking for the next back-to-school item, and he did it the old fashioned way—through market research. "[The Trapper Keeper] was no accident," he tells mental_floss. "It was the most scientific and pragmatically planned product ever in that industry."

SITUATION ANALYSIS

As director of New Ventures at Mead, part of Crutchfield’s job was to identify trends in the marketplace. In 1972, Crutchfield’s analysis, conducted with someone at Harvard, showed there would be more students per classroom in the coming years. Those students were taking more classes, and had smaller lockers.

Fast forward a few years, when Crutchfield’s analysis revealed that sales of portfolios, or folders, were increasing at 30 percent a year. Thinking back to that Harvard report, a lightbulb went off. “You can’t take six 150-page notebooks around with you, and you can’t interchange them,” Crutchfield says. “People were using more portfolios, so I wanted to make a notebook that would hold portfolios, and they could take that to six classes.”

Crutchfield was speaking with his West Coast sales representative about what he planned to do when another piece fell into place. Portfolios in notebooks were a great idea, the rep said, but why not make the pockets vertical instead of horizontal?

PeeChee folders. Image courtesy of Mead.

 
Folders with vertical pockets, called PeeChees (as in, peachy keen), had been around since the 1940s and were sold on the West Coast, but they had never made the leap across the Rockies—so Crutchfield was doubtful. “I said, ‘They only sell on the West coast, and what’s the real benefit of a vertical pocket?’” Crutchfield remembers. “[The rep] said, ‘When you close it up, the papers are trapped inside—they can’t fall out. If you’ve got a horizontal pocket portfolio, you turn it upside down, and zap! [The papers] fall out.’”

Crutchfield was convinced and got to work. First, he took sketches of the portfolios and notebooks to a group of teachers to find out if there was truly a need for that kind of thing. The group said that student organization was a major problem, and the teachers would welcome any product that would help in that regard.

Next, Crutchfield created a physical mock-up. Unlike the PeeChee—which had straight up-and-down vertical pockets—Crutchfield’s portfolios had angled pockets, with multiplication tables, weight conversions, and rulers on them. “It was like a textbook inside,” he said. Then he designed a three-ring binder that held those portfolios and closed with a flap. Students could drop the notebook, and the contents would stay securely in place.

Trapper portfolios. Image courtesy of ACCO Brands.

 
So Crutchfield had a mock-up of his product, but he still didn’t have a name. That came from his research and development manager, Jon Wyant. “I said, ‘I need a name for this damn thing. Have you got any ideas?’” Crutchfield remembers. The next day, they were drinking a martini with lunch when Wyant said, "Let’s call the portfolio the Trapper."

"What are we going to call the notebook?" Crutchfield asked. "The Trapper Keeper,” Wyant replied.

"Bang!" Crutchfield says. "It made sense!" And that was that.

TESTING THE MARKET

The prototype Trapper Keepers—one with the logo, one without. Photo courtesy of E. Bryant Crutchfield.

 
With his product named, and a prototype created (the “Trapper Keeper” logo stuck on in press-on-type, and the design—soccer players—held on with tape), Crutchfield went to the next step: more focus group testing. He and other Mead representatives went to schools with the Trappers and Trapper Keeper, talking to students and teachers to get feedback. He also looked for input a little closer to home, from his 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son: “I had access to what they were doing in school,” he says, “and I saw their lockers and talked to their teachers.”

For about a year, Crutchfield conducted interviews and focus groups, tweaking the design of the Trapper Keeper along the way. “There were probably five or six iterations,” he says. And once he was happy with the result—a PVC binder with plastic, pinchless rings (they slid open to the side instead of snapping open), a clip that held a pad and a pencil, and flap held firmly closed by a snap—it was time to run a test market, which would help them determine if the product was truly viable.

Patents on two key Trapper Keeper features: The combination pencil holder/notepad clip and the pinchless plastic binder rings. Images courtesy of Google Patents.

 
Prior to the test, Crutchfield wrote a commercial and flew from Dayton, Ohio—where Mead (and now ACCO) was based—to Manhattan, where he hired three actors and filmed the clip for a mere $5,000 in just three hours. He was short on cash, so it had to get done—but getting it done wasn't easy. One actor in particular was having a tough time. “It was very straightforward—the kid had a notebook in his arms, and his papers fell out [when a cute girl came over],” Crutchfield says. “We were about 20 minutes away from when the camera goes off [when] he finally got it. I said ‘Wrap!’ and that was it.”

Courtesy of ACCO Brands

 
The chosen test market was Wichita, Kansas. In August 1978, Mead aired the commercial there and rolled out its Trapper portfolios and Trapper Keepers. What happened next was unexpected: “It sold out completely,” Crutchfield says.

Inside each Trapper Keeper (which came with a few Trapper folders) was a feedback card; if kids sent it in, Mead would send them a free notebook. Approximately 1500 cards were returned. Under “Why did you purchase the Trapper Keeper rather than another type binder?” kids said things like:

"I heard it was good. My girlfriend had one."
"So when kids in my class throw it, the papers won't fly all over."
"My mother got it by mistake but I'd seen it on TV, so I decided to keep it."
"Instead of taking the whole thing you can take only one part home."
"Because they keep your papers where they belong. They're really great—everybody has one." 

But Crutchfield’s favorite comment—and the one that got the biggest laughs at the sales meeting—came from a 14-year-old named Fred. Fred had seen the commercial, and bought the Trapper Keeper rather than another binder to “keep all my shit, like papers and notes.”

Fred's response card. Courtesy of E. Bryant Crutchfield.

 
“Kids that age are very open and honest,” Crutchfield chuckles.

The response cards also revealed that it wasn’t just kids buying the Trapper Keepers: Adults were buying it for record and recipe keeping, Crutchfield says.

After reviewing the test market results, it was clear that Mead had a hit on its hands. Crutchfield told Bob Crandall, the regional sales manager, “This just might be the most fantastic product we’ve ever launched. I think it’s really going to shake up the school supplies market.”

GOING NATIONAL

The company decided to roll out Trappers and Trapper Keepers nationally in the summer of 1981. To prep, Mead created a prime-time network television campaign—a pretty unusual thing for a school supply. They also ran ads in print featuring Mrs. Willard, a 9th grade teacher from Wellington, Kansas, who had recommended the Trapper Keeper to her students during the product’s run in the test market. In the ad, she summed up the benefits of using the Trapper Keeper:

“Most students keep the Trapper Keeper in their locker. Then, they just change Trappers from class to class. With no large notebooks to carry around, they travel light and easy. After school, they take the Trapper Keeper home with all the Trappers inside.”

The folders came in three colors (red, blue, and green) and kids had six Trapper Keeper options: three solid colors and three designs—soccer, dog and cat, and Oregon coast, which were stock photos that Crutchfield bought from an agency. The Trappers had a suggested retail price of 29 cents each, while the Trapper Keepers had a suggested retail price of $4.85.

“We rolled it out, and it was just like a rocket,” Crutchfield says. “It was the biggest thing we’d ever done. I saw kids fight over designs in retail.”

GROWING AND CHANGING

Image courtesy of ACCO Brands

In its third year on store shelves, Trapper Keeper sales were still going strong. It was at that point that Mead made a design change, replacing the metal snap with Velcro. Crutchfield created a prototype for that, too, and pulled it out of his attic for his conversation with mental_floss. “The only difference is that it’s got Velcro stuck on there, and it’s dusty!” he says. The cover design was a waterfall—a photo Crutchfield had snapped himself in the mountains of North Carolina.

Even though Velcro was a hot new material at the time, replacing the snap with it made sense for a lot of reasons beyond that, Crutchfield remembers. One was the fact that “people had trouble finding the center of the snap to snap it,” he says. The other had to do with manufacturing. “Snaps were a lot harder—you have to put [the binder] through a machine twice to put the snap in there. Velcro was a lot easier to apply.”

Though the Trapper folders remained virtually unchanged through the years, the Trapper Keeper evolved as student needs evolved. “Additional designs were introduced annually and were reflective of what was relevant in the eyes of our student consumers—unicorns, cool cars, video games,” Hodges says.

Mead employees working on art for the Trapper Keeper designer series. Photo courtesy of ACCO Brands.

In 1988, Mead introduced the Trapper Keeper designer series—fashionable, funky, and sometimes psychedelic designs on the binders and folders that ran until 1995. “Mead employed a large amount of local illustrators to provide early artwork,” Peter Bartlett, director of Product Innovation at ACCO Brands, tells mental_floss. The company also made a deal with Lisa Frank and put her designs on Trappers and Trapper Keepers, and licensed iconic characters like Garfield and Sonic the Hedgehog for the binders. Even Lamborghini got in on the action, granting its blessing to put some of its cars on the Trapper Keeper.

Image Courtesy Cam Hughes

 

Of course, anything as popular as the Trapper Keeper will almost inevitably face a backlash—but in this case, the backlash didn’t come from students. Crutchfield remembers that some teachers complained about the multiplication and conversion tables, which they said could help students cheat. "It was a controversy at one time," he says. "One teacher said, 'Hell, we can take the portfolios away from them while they’re doing their tests.' Most of the teachers were very honest and said, 'Anything that helps me pound it in their head is good.'"

Mention Trapper Keepers to your friends, and you'll inevitably hear from someone who desperately wanted one, but couldn't have it because it was banned by their school. “The Trapper Keeper started to show up on some class lists as a ‘do not purchase’ because [teachers] didn’t like the noise of that Velcro,” Bartlett says. "[So] we switched from Velcro back to a snap."

But in some cases, what the binders that schools were calling Trapper Keepers and banning weren’t actually Trapper Keepers. “Our research has shown that what they’re calling Trapper Keepers, [are actually] these big sewn binders that are three to four inches thick and can’t fit into a small school desk," Bartlett says. "That’s the reason they’re on the list. When you show [the teachers] a real Trapper Keeper, with a very slim, one-inch ring fixture, it’s like, ‘Oh no, that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t have any problem with that!’”

Though it became less popular after the mid-1990s, the Trapper Keeper has remained an important part of Mead’s back-to-school line of products—though it has undergone some modifications. “The main change is that we went away from PVC, as most health-conscious companies are trying to do,” Bartlett says. “So it looks slightly different because it’s made out of polypropylene and sewn fabric, but the function is essentially the same.” One line, which was introduced in 2007 and available for a year, was even customizable. “They had a clear piece of plastic in the front,” says Richard Harris, the program manager of industrial design at ACCO. “There was a printed pattern behind it, but then you could put whatever you wanted in that clear sleeve in the front.”

But the cool, psychedelic designs of the early 1990s aren’t as big a focus in the Trapper Keeper line these days. “Trapper has evolved a little bit to relying strongly on a color coding system of organization for students,” Bartlett says. But it's not all work and no play: After a product relaunch in 2014, the company added new Trapper Keeper designs, including Star Wars and Hello Kitty, the following year.

THE TRAPPER KEEPER'S LEGACY

So why, exactly, do people still love the Trapper Keeper, many decades after they last had one? For Bartlett, it all boils down to what the Trapper Keeper allowed kids to do—and he's not talking about keeping organized. “It was fun to be able to show your personality through the binder that you had,” Bartlett says. “You don’t really remember a notebook or the pens and pencils you used. But maybe you remember your [Trapper Keeper].” Harris says that the binder "wasn’t a regular school product. When you got it, it was almost like a Christmas present. You were excited to have it."

The Trapper conference room at ACCO Brand's Dayton, Ohio office. Photo courtesy of ACCO Brands.

 

Ryan agrees. "It's the first time it was possible to have 'cool school supplies,'" he says. "It made something that most children dreaded—school supply shopping—into something that at least bordered on fun."

But even the man who invented it all can only guess at why his product became more than just a school supply to a generation of kids. "When I first went to work, all school products were drab and boring," Crutchfield says. "[Trapper Keepers were] more functional and more attractive, with oodles of choices—therefore fun to have. And I had a lot of fun making them fun!"

Trapper Keepers.
CINZIA REALE-CASTELLO

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This story originally appeared in 2013.

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