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Cinzia Reale-Castello (Trapper Keepers) // Lucy Quintanilla (Illustration)
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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Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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New Book Highlights the World's Most Depressing Place Names

If you like a little ennui with your wanderlust, we've got a book for you.

As Hyperallergic reports, the popular Instagram account @sadtopographies recently got the coffee table book treatment with the beautiful and gloomy Triste Tropique, Topographies of Sadness. Since 2015, master of misery Damien Rudd has been compiling Google Maps screen shots of real-life locales like Melancholy Lane, Mistake Island, Hopeless Way, and Cape Disappointment on the social media platform. Scrolling through them will make you laugh and marvel at how these names even came to be.

Created in collaboration with French publisher Jean Boîte Éditions, Triste Tropique includes 89 locales accompanied by amusingly poetic captions (called "romances" by the publisher) from writer Cécile Coulon. "Anyway, does it even really exist?" she writes of Doubtful Island. Each place is printed to scale with its exact location provided. The title is a reference to another glum book: Tristes Tropiques by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

This isn't the first time @sadtopographies has been made into a book; last year's Sad Topographies: A Disenchanted Travellers' Guide delved further into the origins of depressing place names. "I have not been to, nor is it likely I will visit, any of the places in this book," Rudd wrote in that 2017 title, but perhaps you'll feel differently.

See the cover, featuring Disappointment Island, below. While you're at it, check out 14 of the most depressing place names in North America here.

Triste Tropique, Topographies of Sadness cover
Jean Boîte Éditions

[h/t Hyperallergic]

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