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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20 Successful Kickstarter Products You Can Buy on Amazon

Two purple PyroPet candles, one in the process of burning down
Two purple PyroPet candles, one in the process of burning down

Kickstarter is a great tool to help new businesses get their products developed. Thanks to the magic of crowdsourcing, the demand is available before there is even a supply. In case you missed the campaigns, here are some successful Kickstarter products you can buy on Amazon. You can find even more on Amazon Launchpad Kickstarter.

1. Cat Pyropet; $34

Carved candles are nice to look at it, but once you use it for its actual purpose—burning—the candle tends to lose its fun shape. Often people will put off burning a candle altogether for fear of being left with a melted lump where a cat- or tree-shaped candle once stood. PyroPet encourages people to actually use their candles because once the candle melts down, a creepy (but cool) metal skeleton is revealed. PyroPet now sells lots of different animals, but the project all started with a cat candle called Kisa. The campaign more than doubled its $40,000 goal in 2013.

2. Illumibowl Toilet Night Light; $11

When getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, some people are hesitant to turn on the lights. The IllumiBowl Toilet Night Light eliminates the need to hit the light switch by illuminating the toilet itself. The clip-on light makes the toilet bowl glow one of eight colors (or rotates through all of them). It's motion-sensored, so it only flips on when a sleepy visitor comes to use the toilet. The product met its Kickstarter goal in 2014 and also made an appearance on Shark Tank, where software tycoon Kevin O’Leary offered up a whopping $100,000 for 25 percent of the business.

3. Qwerkywriter S Typewriter; $260

Qwerkywriter S Typewriter

This item has the look, feel, and satisfaction of an original typewriter but with the accessibility and ease of your tablet. The Qwerkywriter Typewriter can connect to your computer with or without wires and provides one of the most delightful typing experiences you could imagine. Qwerkywriter raised nearly $130,000 on Kickstarter in 2014.

4. Exploding Kittens; $20

Fans of the popular web comic The Oatmeal are probably familiar with this card game. The party game is good for two to five players and comes with 56 cards, all illustrated by The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman. The game boasts two Kickstarter records, as both the most-backed Kickstarter project ever and the most-funded game in Kickstarter history. Impressively, it raised over $8 million during the course of its campaign. According to CNN, the game is a lot like UNO, but with more deadly kittens.

5. Back To Roots Water Garden; $97

Everyone loves a good self-sustaining ecosystem. The Back to Roots Water Garden is the perfect aquarium for hungry pet owners who hate to clean. The bottom of this fishbowl holds the betta fish, while the top holds a variety of edible plants. The plants clean the fish bowl and the fish's waste is eaten by the plants. All the owner has to do is feed the fish and they're rewarded with flourishing edible plants to enjoy. The project raised over $200,000 in 2012, back when it was called the Home Aquaponics Kit.

6. Collar Perfect Travel Iron; $35

When running to a business meeting or an important interview, a crisp collar is key. Never settle for out-of-shape lapels again with this portable iron that slides onto collars for on-the-go perfection. Best of all, it transforms into a normal iron for when you have other wrinkles to work out. The innovative gadget met its Kickstarter goal in 2014 and has been helping out wrinkled shirts ever since.

7. Good And Cheap Cookbook; $10

Let's be real: When it comes to mealtime, you usually have to decide between eating healthy or eating cheaply. But it's possible to have your avocado toast and eat it, too: Leanne Brown created a recipe book to teach new cooks how to make the most out of their grocery trips. The helpful book includes meals that only cost about $4 to make. You'll never have to settle for McDonald's again! The Good and Cheap book is Kickstarter's most successful cookbook. The PDF is free, but for every hard copy sold, the company donates to someone in need.

8. Sprout Pencils; $19

These helpful pencils have two functions. Besides the obvious role of writing, the pencils can also help you plant a garden. Each writing utensil comes with a little pod on the end filled with seeds. When you're done with the pencil, you can place it into a pot of soil to begin the growing process. The unique pencils got their start after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The company now makes pencils with a variety of different plants, including sage, sunflower, basil, thyme, and more. You can get either regular number two pencils or colored pencils.

9. ZOMBICIDE: BLACK PLAGUE BOARD GAME; $62

Zombicide: Black Plague is a lot like the original Zombicide board game, but set in medieval times. Both games are cooperative board games with customizable characters and game pieces. Players take on the roles of survivors in a zombie apocalypse as they fight their way through hordes of zombies, collecting weapons, learning spells, and gaining experience along the way. The successful Kickstarter campaign raised more than $4 million.

10. Jamstik Smart Guitar; $200

A young man playing the Jamstik 7 Smart Guitar

JamStik is a great way to learn guitar, thanks to its lack of necessary tuning—not to mention its portability and the accompanying learning app. Simply connect the product to your iPad, iPhone, or laptop via Bluetooth or USB to get started. The product has real strings that make noise through the connected device. It's just 18 inches long, so you can throw it in a backpack for on-the-go learning. An earlier version of the JamStik met its Kickstarter goal in May 2015.

11. Prime Climb Board Game; $28

This colorful board game is perfect for two to four math-loving players. Players must roll the dice, do some quick calculations, and make their way to the center of the board (bumping off opponents as they go). It's fun for people of all math levels, and helps children just learning multiplication and division get a better grasp of the concept. Math lovers supported this project on Kickstarter in 2014.

12. Ilumi Led Smart Bulb; $50

After getting comfortable on the couch or in bed, the last thing you want to do is get up and turn off the light. Ilumi is the perfect solution to these lazy problems: The smart light bulb can be turned on and off or dimmed right from a smartphone or tablet. Simply screw in the device like any other light bulb and then you can change the dimness or color. The LED light is amazingly efficient and can last up to 20 years. The bulb met its goal in 2015.

13. Soviet Bus Stops Book; $16

This quirky coffee table book is filled with the charming, forgotten bus stops in former soviet countries. Author Christopher Herwig spent 12 years traveling through 13 different countries documenting the weird art of bus stops. From interesting fresco paintings, to lopsided statues, these structures are a lot more unique than what you might find in the United States.

14. Chain Mail Bikini: The Anthology Of Women Gamers; $13

It has always been a bit puzzling to see the strange outfits that some female video game characters wear. From boob-shaped armor to chain mail bikinis, these outfits are just plain dangerous. Hazel Newlevant used this oddity as the title for this special anthology. The book contains comics from more than 40 artists about what it's like to be a female gamer or game character, with over 200 pages that explore all types of games from video games to card games. In 2015, the Kickstarter campaign far exceeded its $13,000 goal, earning nearly $70,000.

15. Mudwatt; $29

This living battery is fueled by bacteria. The educational project is perfect for kids who are just getting into science. Simply fill the MudWatt with dirt to get started. The micoorganisms in mud release electrons as they consume and break down sugars; these electrons are then harnessed by the MudWatt battery. Different bacteria produce more power than others, so children can experiment with different kinds of dirt and by adding different ingredients from around the house. Parents looking for fun and easy STEM projects loved this idea and the project was backed in 2015.

16. Wuju Hot Sauce; $9

WUJU is a special hot sauce created by Lawrence Wu. The Drexel-educated foodie has a real passion for hot sauces and worked tirelessly to create a special sauce made with habanero peppers, mango, agave nectar, and an array of spices. Heat-seeking gastronomes who backed this Kickstarter in 2015 were thrilled to have a unique hot sauce that tastes great with almost anything.

17. Eyepatch iPhone Case; $25

If you're worried about people potentially hacking into your phone's camera, a piece of tape over the lens might do the trick. For a more permanent solution, try this special phone case with a slider that covers the lens when you're not using it.

18. Rocketbook Everlast Reusable Smart Notebook; $32

Rocketbook Everlast Reusable Smart Notebook

Everlast promises “a classic pen and paper experience that’s built for the digital age.” This notebook offers 36 reusable pages that transfer what you write by hand to your computer over Google Drive, Dropbox, and more. All it takes to erase a page for another use is a drop of water. With over 28,000 backers, Everlast raised around $1.8 million for their incredible notebooks in 2017.

19. LIFX Smart LED Lightbulb; $40

LIFX Smart LED Light Bulb

Not only does the LIFX LED Lightbulb come with tons of color options, it also can connect to your Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Home Kit with ease. With simple setup and easier control from your phone, the LIFX Lightbulb is as intuitive as it is useful. LIFX also joined the 1M+ club on Kickstarter back in 2013, making around $1.3 million dollars.

20. Espro Travel Coffee Press; $32

Espro Travel Coffee Press

For those who are on the go and need a little kick, the Espro Travel Coffee Press presents a stylish, affordable answer to your needs. Perfect for camping or commuting, Espro’s new spin on the thermos quickly surpassed their goal, raising almost $60,000 earlier in 2018.

All photos via Amazon.

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

Ohio State University Has Its Own Bacon Vending Machine

Ohio Pork Council
Ohio Pork Council

As final exams approach, many students at Ohio State University will be fueling their brains with bacon. According to USA Today, a vending machine filled with ready-to-eat bacon strips and bits has been installed in the lobby of the Columbus-based school's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences to help raise funds for the department.

The snacks may not be as cheap as ramen noodles, but they are a close second. The university is able to sell the bacon at a discounted rate of $1 per item because all of the products were donated by Sugardale Foods, Hormel Foods, and Smithfield Foods. Proceeds go to the university's Meat Science Program, which teaches students "the underlying principles of biology, physiology, and nutrition that drive animal growth and the impact they have on meat quality," according to the school's website. Students within the Meat Science Program are tasked with restocking the vending machines until December 13, which is the last day it will remain on campus.

The unusual fundraiser is the result of a partnership between the university and the Ohio Pork Council, which works to promote the pork industry within the state. Because all of the products in the vending machine are shelf-stable, no refrigeration is needed. "Customers can eat the bacon straight out of the vending machine!" Emily Bir, director of communications for the Ohio Pork Council, tells Mental Floss.

Could the bacon vending machine be coming to a city near you? One can only hope, but it's too soon to tell. "The future of the vending machine is still unknown—you may see it appear again after December 13, or maybe not. Time will tell," Bir says.

Oddball vending machines have become more popular in recent years. There's a pecan pie vending machine in Cedar Creek, Texas, and past examples (some more successful than others) have included those that dispense hot pizza, burritos, live crabs, baguettes, and caviar.

[h/t USA Today]

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