*This is intended as satire. David Ferrer is not old, cynical, technophobic or curmudgeonly. He’s actually a pretty pleasant guy who enjoys many modern conveniences.
Two things are guaranteed about school: (1) adults will try to make school look cool and fun, and (2) they will fail miserably.
Why do adults think school is going to be cool and fun? School is the antithesis of fun. Education is work dangit! It’s hard. It’s boring. It’s glorious character-shaping drudgery. That’s how it was in my day, and we liked it. Fun is for people who skip school, don’t grow up, and die in a ditch somewhere from snorting marijuana.
Where School Meets Cool
But apparently things changed in the 80’s, or 1978 to be exact. Not the marijuana part. The coolness thing changed because of the Trapper Keeper. In 1978, the school supply company Mead rolled out their first “Trapper Keeper.” The early trapper keepers featured pictures of soccer players, and kittens on the cover. Apparently testifying to your cuteness, or your soccer skills. Later covers would feature things like race cars, MTV, and unicorns.
Unicorns aren’t even real!
Education died a little that day because school was now about “expressing yourself” instead of learning something about the world. It’s no surprise that schools in the 1980’s doted on and on about protecting kids’ “self-esteem” instead of teaching them how to earn a living.
Sorry kids, just because your sixth grade teacher thinks you are “priceless” doesn’t mean employers will pay you for breathing.
But I digress. Behind the bright, alluring cover, this school tool is a pretty decent piece of equipment. It’s basically a fancy three-ring binder with internal side-pocket folders (“trappers”), pencil and notebook clips, and a velcro sealed flap. You can also “personalize” your Trapper Keeper by adding a ruler, a pencil bag, notebooks and paper, or even additional trappers. It’s supposed to organize all your school papers and pencils behind a deceptively “cool” cover, making your backpack lighter and your school life neater, all while artificially inflating your social status. Later cover designs featured pictures from movies like Star Wars, shows like Rainbow Bright, or video games like Tron, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Mario Brothers. None of these are real things by the way.
Fortunately, not all of these fancy-pants binders were designed to deceive students. They weren’t all “cool.” Some were monochrome (like red, blue, light blue, and dark blue). Others had geometric patterns, or nice boring pictures like landscapes or hot air balloons. These designs are much more respectable for students who take their schooling seriously. Plus, these dry designs don’t set kids up for disappointment when they do inevitably come to realize that school just isn’t cool and that their parents were lying to them just like they lied about Santa Claus.
Don’t get me wrong. The Trapper Keeper is great. Once we get over the cover, there’s a genuinely useful product in there.
I know it’s a useful product because most students have the organizational skills of a tornado. When physicists wrote the law of entropy, they had teenagers in mind. Peek inside their book bags and you’ll see what I mean: loose papers, gum wrappers, love letters, moldy sandwiches, broken calculators, Carmen Sandiego, ink spills, crinkled books, mix-tapes, broken pencils, loose change, possibly a raccoon. Kids have always struggled with organization, so parents and teachers were glad when Trapper Keepers arrived on the scene, just like FEMA is welcomed by townspeople in Tornado Alley.
When Trapper Keepers entered the market in the late seventies, they were a hit. Mead launched the product first in Witchita, Kansas in August 1978. They sold out immediately. And by the early 80’s they were already icons of social status. Stores couldn’t keep them on the shelves. It seemed like every student had them. They were clamoring for these “super cool” notebooks through which to express themselves, to be unique individuals…just like everyone else.
Today, the sales have dropped off a little, but this product is what marketers call “evergreen.” It’s always a strong seller. To date, Mead has moved 75 million Trapper Keepers or roughly $100 million in sales.
Why Were Trapper Keepers So Successful?
The success of these modified notebooks may have been surprising, but “it was no accident” says its inventor, E. Bryant Crutchfield. In fact, he explains, “It was the most scientific and pragmatically planned product ever in that industry.” These fancy folders were aimed at addressing projected student growth. As enrollment was projected to rise (which it did), students would have fewer and smaller locker spaces, increasingly crowded classrooms, smaller desks, and less space to work with. Students can’t go to their lockers between every class either. And even if they could, their lockers might not be big enough for materials pertaining to 6, 7, and sometimes 8 classes. They definitely can’t store it all in their bookbags. Those bulging backpacks are more suited for sherpas than students. Trapper Keepers were designed to save space.
The Trapper Keeper was not just a space saver though. It was also durable. The binder was made of sturdy PVC with a plastic cover. This proved more durable than the metal binders that would bend out of joint and refuse to lock.
The design was innovative in other ways too. The “trapper” folders used side-pockets, with a slight cut-away, to give easy access to papers while trapping them inside. Papers couldn’t fall out like they do with bottom-pocket folders. Toss ‘em, drop ‘em, kick ‘em across the floor—the papers won’t fall out. These trappers also featured educational charts, conversion tables, rulers, times tables, the periodic table, or famous dates. It was like a pre-made cheat sheet.
So first, Mead lies to you about school being “cool,” and then they help you cheat. Way to go Mead!
Trapper Keepers are also customizable. Mead offers additional features like pencil bags, built-in calculators, extra trappers, and so on. But despite their practical value, the real selling point for these 80’s relics is their cover designs. 99% of the cover options ran the spectrum from ostentatious to gawdy. And, of course, if you didn’t like the ridiculous 80’s prints on the cover, you could slit the plastic and insert your own pictures or just make another pocket out of it. A Trapper Keeper life-hack, if you will. Once you slit the plastic, there’s no limit to the ridiculous, distracting, and asinine ways you can “express” yourself. Sports, rock stars, and cars were fan favorites. But you could also announce your 80’s nerdom with a Dungeons and Dragons cover, or your own improvised Star Wars fanfiction cover.
Another factor that Mead could not have anticipated was the adult market. Adults gravitated to Trapper Keepers too, for use as day planners, project notebooks, record keepers, and recipe holders. And of course man-boys can use them for storing baseball cards and Magic: The Gathering paraphernalia.
The Future of Trapper Keepers
However we may try to explain it, the Trapper Keeper has become “one of the most recognized school brands of all time,” says Jessica Hodges, Director of School Marketing for ACCO Brands. Today, the brand is still widely known, and well-loved (though not by me, of course). They did however have the sense to move away from the deceptively cool pictures and start using monochrome and two-tone designs. For years, the old models were discontinued and replaced by portfolio-style trapper organizers—with a side handle, calculator, and businessy styling. They also started substituting a zipper seal in place of the velcro flap. And they’ve shifted to metal and plastic binders. Apparently the old PVC material is toxic. Meh.
In 2014 Mead relaunched a retro-style version of the Trapper Keeper. The big differences were metal binding, snap closer, and click-in-place notebooks (so you don’t have to open the 3-ring binder). Also, the edges on the front flap are angular instead of rounded. It’s basically the same old Trapper keeper though.
I can live with the retro-new versions. They are useful and boring like school supplies should be. They don’t lie to students about coolness, fun, or social status. And when it comes to organizing papers, they get the job done. That’s performance I can count on. But if you are a slave to fashion, and have somehow come to believe that 80’s style is worth rescuing from the landfill of history, then you may have no other option than to scour antique stores and eBay for your favorite, most audacious Trapper Keeper. You’ll probably pay more money than it’s worth, you’ll probably be disappointed, but you’ll be able to cling desperately for one more day to the evaporating glory of your 8th grade year. Good luck with that.