Whether you had one or not when you were middle school, the specter of the Trapper Keeper still looms large over your head, perhaps even more than any of its other '90s nostalgia-inducing school supply counterparts. But what happened to Trapper Keepers? Did they just disappear from the earth as soon as the '90s ended? Where did they even come from? Trapper Keepers are one of those mystical items that seem like they simply appeared in a cool kid’s locker on the first day of school, and if you lived without one you would live in woe until at least spring break. Despite what you’ve heard, these mini portfolios aren’t magical, but the history of Trapper Keepers is fascinating, and it deserves a look if for no other reason than to inform yourself about one of the things that made life so cool in the '80s and '90s.
Do kids still use Trapper Keepers, or do they just email all of their homework to their teachers now? That’s one of the key pieces of information that you’ll learn on this breakdown of whatever the heck happened to Trapper Keepers. You'll even get an inside look at the Trapper Keeper contraband controversy from the '90s and how it’s changed over time. Even though they were just something you needed for school, Trapper Keepers defied their root purpose and became an exalted form of cool and self expression in a way that so few things can. Keep reading and prepare to fall in love with Trapper Keepers all over again.
Unlike most inventions, the Trapper Keeper wasn't created by two separate, existing ideas being jammed together by accident. The Trapper and the Keeper (keep in mind they're two different things) were created after E. Bryant Crutchfield began conducting research into class sizes, shrinking locker space, and the ease with which papers spilled out of notebooks in front of classrooms.
In 1972, Crutchfield discovered that sales of portfolios were increasing at 30% a year, and he realized that he could sell something that held all of those portfolios (or folders) at the same time. “You can’t take six 150-page notebooks around with you, and you can’t interchange them,” Crutchfield said. “People were using more portfolios, so I wanted to make a notebook that would hold portfolios, and they could take that to six classes.”
Prior to the existence of Trapper Keepers, a folder with vertical pockets, called a PeeChee, had been a mainstay on West coast campuses since the 1940s, but Peechees never spread to the rest of the country. At the time of his creation of the Trapper Keeper, Crutchfield was aware of PeeChees, but he felt that they were wasting their time by not moving into other markets. He also maintained that vertical pockets were for the birds. He told Mental Floss: I said, ‘They only sell on the West coast, and what’s the real benefit of a vertical pocket?' [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 decided to take the idea of PeeChees and beef it up to the max by adding angled pockets, multiplication tables, rulers, snaps, and all sorts of doodads, bells, and whistles to differentiate it from their only competitor - obviously his plan worked like gangbusters because no one but Crutchfield remembers PeeChees.
In the movie version of the Trapper Keeper story, E. Crutchfield will release the Trapper to resounding yawns until one brave young girl decides to make the portfolio for kids popular. But in real life, the Trappers were wildly successful. After Mead launched the Trappers in 1978, they sold over $100 million of the folders and notebooks every year until 1996, when the sales of paper products started to noticeably decrease.
When Trapper Keepers were released - from the late '70s all the way through the mid '90s - they were the one thing that every student could agree on. Not only were Trappers a status symbol, they were also a must-have item in every day life. One Keeper-Head remembers, “You don’t really remember a notebook or the pens and pencils you used. But maybe you remember your [Trapper Keeper]." They continued to wax nostalgic, "[It] wasn’t a regular school product. When you got it, it was almost like a Christmas present. You were excited to have it." You see, Trapper Keepers were one small, organizational-tool place where you could really show your personality. Into horses? Soccer? Care Bears? There was a Trapper Keeper for you.