Where Are They Now

How the Trapper Keeper Took the ’80s by Storm — Then Suddenly Disappeared

The untold story of the Velcro binder that taught an entire generation how to organize

Whet Moser
Published in
6 min readJan 20, 2021
A photo illustration of 2 vintage Trapper Keeper binders with a car image, placed within a thought bubble.
Photo illustration, source: Bethany Nixon/Flickr (with permission)

Where Are They Now is a column that revisits once-popular companies and brands that have seemingly disappeared.

Before the bullet journal, the pricey Japanese planner Hobonichi Techo, and the pocket-sized, collector-friendly Field Notes, many of today’s self-defined superorganizers had a Trapper Keeper.

You might remember the three-ring, color-coded, Velcroed school binder, whose ubiquity in the 1980s and ’90s makes it a byword for nostalgia. For a whole generation, it was our first information organization system, a child’s garden of productivity.

The Trapper Keeper was itself well planned, the work of market research by a Harvard MBA working at the paper industry titan Mead. It quickly filled the vacuum he’d identified, and its name became synonymous with its category; the company told The Oregonian in 1989 that half of students in grades six through 12 had one. But eventually, school authorities decided the Trapper Keeper was too big. Not too dominant — just, like, too physically large. And at the same time, shelf space in big-box stores and the back-to-school shopping season both began to shrink, squeezing out the breadth of designs Trapper Keeper became famous for.

“It was the most scientific and pragmatically planned product ever in that industry,” Trapper Keeper inventor E. Bryant Crutchfield told Mental Floss in 2013. Crutchfield was the director of new ventures at Mead and part of a new generation at the company that in the 1960s was transitioning from an “informal family management style” to an “executive corps dominated by men trained at the Harvard Business School.”

In the mid-1970s, Crutchfield watched school folder sales take off and recalled some market research he’d done suggesting students were taking more classes with larger class sizes and in increasingly small schools, putting classroom space at a premium. A sales rep suggested he take a look at a product Mead had acquired during its expansion: Pee Chee, a two-pocket paper folder with a distinctive…



Whet Moser

Freelance writer/editor in Chicago. Words in Marker, The Atlantic, COVID Tracking Project, elsewhere. Author of ‘Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis.’