Of Trapper Keepers and childhood identity…


By Shawn Robare

Life presents us with a lot of opportunities to experience a right of passage, and the first one I remember taking an active hand in was when I turned 10 years-old in 1987. Not only was I finally breaking into double digits on the birthday cake, but it was also mid-summer and around the time my mom would start thinking about all the crap I’d need for the next year at school. I was entering the 5th grade, becoming one of the head honchos of the elementary school, and for the first time I wanted to have a say in what sort of junk I’d need. Clothes-wise, there was no question that the wardrobe had to include a bunch of surf and skate shirts (preferably T&C and featuring Thrilla Gorilla, but I also dug Op, Powell Peralta, and Billabong), baggy shorts featuring loud prints (usually Maui brand if I recall), and Airwalk shoes (I ended up with a pair that were covered in purple and black bats.) The lunchbox? G.I. Joe. Backpack? Nope, this was the year I ditched the bag (for god knows what reason.) All these decisions seemed important, but the most important one was finally graduating away from a handful of flimsy pocket folders to the one school supply item I coveted over any other, the Mead Trapper Keeper…

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My sister had been using Trapper Keepers for a few years at this point, and though I’d wanted one earlier, my mom didn’t think I’d need it. This year though, I had a plan. Having broken my wrist a few weeks earlier in a front-yard no-holds-barred neighborhood wrestling match, I knew it would be difficult to carry my books and folders with my clunky cast. I’d already practiced my fumbling act with the previous year’s folders and a couple of encyclopedia volumes for a bit before I decided to put it on for my mom at the store. My argument was that the coveted all-in-one binder would make it so much easier for me between classes. Of course no mom who knew her son would buy that kind of act, but regardless, with the 5th grade looming (my final year in elementary school), I somehow convinced my mother that it was imperative that I had one. Flipping through the designs in the Woolworths, none of them were really speaking to me until I stumbled on the one above. By 1987 loud, obnoxious color schemes were becoming the norm in advertising and clothing, and something about the secondary color combination of orange, green, and purple really caught my eye. After pulling the binder off the shelf I was hit with the below design and I was in love. What could be cooler than sunglasses, palm trees and a Lamborghini? In 1987, nothing.

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My original Trapper Keeper managed to last me a good three years before falling apart at the seams. I’m pretty sure I had a couple others before the end of high school, but this first one was the “one”. I’ve been keeping an eye out for a replacement to pop up on eBay for years now, but I never found one that I was happy with. They were either too beat up from years of use, or priced in the range where only Scrooge McDuck could afford them. But then recently I managed to find this one and the stars just sort of aligned. Not only was it the design I wanted, but it was also brand new, old store stock that never found its way into the hands of a loving kid. It still had its original label on the back, though a little worse for ware due to storage issues. I couldn’t resist, and now I finally have another one…

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Something else that was kind of cool about getting a hold of a brand new Trapper Keeper, was that I got a chance to be irritated with removing the above label just as much as from when I was a kid. There are two little metal tacks that punch though the back of the binder and hold the note pad clip in place inside. The label is held in place by these tacks, but because it’s made of a light weight paperboard, it doesn’t easily come off. You have to rip at it, and inevitably there is always some leftover label under the tacks that is impossible to remove. I hated this design flaw then, and even more now!

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When you stop and think about it, it’s not like these binders were all that revolutionary. Sure, they had folders that would lock into the rings, and there was a clip for a pad of paper in the back, but that’s about it. At the end of the day there was just something super appealing about the overall, all-in-one design that was intoxicating. By the time in the mid to late 80s when Mead starting covering the folders with all sorts of outrageous airbrushed graphics, these binders became the equivalent of how we use internet avatars these days. You picked the folder that best represented “you”. Heck, I can distinctly remember referring to other students who I didn’t know by what their Trapper Keeper looked like. I don’t know, at the time they just seemed important.

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Though I was addicted to my TK back in the day, there were a couple of things that I had completely forgotten about over the years. For one, I didn’t remember just how awkward the 3-ring binder clip mechanism was. There’s a colored tap at the bottom of the binder that you pull down to slide open the rings. Not nearly as secure as your standard binder clips, and containing way too many parts made out of plastic to really last the test of time, this was sort of a weirdly deflating revelation. Looking back on it, I wonder if this was a clever purposeful design flourish meant to break so that kids would have to buy a new Trapper Keeper each year…

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I’d also forgotten about the interesting design of the interior subject folders. Not only were the pockets designed into the long sides (so that loose papers wouldn’t fall out of the top of the Trapper Keeper), but each folder also featured rulers, and a crap load of metric conversions and math tidbits. I’m also a fan of these color-schemes, in particular the pink lemonade of the folder to the left…

The one last thing I wanted to point out represents probably the most visceral memories people have for Trapper Keepers, the patented Velcro ripping noise you heard when opening the main flap. After opening up the package and pulling this out to show my wife, she immediately ripped it from my hands and proceeded to open and close it repeatedly, to which we both replied with a satisfied sigh. Sounds like some of the best memories from school.

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So, what did your Trapper Keeper look like?

  • Eric

    I somehow managed to talk my dad into buying me a new Trapper Keeper every fall for the new school year, beginning in 5th grade and ending 9th grade. I had the purple “Video Rock” version, the “Zebra Stripe” version, the “Green Liquid With Bubbles” version, and the “Sunglasses/Lamborghini” version you’ve described in this article. My favorite thing to do with them was to poke a hole in the corner of the clear plastic cover, blow the cover up like a balloon, and then tape the corner hole shut. Voila! Instant desk pillow! That really worked, too, at least for a quick snooze during boring classes.

  • https://three.libsyn.com/claymationwerewolf.blogspot.com Claymation Werewolf

    I think of all the things that our generation is super nostalgic about, the thing that would be the toughest for younger people to understand would be our afinity for school supplies. Lunchboxes, folders, trapper keepers and of course, erasers. Great Post as always Shawn!

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Chris – Yeah, I’m 50/50 with the stuff I acquire. Some stuff I try and re-sell, and thus go out of my way to keep it completely mint, but some stuff I can’t help but unwrap. This Trapper Keeper is going to become the new home for the notes I keep for this site. Figured I might as well get some use out of it. Just wait until this fall. I bought a set of 50 year-old Topps Nutty Awards postcards that I fully intend to write on and mail out to readers!

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Reis – Cool, can’t wait to see yours! You know, I never thought to do that as a kid, slicing them open to replace the artwork. I wonder if there is a market in custom Trapper Keepers on Etsy these days…

  • Chris Conley

    I cant believe you take the labels off these types of things. Guess its just the MIP in me :)

  • http://dorkhorde.blogspot.com/ Reis O’Brien

    This is funny, because I too just scored a vintage Trapper Keeper on eBay after looking forever for just the right one. I agree, they’re going for insane amounts of money right now. I just took some pics and will be posting those this week on my blog as well. Great minds and all that. I also got my first Trapper Keeper in 4th grade in ’82, when they were still pretty much solid colors, with the occasional model coming adorned with a picture of kittens or a desert mountain landscape. The zany designs wouldn’t come along until later. When I was in 4th grade, it was practically a matter of social status whether you had a Trapper Keeper or not. One fond memory involves how we used to slice open the edge of the back of the Trapper Keeper (right near the spine) with an open pair of scissors in order to slide in our latest art masterpieces. Great post!

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Tommy – Yeah, those were the No Rules series, and I agree, how weird! I wrote about those and the artist that worked on them here: http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/the-90s-were-so-damn-extreme- I’ll have to check out the modern ones, it’s been awhile since I made a notebook run…

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Joseph – I used to have a ton of subject dividers, mostly for my role playing games notes though (who different kind of supply-driven nerdery). Man, I hated it when the corners would rip open, especially if I had to walk home in the rain and then the cardboard inside the binder would get all warped…

  • http://tophatsasquatch.com/ Tommy

    I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s when most Trapper Keepers had crazy art of animals doing extreme sports. I never understood that trend, but I had one like that, as well as a designer one with some kind of geometric design. Now I have two I got on eBay and one of the new ones that came out a few years ago, which is actually pretty nice.

  • http://www.comicbookrehab.blogspot.com/ Joseph Adorno

    Probably from someone who brought a lot of school supplies and usually had them laying around in a closet – I threw out a bunch of subject dividers last year – subject dividers! I had maybe 2 or 3 trapper keepers that i can remember – they had designs on them: one was with mickey and Donald, etc..the other a “grown-up” red sportscar, the last I completely forgot..maybe the same design as the one you posted, but in green with blue arrows… That velcro flap was usually the first to go, then the corners would break and peel open. Then the rings would not fit enough paper, then those folders would let papers fall out or just tear-out at the holes. ah, school…:P