A Brief History of the Trapper Keeper

The Trapper Keeper has nothing to do with animals or national security. Anyone who has been a student since 1981 knows that a Trapper Keeper is a must have for school. What makes it amazing is both its simplicity and its practicality. The “organizer” has been seen on a number of television shows such as Family Guy, Dawson’s Creek, South Park, Full House, and Stranger Things. What it does is prevent all those loose papers from falling out all over the place. One interesting fact about the Trapper Keeper is it contains several U.S. patents in helping to keep things organized.

So just how did the Trapper Keeper come about to be one of the most common things seen in a classroom (other than an iPad or smartphone)? More than 30 years ago there was an avalanche of demand for portfolio style folders for students to keep their papers in. The reasons were that many students had to keep their paperwork from all their classes separate and organized, and that because of the required 5 or 6 folders (one for each class) students were not able to carry all their portfolios around at the same time because they were too bulky. That left two problems to be solved – simplifying organization and reducing the size of the number portfolios that had to be carried around.

One of the problems with the pre-1981 portfolio design is that the vast majority held the papers in place horizontally. Of course, if you dropped a portfolio it was likely that many or all of the papers in the portfolio would be seen scattered on the floor after exiting through the top. What was odd is that there were vertical portfolios being sold on the West Coast, but for some unknown reason that is where they remained.

To solve the problems, a man by the name of E. Bryant Crutchfield began a planned and systematic investigation into both the problems and possibilities to create the Trapper Keeper. He wants everyone to know that the invention was not accidental or a matter of trial and error, which sends a message to everyone about the value of thinking and planning.

Once the problem was clearly defined, he began talking with teachers about whether or not a vertical portfolio design was actually needed. Instead of designing and marketing something whose practical use was uncertain, Crutchfield asked the people who were closest to the children in an academic setting. Teachers have known for decades that student organization is always a critical issue, and anything that would help the students would be welcomed.

Next in line was the physical design and making a prototype to see if the idea could be practically done. Instead of blank colored pockets that students would doodle on, Crutchfield put things like multiplication tables and weight conversion charts for quick and easy reference by students. Instead of straight lined pockets, he cut them at an angle to further reduce the possibility of papers falling out.

While Crutchfield had the basic information, he now needed to get students and teachers feedback. He did this by assembling focus groups in local schools, talking with both teachers and students. Then it was back to the design board to create the next-to-finished product. The Trapper Keeper now had a PVC binder with plastic rings, the familiar clip that holds a pad of paper and a pencil, and a flap that would close using a snap.

Any well-designed product will have a test market phase prior to shipping it to market. That year was 1978. The city chosen for the test was Wichita, Kansas. Each Trapper Keeper had a response card in it to get feedback from the buyers. Those buyers were not just students, but adults who wanted to better organize their records. Based on the feedback, there was little doubt that this new product, the Trapper Keeper, would be a resounding success.

The product finally launched in 1981, two years after the test market results were in. When finally launched, the Trapper Keepers were set at a price of $4.85 suggested retail.

Later, the snap would be replaced by Velcro, but then back to the snap because teachers were complaining about the noise of the Velcro. (Likely it was students who were opening and closing the Velcro over and over just to be annoying.) Other complaints would follow, such as teachers suggesting to get rid of the multiplication tables and other useful information on the inside because students were cheating.

As with anything novel, the Trapper Keeper would suffer a decline in sales for a number of reasons, the biggest being technology. It has a run of more than ten years as one of the most in-demand and coolest products for students to own. There were specially designed covers that included everything from Lamborghinis to Halloween art work. Though they are still seen today, iPads and other data storage devices have replaced paper as the preferred medium for teachers and schools.

For some this was a trip down memory lane, but the lesson that should be taken away is that Crutchfield took the time to do it right. He followed the process steps to turn a great idea into a reality, and a profit for the company. Rather than create a product and try to force it into a market, he did the consumer research and designed a product that consumers wanted and was practical.

There was someone else who had this same mentality. Steve Jobs of Apple Computer.


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