What the Trapper Keeper Taught Me About Privilege

The 80s school supply staple was a status symbol that not everyone could afford.

Photo courtesy of Trapper Keeper by Mead

I was talking to a coworker about a school supply drive she was organizing for low-income kids in our program. Kids are returning to in-person school and are being told to bring as many as four pages of items with them.

“Four pages?” I asked incredulously. “When I was a kid, all you needed was some pencils, a protractor, and a Trapper Keeper.”

Photo courtesy of Trapper Keeper by Mead

Ah, the Trapper Keeper. The most coveted school supply for every kid who was in school in the early 1980s. It was the perfect design, holding folders, notepads, papers, pens, and other supplies in one three-ring binder that sealed close with velcro. The ultimate status symbol.

Unfortunately, not every kid could afford the Trapper Keeper. As one of what of what the nuns at our school referred to as “scholarship kids”, there was no money at our house for a Trapper Keeper.

“You can use a spiral notebook,” my mother grumbled, clearly not understanding that the Trapper Keeper was almost as important as the Jordache jeans that I also coveted with the obsessive passion that fills every 13-year-old girl.

Vintage ad for Jordache Jeans

The Trapper Keeper, like Jordache Jeans, was a status symbol. In the early 1980s, a Trapper Keeper would set you back just under $5, which is about $16.57 in today’s money.

Trapper Keepers first appeared in 1978, and were immensely popular. In its heyday, the Mead Corporation sold about 75 million Trapper Keepers. The history of the Trapper Keeper is a great marketing success story that included encouraging kids to fill out feedback cards and return them to the Mead Company, providing free market research for the company.

Soon, the airwaves were flooded with great Trapper Keeper commercials like this one, featuring a young Lori Loughlin:https://rosebakenterprises.wordpress.com/media/ffc92fb27d085bba3ad824114b4944cd

The best part of the Trapper Keeper, besides the way you could keep all of your papers together and organized in one notebook (this was very revolutionary in the 80s) was the myriad of designs. The Trapper Keeper let you express your interests whether it was sports, or kittens, or geometric designs.

Imagine my embarrassment and disappointment when I went to school with my boring spiral notebooks and their plain one-color design. Here I was, surrounded by kids using their Trapper Keepers. Every morning when classes started, the room would be filled with the unmistakable sound of velcro tearing apart as eager students selected the folder for that particular class.

Photo courtesy of Trapper Keeper by Mead

I resolved to save up all my money and get a Trapper Keeper of my own. It seems almost inconceivable now, but in the early 80s people would hire me, as a 13- or 14-year-old girl, to babysit their children. I would make $1.50 an hour for my trouble.

Finally, finally, I had enough money saved up to get a Trapper Keeper of my very own. I debated for weeks on which one to get. Would it be the rainbow one? The one with the bubble gum machine? Maybe the cool geometric design one?

In the end, I went with the Trapper Keeper that featured a picture of the beach at sunset, the palm trees seeming to sway in the breeze. It reminded me of Florida where my grandparents lived, and happier times.

As my coworker filled up backpacks with supplies for the children of our clients, I hoped that just for a day, those kids wouldn’t realize that they were poor. For one day, they would be just like every other kid.

I’m sure that there are other status symbols embraced by the students of today. And The Trapper Keeper is mostly a remnant of the past now, I know for sure no school supply will ever be as cool as the Trapper Keeper.

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