Trapper Keeper Memories

The “back to school” commercials are on TV again. Now I don’t have a kid, so these commercials don’t compel me to go out and buy school supplies, but I was once a kid, so these commercials do remind me of the school supplies mom went out and bought way back when. I loved getting those school supplies: the fresh pencils and pens, fresh erasers, fresh paper, and so on. School supplies and school clothes were the best part of going back to school (actually, they were the only good part of going back to school). There was one school supply, though, that rose above all the others, one school supply I had to have, one school supply that would make me look forward to and love the first day of school. It was the Trapper Keeper.

trapper keeper

The Mead company’s Trapper Keeper was a three-ring binder that held folders and documents and whatever else you could cram into it; it “trapped” and “kept” these things, hence the name. And there probably were three-ring binders prior to the Trapper Keeper (I don’t know that there were; for some reason, the Trapper Keeper seemed pretty novel to me back then, so I must not have seen anything like it, but I assume that the general idea was not new). There were none, though, like the Trapper Keeper. The Trapper Keeper had a flap that bridged the opening of the binder and kept it secure; with the first versions of the Trapper Keeper, this flap secured with a few snap buttons, but in later versions it secured with Velcro. The Trapper Keeper had a clip on the inside of its back leaf, turning it into a de facto clip board (this clip could hold and pencil and a pad of paper and new Trapper Keepers came complete with both) and it had a flap on the inside of its front leaf, allowing materials to be stored there. The Trapper Keeper came with three solid color Trapper folders (I believe blue, red, and green, though I may be mistaken); these specially designed folders held papers with a vertical flap rather than a horizontal one and were marked with a ruler and all sorts of mathematics and scientific measurements. More than anything, though, the Trapper Keeper was a piece of art. Early Trapper Keepers were solid colors. After them came Trapper Keepers featuring basic pictures like a tiger or a hot air balloon. Eventually, though, Mead released “designer versions” of the Trapper Keeper. These versions featured wild 80s style graphics, such as zebra stripes and geometric shapes and, my personal favorite, bubbles. They soon featured designer folders as well.

Unfortunately, Trapper Keepers were not very durable. In fact, if you could get your Trapper Keeper to last an entire school year, you were lucky. Constructed of vinyl, the Trapper Keeper would begin to literally come apart at the seams; the seams would begin to split and so would your Trapper Keeper. It was not uncommon to see a Trapper Keeper without its flap or without its interior clip, and I once saw a Trapper Keeper that had lost its graphics, revealing plain brown cardboard underneath. But while they did not last long, they did have a long-lasting effect on the culture. Someone once referenced the surreal graphics of the designer Trapper Keeper by producing a T-shirt that said, “I hope Heaven looks like my Trapper Keeper”. And on an episode of VH1’s I Love The 80s, Young MC claimed that he once kept “Bust A Move” in a Trapper Keeper. As for me, the Trapper Keeper was the foundation of my school years: it was the foundation of the stack of books I carried to class (it always went on the bottom, supporting the other books), it was foundation of my studies (I probably wouldn’t have graduated if the Trapper Keeper had not kept me organized). And it is still a part of my life today; I have a Trapper Keeper that I routinely take to work, and I even have a couple of things in it. It was yet another piece of pop culture, then, that became a part of my life.


Doug is a child of the 80s who was raised in Ohio and is now living the life of oblivion in the bay area of California.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Ahhhh, Trapper Keepers . . . there was nothing like having a new outfit and a new Trapper Keeper on the first day of school :)

  2. I wish there was a special website with high resolution images of Trapper Keeper artwork, and maybe new artwork suitable for a real 80s-90s era Trapper Keeper… to use as desktop wallpaper! I tried googling for Trapper Keeper artwork just a few weeks ago, without much success. :(

  3. If it wasn’t for my Trapper Keeper I would never have been able to keep all most comics organized for reading in class. Ha, ha.

  4. Wow what a great post, thanks retroist! I had that same bubbles one! Awesome.

    @garsh, classic TK wallpaper for the Win! I guess you could try contact mead?

  5. …and then there was the Trapper Keeper that came alive on South Park… :)

  6. I still to this day still have my Trapper Keeper from school. It even still has old school work in it. Mine had the black and white zebra design on it. Can not believe it has survived all these years.

  7. GREAT POST. I have been on a retro binder craze lately, maybe harkening back to a time when my life was pleasantly organized into subjects and periods. My question to the interwebs is this: what is the relationship between the “Data Center” and Trapper Keeper? Having just purchased a Data Center at a thrift store, it looks like a proto-Trapper keeper…

  8. Also, the TK artwork database would be awesome!

  9. I think the Data Center came after the Trapper Keeper. I have seen a few in thrift stores and at Garage Sales, but I never picked one up to do a detailed comparison.

    I do remember the commercials ran around 1990 or 1991.

  10. 90’s there was games, physical games….i.e. football, hockey ect….they had the ability to click into your 3 ring trapper keeper….what were they called and where can i find them? anyone???

  11. also only other bit of info i remember is remember was hockey was like air hockey but played with pennies…….anyone???

  12. I used to have a couple trapper keepers in about 4th grade. They were neat but very low quality/durability. Later I switched to conventional binders.
    In both cases I used to get the pencil pouches that go into them, as well as these mini reference book things that also had label stickers & ring stickers to protect punched holes in paper.

    In fact, I still have one trapper keeper (though not one of the ones I had way back then, I got this one around the mid-90s). I had the nintendo power strat guide for super mario bros 3 & the glue they used in it was cheapass, the pages started falling out within a week. So I got a TK and a hole punch, pulled out the few pages that hadn’t fallen out on their own yet, punched holes in all of them, stuck them in a folder (to act like a cover) and stuck the whole thing into the TK. I also glued the front cover of the magazine onto the front of the folder. I toyed with the notion of doing more magazines that way, but never did any others.
    I also have a bunch of notes with stuff like codes & passwords for video games, some maps I made of metroid, and of some levels of kid icarus in that TK.

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