Friday, August 31, 2012

The dialectical materialism of the Trapper Keeper

Posted By on 08.31.12 at 06:45 AM

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
  • Be afraid. Be very afraid.
For the most part, I've always been excited by the first day of school: new teachers, new friends (sometimes), and best of all, new stuff. The first day of school, much to my parents' dread, meant new supplies: semipermanently useful tools such as pencils, pens, erasers, backpacks, notebooks, and markers, or temporarily useful but mostly useless items such as protractors, compasses, TI-83 calculators (really only good for playing Drugwars), and electronic dictionaries. Somewhere in between these two poles is where I'd slot the Trapper Keeper.

If you're not already familiar, the Trapper Keeper is a large plastic binder that holds folders. What differentiates it from the ordinary binder, with its clunky triangular fold and creepy militant design, is in the name: it is built to trap and keep papers from falling out. It does this by adding an enclosure to one side of the binder, in the form of a wraparound flap that fastens to the topside surface with a Velcro clasp. This not only closes off one space for papers to move around, but it tightens the binder and keeps the papers close together, preventing them from getting loose, which makes it easier for them to fall out. Additionally, though Trapper Keepers did have clear plastic encasing, they didn't have the vacuum-sealed, single-color plastic wrap of standard binders. In fact, the Trapper Keeper had a "Designer Series," which featured a number of fairly cheesy and awesome computer-generated pieces of abstract art. A lot of the designs haven't aged that well, but as recent anachronisms they are hilarious, haunting, and absorbing.

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It's weird to think of it now, but Trapper Keepers were in some ways a sign of status. At the time, you didn't just have a Trapper Keeper—it was a supplement to a backpack—which meant that you had to be able to afford two somewhat expensive school materials in order to own one. But the capitalist overtures of the Trapper Keeper extend beyond its affordability: The "Designer Series," which at the time was considered pretty cool, instilled in children an early sense of style and fashion as a way to communicate a sense of worth and attraction. And the treatment of the Trapper Keeper wasn't one of utility—it was as a toy. Rather than have an "ordinary" binder, you "needed" the coolly designed, fairly extravagant Trapper Keeper that you could ogle and play with. This further embedded in children the desire to buy things, even though those things were and are totally unnecessary. In a way, the Trapper Keeper was a means of turning children into consumers.

By the mid-90s, Trapper Keepers were no longer in vogue. Backpacks had grown in size and efficiency, and Trapper Keepers were seen as a relic of early-90s excess, like Zima, Umbro soccer shorts, and Neo Geo. Giant Trapper Keeper graveyards probably exist somewhere in the forests of northern California, piles of gauche computer designs stacked on one another like old textbooks, the sun occasionally gleaming off of worn plastic surfaces.

But wait! Mead, Trapper Keeper's parent company, has resurrected the line. Five years ago, Trapper Keeper reintroduced its product, although missing the "Designer Series" and opting for single-color, minimalist designs. But what's most fascinating about the Trapper Keeper's evolution is how it's adapted to a more digital present. It turns out that more and more people are using Trapper Keepers, or Trapper Keeper-like binders, to hold iPads. What's strange about all this is how totally unnecessary the Trapper Keeper is with the advent of the iPad, which can hold your files, read information (that would normally be available on photocopies), and displaces most school supplies and mathematical problems with apps. Really, the iPad is just the next technological progression of the Trapper Keeper, except with more overt capitalist overtones. And inside of a binder, it can be interpreted as a Trapper Keeper within a Trapper Keeper, at once retro-fetishism and meta-futurism, a product within a product, a toy within a toy, an information portal pregnant with another information portal, extending into infinity. Damn.

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