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E. Bryant Crutchfield, creator of the Trapper Keeper, dies at 85

E. Bryant Crutchfield, a paper-company executive whose signature product design became a touchstone of student life in the 1980s and ’90s, and an orderly object of nostalgia forever after, died Aug. 21 at a hospice center in Marietta, Ga. The creator of the Trapper Keeper was 85.

His wife, Virginia Crutchfield, confirmed his death and said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Crutchfield, known as “Crutch,” spent more than three decades with Mead, the paper company long headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. He held the title of director of new ventures in the 1970s, when he embarked on one such venture that would produce a sensationally and enduringly popular school supply.

The Trapper Keeper, essentially a three-ring binder to hold and organize folders, is a product immediately recognizable to the generations that grew up making cassette mixtapes, laughing at sitcoms such as “Full House” and “Family Matters,” and relishing the inimitable thwack of a slap bracelet. In its heyday, the Trapper Keeper was a ubiquitous presence in school hallways across the country, toted under the arm or stowed away in book bags and lockers until it headed home with its owner, a capsule containing all the day’s work done and yet to be done — and perhaps a passed note or two.

The history of the Trapper Keeper was detailed in an article published in 2017 in the online magazine Mental Floss, and the product’s origin story reflects all the careful planning and attention to detail to which any proud new owner of a Trapper Keeper might aspire.

Mr. Crutchfield began developing the product in the early 1970s. Market research had revealed that the coming school years would see more students per classroom, with less locker space for each student. Data also revealed a surge in popularity of portfolios, or folders.

“You can’t take six 150-page notebooks around with you, and you can’t interchange them,” Mr. Crutchfield told Mental Floss. “People were using more portfolios, so I wanted to make a notebook that would hold portfolios, and they could take that to six classes.”

Mr. Crutchfield set out on a process of market-testing and refinement that would last several years. Inspired by the Pee-Chee brand of portfolios that was popular at the time on the West Coast, he led the design of folders with pockets that were oriented vertically instead of horizontally to prevent papers from slipping out. Those folders became known as Trappers, following a suggestion from Mr. Crutchfield’s research and development manager, Jon Wyant, who went on to propose the name Trapper Keeper for the binder. “Bang!” Mr. Crutchfield told Mental Floss. “It made sense!”

Mr. Crutchfield assiduously collected feedback from students, who delighted in the stylish cover art of Trappers and Trapper Keepers. Over the years, the designs featured cats and hearts, cars and athletes, psychedelic geometric patterns and the rainbow-tastic creations of Lisa Frank. Mr. Crutchfield also consulted with teachers, who at first approved heartily of his organizational invention. He found especially useful assistants in his two children, including his son, a self-confessed ideal test case for the Trapper Keeper.

“My locker was a mess,” Ken Crutchfield recalled in an interview. “I was … never really very good at keeping things in a very organized way, even to this day.”

The Trapper Keeper made its test-market debut in Wichita in 1978 and began selling nationally three years later. Sales were boosted by a national prime-time television ad campaign in which a disorganized young man bumps into a pert young woman at the library, knocking her Trapper to the floor. In the flirty conversation that ensues, she extols the virtues of Mead’s product line.

“Boy, I’ve got to get a Trapper and get my act together,” the male student declares.

“If you do,” his new acquaintance replies, “I’ll let you carry my books.”

From the outset, the Trapper Keeper was a sensation.

“We rolled it out, and it was just like a rocket,” Mr. Crutchfield said. “It was the biggest thing we’d ever done. I saw kids fight over designs in retail.” According to Mental Floss, Mead began selling more than $100 million in folders and binders per year.

Ernest Bryant Crutchfield, an only child, was born in Greenville, Ala., southwest of Montgomery, on Feb. 5, 1937. Both of his parents worked in a cotton mill.

Mr. Crutchfield was the first person in his family to graduate from college, according to his wife. He received a bachelor’s degree in applied art from Auburn University in Alabama in 1960 and later served in the Air Force Reserve.

He began his career with Montag, a stationery and school supply company that later became part of Mead. At Mead, Mr. Crutchfield oversaw the development of products including the Valet stationery set, which came with a plastic envelope caddy and set a company sales record in the late 1960s.

After leaving Mead, Mr. Crutchfield worked for the Georgia-Pacific paper company for a decade before retiring.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, the former Virginia K’Burg of Marietta; two children, Ken Crutchfield of Alexandria, Va., and Carol Iyer of St. Augustine, Fla.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

By the end of the 1990s, Trapper Keepers had begun to decline in popularity — including among teachers, many of whom detested the noisy Velcro that replaced the binder’s original snap closure. Some schools banned Trapper Keepers, while others, still recognizing their organizational potential, required them. Sensing the potential for a comeback, Acco Brands, Mead’s modern-day parent company, relaunched the line last year.

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