Rise and Fall of the Pocket Protector
Designed to keep shirts clean and tools handy, this ubiquitous invention declined into a social stigma but rebounded as a symbol of nerd pride
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship (W. W. Norton, 2014) will be released in May, and will be discussed briefly in the July–August Engineering column.
At a meeting of the National Academy of Engineering some years ago, I was handed at the registration desk a copy of the program, a handsome portfolio to put it in, and a white plastic pocket protector. The protector was emblazoned with the abbreviation NAE in large capital letters, set next to a logo showing a stylized viaduct in silhouette inside a blue circle. The bridge is symbolic of the Academy’s mission “to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession”—in other words, to span the potential gap between the interests of the profession and those of the nation. To further emphasize this connection, the quarterly magazine of the Academy is named The Bridge and its motto is “linking engineering and society.” But does an NAE pocket protector help or hinder the achievement of this objective?
The pocket protector has long been associated with engineers, but to society at large it does not necessarily evoke a positive image. According to Jeanette Madea, whose brief history of the pocket protector appears on the IEEE Global History Network website (http://www.ieeeghn.org), the plastic pocket insert “conjures up images of a guy in a short sleeve white shirt, glasses taped together and ‘high-water’ pants.” Those reference points date the characterization to the 1950s and 1960s, when engineers did indeed favor white short-sleeve shirts, eyeglasses that were prone to break across their plastic bridge, and pants hitched up to reveal a lot of sock, often white to match the shirt. Today, we call the professional descendants of the earlier stereotypes nerds or geeks, terms that at least can include gals as well as guys.
Madea credits the “original pocket protector” to inventor Hurley Smith, who was born in 1908 in Bellaire, Michigan. Smith had no formal schooling but completed high school by correspondence course. After working and saving money, he matriculated at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He studied electrical engineering at Queens, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and upon graduation had to take a job marketing Popsicles around the province. He finally found a position as an engineer with a transformer design company in Buffalo, New York, but lost this job when he refused to misrepresent the company’s rewound transformers as new products.
While working in Buffalo Smith came up with the idea for his pocket protector, which he patented in 1947. The time was ripe for such an invention because the ubiquitous fountain pen was notorious for leaking ink, as was the ballpoint pen then being introduced in America. According to Smith’s patent, it was not only the pocket proper that his invention protected from being “marked, disfigured or soiled by pencils or other more or less analogous articles or the fingers of the user in placing such articles in and removing them”; it also protected the material of the shirt directly above the pocket. Smith did not associate the device solely with engineers, whose fingers might be expected to be fairly clean, but also with “workers in factories,” the hands of which “may become soiled or greasy.”
As described in the patent, the manufacture of Smith’s pocket shield began with an elongated and relatively thin rectangular piece of “transparent or translucent Cellophane, Celluloid or analogous sheet material” just a bit narrower than a typical shirt pocket. The sheet was given two transverse folds. The first fold was made about equidistant from the ends, and the second—a reverse fold—about a quarter of the way from one end to produce a flap. This produced a pocket insert whose longest portion projected above the top of the pocket and whose shortest hung outside the front of the pocket. Pens or pencils clipped over the flap compressed the shirt pocket material between the flap and part of the shield inside the pocket, holding the protector and its contents securely in place. As Smith pointed out, the lightweight but stiff shield would incidentally prevent a pocket from “bagging or sagging out of shape and detracting from the neat appearance of the shirt or garment.” By clipping writing utensils over the flap, the protector also prevented wear and tear on the edge of the pocket.