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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

The Protector’s Predecessors

Smith never claimed to have invented the pocket protector, describing his creation instead as “an improved pocket shield, guard or protector.” He emphasized instead that his version of the device was, among other things, “of novel, but exceedingly simple and inexpensive construction” and “the simplest, lightest and least expensive form of the shield.” He recognized that the open sides of the shield might be seen as a flaw in the design, for the points of pencils and pens leaning sideways could soil or poke through the shirt pocket. He answered this potential objection by illustrating an alternate embodiment, in which the shield starts out as a rectangle with wings that, after the principal folds were made, could themselves be folded around the sides and secured to the back. This additional step formed a closed pocket-within-a-pocket that was essentially what has come to be recognized as a typical pocket protector.

2014-05PetroskiFp184.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe reason Smith called his invention an “improvement” rather than a new idea is documented in the five prior patents he cited. The oldest one was issued to Allison M. Roscoe, of DuBois, Pennsylvania, in 1887 for an improvement in a “pencil-pocket” intended not to protect but to hold pencils and other objects securely in place. The device was formed in one piece of “rubber or similar elastic material.” It did have a back that projected above the top opening to form “a guide to direct the pencil, &c., into the holder when thrust quickly therein.” It also had a front flap, “to clamp the edge of the pocket and hold the device in position.” Based on the patent drawings, the Roscoe pocket appears to have been a rather bulky item. Its sides were closed, but its bottom was open, allowing longer pencils or pens to project downward. This might not be desirable if the device were to be inserted in a shallow shirt pocket, but the pencil pocket was not necessarily meant to be worn that way. As Roscoe pointed out, it could incorporate a button hole whereby it could be attached to the button of a garment such as a pair of overalls.

The second oldest patent referenced by Smith was issued in 1901 to Frank John Atkins, of Fort Madison, Iowa, for a “pencil-holder.” Like Roscoe’s pencil-pocket, the main purpose of Atkins’s holder was as an improved device to “effectively hold pencils or other articles in place in a pocket without liability of falling from the latter.” Also like Roscoe’s, Atkins’s device had a front flap. Since pencils generally were not fitted with clips, Atkins’s holder incorporated a spring sewn inside the fabric of which the insert was made. Looking like an elaborate paper clip, the spring not only clamped the insert against the garment pocket but also clamped “pencils, pens, tooth-brushes, or other articles inserted in the device” to be held securely. The rear part of the device that projected above the pocket was intended “to serve as a guard or shield to protect and prevent breakage of pencil-points.” Keeping the garment clean was not mentioned. In anticipation of later commercial applications for pocket protectors, Atkins pointed out that the covering of the spring “may have suitable advertising matter applied” to the flap or shield.

Although not cited by Smith, a patent issued in 1903 to Himan C. Dexter, of New York City, for a “pocket-protector” is closely associated with the evolution of the modern pocket protector. Dexter’s invention also incorporates a spring “to prevent escape of articles contained in a purse, pocket-case, or like receptacle.” A patent drawing shows the device holding a pencil in a jacket pocket, which could still be soiled by the pencil point because of the absence of an upward projecting back portion. The pocket-protecting feature of the invention was the way the ends of the wire spring were formed into tight eyes so that the purse, pocket-case, or garment pocket into which they were placed did not suffer wear from sharp wire ends of the insert. Hence Dexter’s invention was not the kind of benign pocket protector we have come to associate with the term.

Smith did reference a 1914 patent for a “pocket” issued to Loren Z. Coolidge of Aberdeen, Washington. The device was primarily intended to secure items in the “overalls of carpenters, bridge builders, and various other mechanics.” Once again, Coolidge relied on metal springs to hold it on the pocket and to hold rulers and other small tools in place while enabling “a mechanic to work in any position without danger of the rule falling out of the pocket.” At the same time, the device was readily removable when it was time to wash the garment. Another, 1917 patent referenced by Smith was for a pocket lining for carrying cigarettes, matches, and like items without them getting “intermixed and badly damaged.” It was to be made of “sheet metal, pressboard or other material possessing sufficient rigidity” and so anticipated Smith’s emphasis on the stiffness of his pocket protector.

Smith’s final citation was a 1927 patent by Peter Burtchaell of San Rafael, California, for a “garment attachment” that might be described as a partial pocket protector. His attachment was designed to make “temporarily stiff” the top edge of a pocket so that pens with clips could be more easily inserted into the pocket. Another purpose of the attachment was to grip the pocket so as not to become accidentally disengaged, and it was in this aspect that Burtchaell’s invention was novel. The back part of the attachment, made of “stiff and flexible material,” had “upstruck portions” that in the patent drawing look like triangular teeth. These were designed to “penetrate the material” of the shirt pocket and “prevent accidental disengagement of the shield.” Something that poked holes in the shirt hardly sounds like a pocket protector, but inventors are often so focused on the pros of their invention that they ignore the cons.

Hurley Smith made prototypes of his pocket protector by heating the plastic—using his wife’s iron, which he modified for the task—so that the material could be bent without cracking and would hold its folded shape after cooling. When it looked like he could make a living manufacturing the plastic items, Smith quit his engineering job in Buffalo and moved his family first to New Hampshire and then in 1949 to Lansing, Michigan, where he established a plastics business dealing mainly in pocket protectors. The base material had been changed to vinyl, and the edges where the front and back parts met were heat sealed. White was the standard color, which Smith could imprint with a logo, slogan, or motto covered over with clear vinyl.

2014-05PetroskiFp185.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAlthough Smith had patented his basic idea, it does not appear that he patented his improvements. Soon there were competing manufacturers of pocket shields. One was Gerson Strassberg, an electrical engineer by training who in 1952 was working in Brooklyn as a development engineer. As Strassberg recalled, one day a phone call interrupted his work on a bankbook cover. He was using a low-heat welding technique that employed both compression and high-frequency radio waves to fuse sheets of vinyl to make the cover. In answering the telephone, he stuck the unfinished product into his shirt pocket, where part of it flopped over the outside front of the pocket. During the phone conversation he instinctively stuck a pen in his pocket, which according to Strassberg gave him the idea for “one of the first known pocket protectors.”

By Strassberg’s own dating of events, his “accidental discovery” occurred five years after Smith’s patent was issued. Nevertheless, the invention of the pocket protector was credited to Strassberg in a 2003 article in the Orlando, Florida, Sentinel, highlighting the likelihood that a reporter writing a human-interest story involving a seemingly trivial item of commerce might not pursue the facts beyond what she was told by the subject. Whether or not Strassberg knew of Smith’s patent, he did not patent his own version of the pocket protector. Patenting anything is a basic business decision, in which the not insignificant cost of securing a patent must be weighed against the potential revenue from the sale of the item. According to Strassberg, he patented only 3 of the 200 or so products his company made, believing that “the best patent in the world is to go make a million of them and sell them quickly.”

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