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
A Small Pouch of Nerd Pride
Despite the Sentinel’s claim, Strassberg was a relative latecomer to the pocket protector business. In 1947, the year that Hurley Smith’s patent was issued, Erich Klein had started up a factory on the North Side of Chicago—now the Internet-based Erell Manufacturing—that has been described in the New York Times as “one of the first manufacturers to make plastic pocket protectors,” which it still makes. Around the same time firms on the West Coast also began getting into the business. Smith soon became aware that manufacturers were infringing on his patent, but he evidently chose not to pursue legal action because of the high potential cost of suing the numerous, geographically dispersed infringers.
Strassberg was also late in getting out of the business as most manufacturing moved overseas. In 2000, according to Esquire magazine, he believed his company was the “last pocket-protector manufacturer in America.” Along the way, the classic bare-bones item evolved into a variety of forms. Basic white was joined by custom colors, as well as clear plastic so that the color and pattern of the underlying garment can show through. There is a “stealth” model that has a clear flap and no backboard, so that it maintains a low profile in the pocket. There are also protectors with large front flaps that have sleeves into which can be inserted identification and security badges.
Wherever there has developed a large variety of any one thing, there develop also followers and collectors of the genre. The pocket protector is no exception. There is a Pocket Protector Preservation Society. There is also a Webseum of Pocket Protectors, curated by John Pojman, a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University. This online collection contains pages of neatly arranged photos of pocket protectors displaying a variety of colors and imprintings. When I most recently visited the site I found about 1,500 unique specimens (but no NAE pocket protector among them).
Judging by the large number of pocket protectors in the Webseum that are imprinted with the names of companies, products, institutions, and organizations, the protector was widely appreciated in its heyday for its undeniable utility. There is a subset of the virtual museum’s specimens that are that and more. They are imprinted not with a commercial message but with a declaration of independence from the stigma of stereotypes. One proudly displays the Caltech seal, period. Another reads, “MIT Nerd Pride,” another simply “Nerd Pride,” and another, “Nurture Your Inner Geek.” To some observers the pocket protector may be the symbol of a stereotype, but to engineers it is an immensely practical acecsory. Not only does it do what its name implies, but it can also serve as a badge of honor.
On the occasion of introducing the National Academy of Engineering’s list of Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century in February 2000, astronaut Neil Armstrong said of himself, “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.” He may not have been wearing his pocket protector when he stepped off the Lunar Module Eagle and became the first human to set foot on the Moon, but he gave engineers wearing theirs back on Earth a sense of professional pride in all that they had done. Not unlike the way the pocket protector itself was conceived, designed, and developed, they do their job quietly, efficiently, and often anonymously.
- Armstrong, Neil A. 2000. The engineered century. The Bridge. Spring, pp. 14–18.
- Christiansen, Donald. 2007–2008. Nerdiness. IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer Online.
- Madea, Jeanette. 2004. Hurley Smith’s pocket shield. IEEE History Center Newsletter 65, p. 6.
- Murray, Caryn Eve. 2003. The pocket protector was his baby. Orlando Sentinel May 27, p. D3.
- Patton, Phil. 2000. Plastic badge of courage. Esquire September 1.
- Pojman, John A., Pocket Protectors: The Fashion Accessory of the New Millennium. http://www.pojman.com/PP/PP.html
- Slatalla, Michelle. 1999. Classic nerdwear; pocket protector, image projector. New York Times, June 24.
- The Urban Prepper. 2012. The Pocket Protector: Revenge of the Tactical Nerds. Video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgUTAososxQ