The Ultimate Geekalicious Pocket Protector Nerd

As seen in the Chronicle of Higher Education!

It all started innocently enough, with a protector acquired for a couple of bucks at the 2001 meeting of the American Chemical Society. After that he ordered some for his department. From there, the addiction -- er, collection -- grew.

And grew - to 465 and counting. Beware the ACS meetings, my children!

"I am not a weirdo," he says. "I just collect pocket protectors."

Or so he told the Chronicle...but see what he says on his own website...

"I'm not just a collector, I am also a wearer."

John A. Pojman is one bad-ass pocket-protector wearin' dude.

The pictures! The history! The patent! The drama and pathos make me nearly weep that I do not regularly wear white men's shirts, and am thus not in need of a pocket protector. Alas!

But seriously, check out the history of the pocket protector. It reminds us that even the simplest of products have the hands of engineers all over them, and the history behind any product can reveal the drama of human life. Delving into engineering history reminds us how strongly engineering has been gendered throughout its history:

While working in Buffalo, [Hurley] Smith [inventor of the pocket protector] was concerned not only about the ink and pencil stains that would get on the white shirts that were the required costume for any engineer in those days...

I added the emphasis. If white shirts were the required costume, then it goes almost without saying (though you know I'll say it) that the costumed individual was certainly expected to be a man.

The history of products also reminds us that, dammit, if only I'd thought of that first, I'd be a millionaire by now...

[Smith] constructed his first prototype in the attic of his house [in] Buffalo, having modified his wife's ironer to heat the plastic enough to bend it properly. He modified the equipment over the years and by the time he moved to New Hampshire, the production of pocket protectors promised to provide enough income to allow him to quit engineering.

And while we're celebrating the pocket protector, let's give a cheer for Mrs. Smith's ironer. There is no word about how thrilled she was to have her nice ironer used to heat plastic, however. Let us hope Mr. Smith asked nicely beforehand. Or at least bought her a fancy replacement, because I'm sure she was expected to go right on ironing his shirts through all the experimenting. In any case, it gives me a certain pleasure to know that all those dudely pocket protectors got their start with the aid of the domestic iron.

Anyway, there is a classic plastic advertising pocket protector from Charles Dimmerlings's Men's Shop, Pottsville, PA on sale on eBay right now. If you hurry, maybe you can outbid Professor Pojman. Good luck!


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Give the inventor some credit! Given that the world he invented this in had even more gender segregated roles than now, me made an invention to decrease the amout of work his wife would have to do. From the article you linked to:
While working in Buffalo, Smith was concerned not only about the ink and pencil stains that would get on the white shirts that were the required costume for any engineer in those days, but with the fraying around the edges of the pocket that the pressure from items in the pocket produced. Back then, the traditional housewife purchased shirts with the expectation that would last for a long time even with constant washing, bleaching, and ironing.

Take it easy, BSCI. I am not lambasting Mr. Smith. This is a lighthearted piece for Friday Fare. Can't you just imagine the smell and mess that the early heated plastic experiments with that ironer must have made??!??

It reminds me of the legendary Bill Bowerman who used his wife's waffle iron to make the first running shoes for athletes such as Prefontaine. Imagine if you were the inventor of Nike!?!?!?!?

Hmmm...come to think of it, BSCI, with regards to laundry and engineering both, I'd say we've made only minimal progress in detaching gender from either one of those areas of work. Laundry is still more or less associated with the private and female, and engineering is still more or less associated with the public and male. We may make occasional exceptions - "okay, dry cleaning, that's in the public domain, and probably involves some engineering principles...okay, okay, engineers work at Proctor & Gamble on designing ever better detergents...but, but...laundry is wimmin's work". While engineering, we know, is masculine and always takes place in the public domain, never in the does. Follow that link and just read the intro to that book...and consider housework from a different perspective. Think about all the work, for example, that the average Amish woman is expected to do in the home and on the farm. There's plenty of engineering in her daily life. We just don't recognize it as such.

In response to your first reply:
My response was a bit tongue-in-cheek too. These things don't always come across with just text.
Still, the history is neat: Some guy loses his job for not lying about a faulty product and goes on to invent and profit from the most iconic nerd symbol ever. Of course, pocket protector usage seems to have declined along with the # of engineers wearing white shirts (or ironed cloths). Not sure what is says about gender equality, but when male engineers' wives stopped regularly ironing their shirts the engineers just stopped wearing clothing that needed has high maintenance. (Ignore the gross generalization... it's Friday)

In response to your 2nd reply:
I agree engineering/laundry assumptions are still very gendered, but no where near as bad as it used to be. This makes perfect sense. As more buttons and flashing lights were added to washers, dryers, and even irons, the male attraction to using these devices increased. Alas, until someone makes a robotic shirt folding device, that will remain women's work. (still very tongue-in-cheek)

I'm also very aware of the engineering of household stuff. My grandfather was a tailor and his notes on making and cleaning clothing could easily be mistaken for a math and chemistry text book. The Settlers' cookbooks and house books are always amazing to read.

Also, for the record, I do a good share of my household laundry.

Thanks for writing again, BSCI. I went back and read your first comment with a different eye...reading it tongue-in-cheek gives it quite a different flavor! Sorry I didn't catch that.

I love your Friday theorizing...and the info about your grandfather is very interesting. Reminds me that someday I want to write about my dad and his work as an electrician in the coal mine...he knew more about some areas of physics and electrical engineering than I did at one point in my college education, though he never finished high school. And what he did, wasn't called "engineering", it was called blue collar labor or at best technician's work.

Kudos for saying you do "your share" of laundry rather than saying you "help out" with the laundry! There's a big difference between those phrasings!

Even now there's a gender bias. I've never seen a female student sporting a pocket protector in a movie, even when the girl is supposed to be a first-class nerd. This in turn stems from the underrepresentation of nerds = geeks = science/tech types on the distaff side, and I admit I've nevr seen a woman wearing a pocket protector before. But I am writing a novel, and there will be at least one female character wearing a pocket protector, and who is also a DOG (Duct tape On Glasses -- thanks, Ms. Angier!).

I had the advantage of coming into my marriage with more pairs of socks than my husband, so he got in the habit of doing laundry (since he was the one who needed it). Unfortunately, though I got some brief laundry lessons from my mom growing up, he apparently never got any from his, so I have come out with some pink and shrunken clothes. I don't really care, though--it's better than spending twice as much time separating out laundry and doing a million different loads.