The pocket protector has long been associated with engineers. To the general public it conjures up images of a guy in a short sleeve white shirt, glasses taped together and “high-water” pants. Within the profession we know better. The pocket protector is simply a practical item, to preserve the integrity of those white shirts.
The original pocket protector was invented by Hurley Smith during the Second World War. He was born in Bellaire, Michigan in 1908 and spent his first few years there. Unable to formally attend school, he completed high school by mail. In his mid-twenties he had earned enough to return east and attend college. He enrolled at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1933. His first job upon graduation was marketing newly invented Popsicles to retailers in Ontario. He said that his diet consisted mostly of Popsicles that first summer. 1933 was not a good time to be graduating from college.
Later he moved to Buffalo, New York where he worked for a company that designed electrical transformers. When Smith learned that his employer was selling used (rewound) transformers and putting new plates on them claiming they were new. When the company was investigated, he refused to perjure himself as the heads of the company demanded, so found himself with a wife, five children and no job.
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.
Plastics used in manufacturing had become quite an exciting development during WWII, and Smith experimented with various materials for solving the fraying/ink-stained shirt problem. He first used a stiff clear colorless plastic. He had tall, thin rectangles of this material made, then used a Pitney-Bowes letter folder to fold it twice, once approximately in half and once on one end to produce a flap that would extend over the top edge of the shirt pocket.
From the side, it looked like a check mark, unsealed at the sides. But it was just wide enough to fit into a shirt pocket with the back extending high enough to protect the back of the pocket and shirt above the pocket, and the flap fitting over the front of the pocket. He was awarded patent # 2417786. (Filed 3 June 1943, Issued: 18 March 1947) for the “Pocket Shield or Protector.”
He constructed his first prototype in the attic of his house 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. He wanted to move the family to a location that was more economically promising. In 1949 he packed up the family and moved to Lansing, Michigan. During this time he maintained his membership in AIEE.
Smith set up his plastics business in Lansing and at times had several employees working with him. His primary product was the pocket protector, which he sold mostly to businesses for distribution to their employees or for advertising. By then he was producing the second generation of his invention, made of vinyl and heat sealed around the edges to make more of a pouch. The primary color was white although Smith also made them in colorless vinyl. With the white ones, he developed a way to imprint a logo or message on the flap and seal it with clear vinyl.
In his early years of production, he realized other companies were making and marketing the product he had patented. He decided, for whatever reason, not to pursue any legal action. Some of the first “infringers” he found out about were on the West Coast of the U.S. and he realized a legal battle would be difficult. He was satisfied at that point making as many as he could fill orders for.
The earliest type, the stiff plastic ones, were marketed by being inserted in a piece of lightweight cardboard designed like a man’s pocket. So the pocket protector was slipped into the card as if it were being put into a pocket. This was called “carding”.
Jeanette Madea, “Pocket Protectors : Hurley Smith’s Pocket Shield”, IIEE Global History Network.
Laurence Cosento, Pride and Protection, Lansing City Pulse, May 28-June 3, 2014., p.14