The Story of the Pocket Protector

The story of the pocket protector is a seemingly simple tale of 20th century practicality. In 1943, Hurley Smith, an engineer suffering from the unsure job market of World War II used cheap plastic materials, a fresh development at the time, to create a new thing to solve a very simple problem.

Pocket Protector, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Back then, engineers often wore white shirts and carried fountain pens, and those two produced laundry disasters together. Smith used his wife’s iron to fold a rectangle of PVC to line his shirt pocket and bend over the edge of the pocket, inventing our modern idea of a pocket protector, a simple pouch-like device to hold pens while protecting the fabric from leaks and frays.

Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

This is all true. Wikipedia says it is. Smith was awarded a patent for it in 1947, as mentioned by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), who used to have an article on their site about the engineer who invented the pocket protector, our Mr. Smith.

You’ll notice we said “used to” because that article is no longer on their site. Wikipedia links to an archived old version. The digital information revolution isn’t as long-lasting and infallible as we’d hoped. History is constantly being re-written, and we’ve shared in earlier stories how inventions are often repeated through the ages. This is why we like to dig deep into the origins of stationery.

Hurley Smith’s pocket protector patent was submitted for consideration in 1943. In it, he states that his design is a significant development and improvement of an idea and he refers to five other patents, going back to 1887. Not exact copies, but they were all accessories for shirt pockets to withstand the wear and tear of pens and other tools. The idea was so popular around the time that the pocket protector is also claimed to have been invented by some one entirely new in the 1950s.

140 image pocket protector patent 750
Image Courtesy –

This was such a fascinating series of claims that we wanted to go back as far as we could to find out how long stationery lovers had been protecting their pockets. How old are pockets anyway?

The Fascinating Origin of Pockets

The Ice Man, a naturally mummified man discovered in the ice of the Alps in 1991 has been dated to 3300 BC. Five thousand years ago, our Alpine explorer had a pouch stitched into his belt to carry all sorts of essential items for his journey. The pocket is one of the oldest things around.

A flexible pouch attached to a belt or rope is where the word “pocket” comes from. That’s what it continued to mean well into the 18th and 19th century. Since it was a loose accessory, having your pocket picked was a growing problem, so people started to find ways of concealing it.

From what we can find, pockets sewn into garments began around the 13th century and got popular in the 15th and 16th century. This was mostly for men’s jackets. Women’s skirts sometimes had sewn-in pockets but mostly, they continued to use the pouch hidden under the petticoat.

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18th-century woman’s hanging pocket, Image – Wikimedia Commons

‘Mind you, this was at a time before women carried handbags. So a woman’s pockets was as much of a treasure trove of paraphernalia as its stereotypical modern replacement is today. The pocket was used to carry money, a pencil, scissors, a pocket book, and even food!

If you think about it, old loose pockets were the first pencil pouches, and if you think even longer, which we do, the modern pocket was invented to protect old-style pockets from theft. The pocket in your clothing, which you can reach into today, was the original pocket protector.

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