In its day, nothing signified the appearance of an engineer as much as a pocket protector. These little plastic sleeves adorned the shirt pockets of tech workers everywhere in America.
Stuffed with pens and pencils, the pocket protector was once worn as a sort of badge signifying that the wearer was a member in good standing of a cross-disciplinary group that took serious thinking seriously. Times changed, though, and the image of a researcher or designer or an inventor was challenged to fit in with the cool crowd -- that is, those who took serious thinking monetarily. The stereotype of an engineer as a nerd could not survive the onslaught of snickering from those who wouldn't understand a quadratic equation if their lives depended on it but who understood that dressing for success was all that mattered anymore. It was too much for the humble pocket protector, so out they went by the millions.
A funny thing happened, though. The so-called nerds kept right on inventing: computers, software, consumer electronics, an on and on. They became wealthy beyond anyone's imagination. They became a new elite. They earned the respect of others by outdoing them at their own game, making money from thinking seriously.
As with any other accessory in the history of fashion, the pocket protector has been biding its time waiting for a comeback, aided only by the handful of faithful who have all along remembered it with reverence as a symbol of what once was. One of these adherents is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Missippi (USM), John A. Pojman.
Pojman operates a Web museum (or "webseum") dedicated to the deprecated penholder, going by the name Pocket Protectors: The Fashion Accessory for the New Millennium. His personal collection of the items may be the largest anywhere (over 500 and growing). His pocket protector site features photos of fellow enthusiasts and a helpful history of the handy implement (which links, interestingly enough, to a nice little piece online at the IEEE History Center).
Pojman is one of those who believe that the pocket protector is about to stage a fashion comeback. He may be on to something. Maybe it's time to give the little accessory another look to see what it states about the wearer. So we contacted him to hear what got him interested in the pocket protector as a passion. Here's what he had to say.
"I bought my first pocket protector in 2001 from the American Chemical Society. I greatly admired it and found a company, berda.com, that prepares custom pocket protectors. I designed and ordered 1000 for our chemistry/biochemistry department at USM. I then designed and ordered 100 for the Pojman Research Group, bearing the motto Ad Maiorem Poimanorum Gloriam, which translates 'For the Greater Glory of the Pojmans'. I started collecting seriously in 2004, purchasing pocket protectors from eBay. My collection survived Hurricane Katrina. Although our house in New Orleans had 7 feet of water, the collection was on an upper floor. During our exile in Baton Rouge, I spent part of every day searching for pocket protectors. Last year I created the webseum, scanning the entire collection, which numbers 535.
"My favorite pocket protector is one made from alligator skin that I had custom made. Other favorites are NASA ones and a Little Debbie one. What is most interesting is that pocket protectors appear to be a uniquely American contribution to fashion. I have yet to meet anyone outside the U.S. who has heard of them, let alone seen one.
"People characterize smart people as nerds because they feel insecure about their own ignorance of technology and science. I have always loved science and am proud to be a scientist. Using a pocket protector let's people know that I am a nerd and proud of it."
With that type of proud defiance of convention, Pojman is sure to attract more followers to his cause. He may bring the much maligned techie accessory back into the mainstream of dress appearance again. If he and others succeed, commentators will observe, as they always do, "What was once old is new again."