Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Back to School with the Pee-Chee Folder

School starts this week for a young man of my acquaintance who is entering the fifth grade.  If you are over a certain age, and you just read the previous sentence, your first thought may have been that school used to start the day after Labor Day, or perhaps on September 1st, but never in August.

Regardless of the start date, lots of traditions come at the beginning of the school year, including shopping for school supplies.  In 1943, a classic school supply item first came on the market: the Pee-Chee Folder.  I found one the other day at an estate sale in clean, undecorated condition.

The Pee-Chee was an essential part of the school experience for American students for decades in the mid- to late 20th century.  It was first produced in 1943 by the Western Tablet and Stationary Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan.  I don't recall seeing them till I was in high school; I don't recall owning a Pee-Chee, but many of my peers carried them like badges of honor. 

The Pee-Chee All Season Portfolio was made of cardstock and came in one color: peach.  The most enduring designs on the folder were drawn by outdoor artist Francis Golden.  Its popularity wasn't just because the Pee-Chee was functional; it had two vertical pockets inside to hold papers, and tables of Useful Information printed inside.  

The Pee-Chee wasn't just useful for holding loose papers; it was effectively a blank canvas to be decorated by its student owner.  One blogger remembered:

I loved picking out a fresh "Pee Chee" folder for school. Those were the famous golden colored folders with images of high school athletes on the front and back cover. They are still made today. You were defined in many ways by the scribblings and drawings you would create on your Pee Chee folder!


Why students tended to adorn the Pee-Chee, more than other folders, with their thoughts, artwork, doodles, stickers, photos and anything else that would adhere to cardstock, seems to be a mystery.  Perhaps it was because the sports images on the front and back were ripe for being decorated. Perhaps customizing a Pee-Chee folder was a cultural phenomenon that "went viral" before the term was invented, as one student after another experimented with self-expression.

There are websites and blogs and online photo albums dedicated to the Pee-Chee Folder, where you can see other examples of clean Pee-Chees and also decorated versions that people have saved for decades.  (If you look for some of these images, just remember that most of these artists were in high school, so you may be looking at examples of rude and/or puerile humor and sarcasm.  You may also see some pretty amazing artwork and graphic design.)   

The Pee-Chee folder I found has the price marked on the front: "2 for 25 cents."  But on the back, it still has its original price tag: nine cents at Penneys (not J.C. Penney or JCP). 

Considering that the price of one Pee-Chee folder now is more than a dollar, that makes me think that the Pee-Chee I found is...well, several years old.

Pee-Chee folders are still being made by Mead; they now come in a variety of colors and, if ordered individually online, can be quite expensive once you factor in the shipping costs.

Smithsonian Magazine has covered the Pee-Chee:


Here's an interview with one of the original artists for the Pee-Chee folder:


(You have to be careful when you do an online search for "Pee-Chee" Folders, because there are "O-Pee-Chee" sports trading cards and those search results will come up as well.)

1 comment:

  1. I loved those Pee Chees too. I started using them in late 1969 and had to let my last decorated one go (artwork and all) to the trash since it was both falling apart and took up space (!?). I am so happy to find they are still made by Mead! I'll check it out in the a.m. Thanks so much for the information and the memories.