In his 25 years as a high school teacher in Southern California, Lou Farrar has watched countless fads come and go.
Hairstyles, fashions and student lingo change almost with the seasons. But Farrar has seen one vehicle of personal expression remain constant--the Pee-Chee All Season Portfolio.
It was as familiar as bell-bottoms, Beatles albums and beanbag chairs during the 1960s and ‘70s, and remains a school-supply staple for millions of students of all ages. This school year, the classic goldenrod-colored folder is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The Pee-Chee, manufactured by the Dayton, Ohio-based Mead Corp., still features six sports scenes on the front and back covers. Metric conversions, multiplication and other tables and measures still appear on two vertical storage pockets inside. But for students, the Pee-Chee’s role as an organizational tool has always been secondary to its importance as a communication device and canvas--to be doodled upon, defaced or otherwise personalized to reflect each owner’s individuality.
“I tell my students, ‘Your Pee-Chee is an imprint of who you are,’ ” said Farrar, who counts psychology among the eight subjects he has taught at Charter Oak High in Covina. “We should take a student’s Pee-Chee, analyze it and grade it for the final.”
In some families, the Pee-Chee habit starts early in life. Rebecca Teel, a senior at San Pedro High, said she received her first Pee-Chee on the eve of kindergarten.
“We went to Sav-On the day before school started and my mom handed me one and said, ‘This is what I used when I went to school,’ ” said Teel, 17. “Not that I used it then. But I had it. I got a new one every year and have been using them and writing on them ever since. Old habits die hard.”
The Pee-Chee was introduced in 1943 by Missouri-based Western Tablet and Stationery. Mark Rexroat, marketing manager of school supplies for Mead and unofficial Pee-Chee archivist, said the folder probably takes its name from either the phrase “peachy-keen” or the peach-colored stock that was used in its original incarnation.
Images of battleships and warplanes were part of the initial design, which changed several times during the first 20 years of the Pee-Chee’s existence. But in 1964, a few years before Mead acquired Western Tablet and Stationery, illustrator Francis Golden created the scenes that can still trigger flashbacks for any baby-boomer educated west of the Rockies: the leaping woman tennis player, diving football players, and baton-carrying runners on the front cover; and the left-handed hitting batter and the catcher, the airborne basketball players and the smiling, sunglassed woman riding the ski lift on the back.
“I remember drawing polka dots on the tennis player to make it look like she was wearing boxer shorts, making the football player’s helmet into a Rams’ helmet, and putting sticks of dynamite in the hands of the runners,” said Anthony Saragueta, 32, a royalty analyst for a music publishing company who graduated from Mark Keppel High in Alhambra. “I also remember defacing other people’s Pee-Chees by drawing genitalia on them when they weren’t looking. What can I say? It was high school.”
The Pee-Chee, which originally sold for a dime, costs 75 cents today and is also available in blue, red, magenta and teal. Rexroat said more than 3 million folders will be sold this school year.
The classic goldenrod version retains the original sports artwork, while the other colors feature similar scenes redrawn in 1988 by another artist to give them a more contemporary feel, Rexroat said.
Yet, the ‘60s version with Golden’s drawings remains most popular.
Golden, 74, is as amazed as anyone by the Pee-Chee’s longevity. Because the assignment was one of hundreds of commercial jobs he completed, Golden has no particular memories about the models he selected as subjects.
“I completely forgot about the thing until a couple of years ago when somebody said, ‘I saw your stuff in California,’ ” said Golden, a resident of Weston, Conn., whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and other periodicals. “It’s too bad I wasn’t getting a penny for every one that has been sold.”
Curiously, the Pee-Chee is a Western phenomenon, Rexroat said. In 1966, Mead tried without success to market the folders in the East, where the company’s black-and-white composition book reigns.
“It’s one of those things that has kind of taken on a life of its own in the West,” Rexroat said. “We have upward of 15 different kinds of folders that have every conceivable image and theme on them. In spite of those things, we still sell a lot of Pee-Chees.
“I guess a lot of parents who grew up with the Pee-Chee buy them for their kids like a tradition.”
Cathy Eredia, 38, bought several Pee-Chees for her daughter, Andrea, a sophomore at El Monte High who emblazoned the folders with her name, friends’ names, telephone numbers and other personal minutiae.
“My daughter probably thinks that paper was not invented when I was in high school,” Eredia said. “But I remember how useful those charts on the inside could be.”
Farrar expects the Pee-Chee to live on well after he has retired.
“The funny thing is, I also benefit as a teacher when students have Pee-Chees. If you’re lecturing and they whip those things out and start doodling, you know you’re boring them and you’ve lost them.”