I hope you'll be able to solve the mystery behind eelskin wallets and their supposed ability to demagnetize my automatic bank teller card, rendering it completely useless. After going through four new plastic cards in as many weeks, I complained to the bank and was told that I was either (1) exposing them to excessive heat, water, or microwaves; (2) scratching them; or (3) keeping them in an eelskin purse or wallet. When I answered affirmatively about the eelskin, I was told it's demagnetizing the black strip on the back of the card. When I asked how eelskin could do this, the only response was, we don't know, it just happens. I have asked others with eelskin wallets and they've been told similar tales. What goes on? --V.W., Tempe, Arizona
Cecil has been working his little heart out on this for six months now, and though he does not have the final answer, he thought it wise to give an interim report, so as to avert national panic. I have checked with my banker friends (believe me, the success of the Straight Dope book has elevated me to a whole new social stratum), and they confirm that stories about eelskin wallets are widespread in the industry. No doubt this is in large part because of press reports. Actual evidence, though, is skimpy and anecdotal.
Numerous explanations for the phenomenon have been offered. Some say that the creatures used to make the wallets are electric eels, and that sufficient electric charge survives the tanning and manufacturing process to sabotage teller cards. Others say that an iron compound is used during tanning that remains in the leather and is capable of retaining a charge, possibly produced by static electricity resulting from friction in, say, a hip pocket.
A variation on the above is that the wallets pick up a charge during shipping. It's known that a ship moving through water generates its own magnetic field. Some speculate that during the long sea voyage from factories in the Far East this field leaves an electrical imprint on the ship's eelskin cargo.
The simple * st explanation, however, which Cecil must say he greatly favors, is that many eelskin wallets have magnetic clasps. Since eelskin is thinner than cowhide, the clasp comes in closer contact with the wallet's contents, conceivably to the point that it might demagnetize a teller card.
Obviously this is another job for the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. We called up our buddy Henry, a banker of experience and breeding. He advised us that he had purchased two eelskin wallets during a recent junket to the Virgin Islands, one with, one without magnetic clasp. Entering immediately into the spirit of things, he crammed them full of teller cards and placed them in a "magnetically neutral environment" (Henry loves this scientific jargon), which turned out to be the top of his bedroom bureau. Fifteen days later he tested the cards. All worked perfectly.
Quickly regrouping, we tried again. Mrs. Adams bought me two eelskin wallets for my very own. Retail value: $22, completely bankrupting the Straight Dope Research & Entertainment Fund. (Donations gratefully accepted.) The wallets were dyed a hideous red. Forget the eelskin, I figured, the color alone will demagnetize the cards. I loaded the wallets with cards and stashed them in strategic locales on my person, then went about my strenuous business, testing the cards every few days. No dice. It got to the point that the magnetic clasp on one wallet made a noticeable dent on the black strip on the back of one of the cards--but it still worked.
Meanwhile, a worried manager for a major wallet-making concern called up to see how things were progressing. (No kidding.) I offered him words of comfort. A woman told me that when she bought an eelskin wallet her teller cards stopped getting demagnetized. Obviously a case of very deep and troubled vibes. I am now at the point where I believe the whole phenomenon is a case of mass hysteria, like cattle mutilations or Cyndi Lauper. However, I am willing to give it one more shot. If you have an eelskin wallet that consistently demagnetizes teller cards and you're willing to lend it to us temporarily (heh-heh), notify us pronto. Otherwise we'll declare this ridiculous matter closed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.