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The Surprisingly Short History of Backpacks
December 27, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

The Surprisingly Short History of Backpacks
posted by ShooBoo (89 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was in high school in the early 80s, and backpacks were just becoming a thing. Our school banned them, calling them "luggage," for at least two years. Carrying books was a huge pain.
posted by xingcat at 7:32 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


We needed a place for our Trapper Keepers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:34 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I carried a stupid gym bag for years before the backpack thing caught on. Of course, you were a nerd if you used both straps, so we only got half the benefit.
posted by orme at 7:35 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did American kids not have satchels? I've now got this picture of a 19th century European child visiting the US and being astounded at how all the children were still forced to carry stuff around in their hands.
posted by pipeski at 7:37 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Did you guys not have satchels?
posted by Artw at 7:38 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


(or what pipeski said.)
posted by Artw at 7:38 AM on December 27, 2012


Man, I had no idea! Cool!
posted by dobi at 7:40 AM on December 27, 2012


I bought a LL Bean Bookpack to use for grad school in 1990. Since then it also served as an auxiliary diaper bag for two kids.

We still have the backpack and it is still 100% usable.

Also I noticed that almost all the kids on my son's college campus are wearing their backpacks properly, with both straps over their shoulders. Nobody in the 80s would have been caught like that at school. My son's generation will probably have far less back problems than their parents.
posted by COD at 7:40 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Americans had fanny packs, which resulted in the UK snickering to the point where there was a revolution and a couple follow-up wars. I think the US got the last laugh on those, though.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:40 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not sure what a satchel is but I always just carried my books in my hands.
posted by octothorpe at 7:42 AM on December 27, 2012


In the late 1970's when I first bought a backpack for my books, I remember it was kind of unusual to have a backpack, and the one I could find was some kind of crude military surplus thing. Now, of course, one can get TACTICAL BACK-MOUNTED CARGO SYSTEMS or whatever.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:43 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't have a backpack until college.
posted by octothorpe at 7:44 AM on December 27, 2012


The "cool kids" at my high school started wearing backpacks with both straps around 1990.
posted by exogenous at 7:46 AM on December 27, 2012


//I didn't have a backpack until college.//

Me neither, and I went to high school on a small overseas military base where we all either walked or rode bicycles to school. Baskets on your bike was completely out of the question, so not only were we hauling a loose stack of books back and forth from school every day, we were balancing them in one arm while maintaining control of our bike. Which looking back, was pretty damn stupid.
posted by COD at 7:47 AM on December 27, 2012


Also I noticed that almost all the kids on my son's college campus are wearing their backpacks properly, with both straps over their shoulders.

They probably also have their faces awkwardly parked in front of a small wirelessly networked computer. The nerds won.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:53 AM on December 27, 2012 [20 favorites]


At age five, I was rocking a Cambridge Satchel and short trousers, which but for gender and nearly four decades, would make me a hipster girl today.
posted by scruss at 7:54 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I carried my books but had a strap to tighten around them so they would not start tilting in all directions.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:54 AM on December 27, 2012


My dad recalls they used "gym bags" (small duffel bags) to carry everything around when he was in college, and, indeed, as a kid in the '70s and early '80s, I had a cheap nylon gym bag as my "book bag." Then my parents got a bad case of "keeping up with the Jonses" and I got a genuine Jansport backpack in the 7th grade. It still didn't make me cool, but it had little pouches and pockets to "organize" stuff, so I was happy. I dumped it for a military surplus shoulder satchel in highschool, as military surplus was the marker of a liberated mind to a teenager.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:54 AM on December 27, 2012


Not sure what a satchel is but I just always carried my books in my hands.
Satchels - old school style - and newly fashionable apparently.
posted by rongorongo at 7:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet another curious transatlantic cultural difference. Schoolbags and satchels were indeed common in Europe starting from the 19th century. Hence the iconic picture of "Le Petit Nicolas".
However, equipping them with twin shoulder straps (rather than a single one), to carry them on the back, is a more recent idea pinched from hiking backpacks (probably starting in the 1960s). Indeed, I remember that even back in the '80s, carrying your schoolbag/backpack with both shoulders was considered seriously uncool and nerdish. (Another interesting subject is how, even in Europe, different countries were intensely loyal to different brands: I remember nearly all Danish schoolkids carrying Fjallraven backpacks, whereas the Italians swore by Invicta, and the Germans all had Scout schoolbags)
posted by Skeptic at 7:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I had a backpack—from LL Bean, I am nearly certain—in grade school but, as an adult, I have come to much prefer satchel- and briefcase-style bags (or even tote bags) for schlepping things around. Hands are well-suited for carrying things; shoulders quickly tire. And things in a satchel or (soft) briefcase are much more easily accessible than things that are behind your back.

Look at the Elizabeth Warren link from the article; how is that comfortable or convenient? You've got to sort of hook your shoulder so the strap doesn't slide off (unlike a cross-body bag like a satchel, where your neck holds the strap in place) and you've got to swing the thing off and put it on the ground to get so much as a pencil out of it; even if it's a backpack with easy-access unzippered exterior pockets, they're still behind your back where you can't reach them. If you use both shoulder straps it requires less awkward shoulder hooking but then it's even more of a hassle to retrieve the contents.

For serious hiking it makes sense that you want your hands free and your center of gravity centered, and accessibility is less of a priority when you might walk for hours without needing to access the contents of the backpack, but for getting around town, I just don't see the appeal.

Possibly, too, I have had my mind poisoned against backpacks by all the people who wear enormous ones on the train or bus and are always clobbering other people in the face with them.
posted by enn at 7:59 AM on December 27, 2012


There were day packs before Jansport. I still have one of these canvas Sacs Millet rucksacks hanging around somewhere.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:00 AM on December 27, 2012


Possibly my first introduction to Buy It Once for Life was the JanSport bag I got to go to go high school in the late 80's. My outdoorsy father had had several small nylon day packs around the house, so naturally he bought me a leather bottomed one for the arduous task of hauling my textbooks books around the high school halls. I carried that basic bag for all four years of high school, through my first three years of college, and then drug it around the US for a while until I started school again several years later, and replaced it with a more stylish messenger bag. It picked up scars, punk patches, deadhead stickers, hipster buttons, bits of nature and plenty of use in all that time. I took advantage of JanSport's guarantee at some point in the process, wherein I washed it and returned it to them, and it sent me a postcard from "summer camp" and returned with taped seams, new zippers and sipper pulls and nice note thanking me for using their product. Today it still accompanies me on hikes, motorcycle trips, day drives and other smallish events.

My wife generally shakes her head at my bag collecting ways (a fetish she doesn't share) and to be fair, and the patina of high school still hangs pretty heavy on that bag (I wrote "Have a Nice Day!" on the bottom of it in black Sharpie so it would be the last thing I bug would ever see...) but it's still the one she picks out my pile of bags when she needs to borrow something to haul her art supplies to one of her classes when she doesn't want to get her "professional" bag dirty. It's just a good solid utilitarian tool, even if you do lose some of the utility to look cooler only using one strap...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:02 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't know what it is, but even though they do unpleasantly trap sweat against one's back, I have always felt most comfortable with a backpack on when I'm out and about. I love having the weight of it back there, having all my things. I've tried carrying other kinds of bags (even a purse!), but nothing else really compares to how comforting I find the feel of a backpack.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm trying to remember when I got my first backpack, and I'm not sure. It was no big deal, it was just a thing to use, and I had no idea that there was anything the least bit unusual about having one. Hmm.

Oh! I remember a local store that had a huge number of bags in it, and my mother took me there, and said we should get one for me. We shopped for a bit, and ended up settling on something basic and black. This would have been about 1980. That bag was kind of crappy, with seams that frayed like the L.L. Bean lady is warning about, but I used it a very long time.

Oh, and like others are saying, nobody used both straps. That wasn't cool.

So odd that, even five years earlier, I wouldn't have had one, yet it didn't seem novel or strange.
posted by Malor at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I hate about the evolution of backpacks is that I have this one that is about 10 years old that I want to replace, but THERE IS NOTHING ON THE MARKET THESE DAYS WHICH DUPLICATES THIS BACKPACK.

It's not anything fancy or whatnot, but it has some very specific features which I quite like, and which basically do not exist in today's backpack market. Believe me, I know -- I've been shopping for over a year now.

I'm all in favor of having products evolve as things become more useful, but damn.
posted by hippybear at 8:06 AM on December 27, 2012


Come to think of it, this cultural difference is perhaps explained by one which, I'm sure, has always intrigued most Europeans watching US high school movies and series: the school locker. These are not nearly as ubiquitous in Europe as they appear to be over the pond. Hence, European schoolkids basically carry their school lockers on their backs (and indeed, there are recurrent health scares about the weight children lug around during the school year).
posted by Skeptic at 8:06 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fascinating. I started elementary school in 1982, and the idea of not putting all my books in a backpack is completely alien to me.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:08 AM on December 27, 2012


Hippybear: That is an Ask Mefi question just begging to be posted.
posted by COD at 8:09 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


COD: Good idea. I'll have to ponder how to put one together and write it up this weekend. Thanks.
posted by hippybear at 8:11 AM on December 27, 2012


I'm not sure that I would have survived very long in elementary school if I'd shown up with one of those European satchel/briefcase things.
posted by octothorpe at 8:12 AM on December 27, 2012


The trick is to avoid transferring stuff between school and home. As much as I strain to remember, in high school I don't think I ever had a backpack, or satchel, or anything else.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:15 AM on December 27, 2012


As someone who grew up with backpacks (actually I grew up calling them book bags), I find the idea of getting a backpack when you get to college bizarre. College is precisely when I stopped needing a backpack very often. I had fewer textbooks because not that many college level humanities classes use them and I could store my books in my dorm room that was close to campus and easily accessible.

Backpacks seem tailor made for carrying large numbers of books to and from school the way you do in high school, I would have expected them to catch on there first.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:17 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


My daughter has had back problems all of her life because she carried a backpack full of all her stuff around high school. Not that this has anything really to do with backpacks, more idiot school that wouldn't let her go to locker during day, but...
posted by sfts2 at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2012


I had fewer textbooks because not that many college level humanities classes use them and I could store my books in my dorm room that was close to campus and easily accessible.

You obviously never had the "diagonally the long way across campus in 8 minutes because that's the only way your scheduling allows you to get the pre-reqs needed to move on completely next year" problem.
posted by hippybear at 8:20 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rock Steady : Fascinating. I started elementary school in 1982, and the idea of not putting all my books in a backpack is completely alien to me.

Three years before that for me, in New England, and came here to say the same thing.

Methinks this timeline has a few flaws in it. Either that, or we've just misunderstood what they mean by "backpack" - Perhaps a handful of ultra-elite Officially Licensed and Branded Backpacks(tm) didn't make it to the East coast until the early 1980s, but meanwhile we all had some sort of back-mounted bags-for-books for as long as I can remember.


sfts2 : My daughter has had back problems all of her life because she carried a backpack full of all her stuff around high school.

Interesting - I had always heard that a loaded pack improves your posture, since it forces you to balance an unnatural weight behind you against your forward momentum while walking.

Then again, one way to do that amounts to walking bent over like a hunchback, so, I guess YMMV. :(
posted by pla at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2012


My kiddo's had a backpack from his first day of kindergarten; in fact, he wore out the crappy Transformers-branded one we got him last year before the year was up. He wasn't as happy with the SwissGear plain black replacement but it's lasted much better. I'm sure we'll go through several more. He has to have one because they send home a binder every day that tells us what his conduct was and what his homework is, if any, as well as flyers for book fairs or PTA meetings. It's a pretty good system, honestly.

I really do hope schools switch to slates/iPads/similar by the time he's in jr. high, though, because hauling all those giant books was a major pain, even with a good backpack. Add in a trip to the library and an instrument, and you are talking sore arms and back by the time you walked home.
posted by emjaybee at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2012


Come to think of it, this cultural difference is perhaps explained by one which, I'm sure, has always intrigued most Europeans watching US high school movies and series: the school locker.

Before I started sixth grade, my mother made damn sure I could work a combination lock, as she'd never used (seen?) one before going to law school in the US and not knowing how to open her locker was the worst moment of law school, apparently. Moreso than not understanding why on earth anyone would have a written constitution.
posted by hoyland at 8:25 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember a scene in the Peanuts' movie Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (where the gang goes to France) that had the American kids baffled at the French's use of backpacks. This came out in 1980 and I likely saw it for the first time shortly thereafter. I recall being confused at the idea that backpacks were confusing the Americans - it's all I'd ever known, the backpack.

Everything in life can be broken down by the first era of Peanuts cartoons.
posted by item at 8:26 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The trick is to avoid transferring stuff between school and home.

Yeah, we took home a lot more mimeographed "worksheets" in elementary school, and by the time we reached highschool, they were just assigning practice problems and homework questions straight out of the textbook. I think it was a budget decision, and probably one of the factors that lead to the rise of the backpack - instead of a few sheets of paper with the reading and homework, you had to lug five huge hardbound textbooks plus notebooks back and forth.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:26 AM on December 27, 2012


I used a duffel bag or gym bag in junior high. Moved on to backpacks in high school. I don't think I ever bought a new one. I always had a second hand or surplus backpack. That way it was already broken in and tested.
posted by Sailormom at 8:28 AM on December 27, 2012


Hands are well-suited for carrying things; shoulders quickly tire.

This is why backpacks designed to carry anything more than the most trivial loads have waist belts. If more than 5% of the load is on you're shoulders, it's not set up right or it doesn't fit you.

Then again, the question comes to mind -- do you really need to carry 30+ pounds of materials with you at all times?

Possibly, too, I have had my mind poisoned against backpacks by all the people who wear enormous ones on the train or bus and are always clobbering other people in the face with them.

I'm with you there, and I use travelpacks, not rollaboards, when traveling. But on transport, it comes off the back and sits between the legs. Part of the problem is a properly fit and set backpack makes moderate loads disappear -- you just really don't notice them. The other problem is heavily loaded packs are hard to get onto your back, but again, seriously, do you need 80+ pounds of gear with you?
posted by eriko at 8:28 AM on December 27, 2012


JanSport had this black backpack model, the Optimizer, circa 2002 with a side compartment (and internal straps) for a laptop — it was simple yet capacious, with an easily accessible pocket on top for power cord and accessories. Wore it every time I went into town, both straps on. I could even fit a full grocery bag inside! Then the zipper broke a few years later, and there was much gnashing of teeth.

Went all over town looking for a replacement. Ain't nobody had nothin' worth usin'.

I wrote to JanSport in 2006, begging them to get me a replacement. They wrote back saying they no longer made backpacks with side compartments, but to check back maybe next year! Yeah, okay. See ya later!

I now use this slimline backpack from InCase I must've found at a thrift store. It works fine, but barely holds more than a laptop and a book. Even now, if I had my druthers I'd resurrect the Optimizer... and learn to sew on a new zipper.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 8:30 AM on December 27, 2012


Schoolbags and satchels were indeed common in Europe starting from the 19th century. Hence the iconic picture of "Le Petit Nicolas". However, equipping them with twin shoulder straps (rather than a single one), to carry them on the back, is a more recent idea pinched from hiking backpacks (probably starting in the 1960s).

Backpacks were common enough in Europe a century ago for a zillion photos of First-World-War-era German kids wearing them like this or this or to exist. It's certainly not something that dates from the 1960s, and the history is really only short for Americans.
posted by cmonkey at 8:34 AM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm with you there, and I use travelpacks, not rollaboards, when traveling. But on transport, it comes off the back and sits between the legs. Part of the problem is a properly fit and set backpack makes moderate loads disappear -- you just really don't notice them. The other problem is heavily loaded packs are hard to get onto your back, but again, seriously, do you need 80+ pounds of gear with you?

Yeah, I find that I coat people who wear their backpacks onto transport and continue to wear them with a veneer of selfishness. I probably shouldn't, but I do.

Anyway, my rule of thumb is, if you can't easily and conveniently carry or lift or put something on without it being a big production, especially in crowded situations like transport or airplane loading, then you've got too much.

(It's a lessoned learned as an 80lb Boy Scout going on week-long 50 mile hikes and knowing what it means to pick it all up and put it on for another day. If you can't get your pack on by yourself, then you have no business carrying all that.)
posted by hippybear at 8:34 AM on December 27, 2012


> I had always heard that a loaded pack improves your posture, since it forces you to balance an unnatural weight behind you against your forward momentum while walking.

I vaguely remember a tip of hiking backpacks from a Scouting handbook: load the heavy stuff on top, since if it's too low one slouches forward. I see now that REI recommends "...not too high, not too low. The goal is to create a predictable, comfortable center of gravity. Heavy items too low cause a pack to feel saggy. Too high and the load might feel tippy." Which makes more sense...
posted by Jubal Kessler at 8:38 AM on December 27, 2012


Then the zipper broke a few years later, and there was much gnashing of teeth.

I'm guessing you don't have it anymore, but next time, just have someone replace the zipper. This is like throwing away a car because the tires went bald.
posted by desjardins at 8:44 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why does modern Western society think they invented everything? True, ancient people may not have had modern-style books to lug around, but I'd bet there's been some monks who thought to wrap up their manuscripts and lug them on their backs pre-1980s.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:46 AM on December 27, 2012


Boy Scouts, in the early 50's: Backpacks were parallel wooden frames with canvass ducking for back support, laced around the frame. Different configurations. Not all that handy.

High School, 1959-63: one of those geeky leather binders that zipped, held some notepaper, pens, and a couple of books. I had to stop off at my locker between classes to change books. Went home with only what I could carry in the binder.

US Army, 1963-1971: several versions. A combat pack. This was a butt back with metal snaps, which locked it onto the back of the pistol belt. A couple of straps connected this to an H-harness that suspended the pistol belt, and distributed the weight between the shoulders and hips. This pack held a few C-rations and some extra ammo in 20-round cardboard boxes, maybe a spare T-shirt and couple pairs of socks. Mostly for day-use, but sometimes you had to pull an overnighter. The H-harness carried soldierly items.

For bivouac, a rucksack on a metal frame. Several versions. One was a T-shaped frame, with a basic bag hooked near the top of the frame (the T was upside down; nylon webbing kept the metal off the meat.) You hang stuff on the frame or hook it to loops and rings on the bag. You carry about 80 pounds if you do it right, about 110 pounds if you do it wrong. Plus about 30 or so soldierly pounds of things were carried on the H-harness.

Also, a large canvass rucksack, which was just a bag with no frame, with three large pockets on the outside. We carried these in LRRP, because we didn't want to be easily identified as American soldiers at first glance. These held about 35 or 40 pounds worth of grenades, Claymores, det cord, a couple spare pairs of socks, bpxes of ammo, a lightweight poncho, a 5-quart water bag, a few bags of rice and freeze-dried fish and the like, a groundcloth, and a couple of extra grenades. Sometimes I had to carry the goddam radio in this bag, another 25 pounds.

In addition, the H-harness held four magazine pouches, each with (6) 20-round magazines, two grenades per ammo pouch, a canteen conver filled with (7) grenades, two canteens, four CS grenades and two smoke grenades (you can't have too many grenades). My pockets had a few other doo-dads: compass, map, extra magazine (in case I had to drop all my stuff and run), pencil flare gun, signal panel, signal mirror, notebook and pencil, two knives, a pistol and small baggie with some extra rounds.

In college 1971-76: I carried a bookbag. I actually had bought a briefcase, but it just wasn't big enough. I eventully discovered the day-pack. Wonderful.

After college I carried a day-pack until I started my horseshoeing business. Then I carried all my stuff in a one-ton pickup, plus a wooden shoeing box that I dragged around to hold nails, rasps, hammers and stuff. On the trail I used panniers and a mule.

Now I just have a wallet with a couple of cards in it. RedBud's the one with the town-bag.
posted by mule98J at 8:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


Backpacks were common enough in Europe a century ago for a zillion photos of First-World-War-era German kids wearing them like this or this or to exist. It's certainly not something that dates from the 1960s, and the history is really only short for Americans.

Thanks, cmonkey, I was trying to find old pictures of European schoolbags with twin shoulder straps rather than a single one, and couldn't find any. Hence my sudden belief that this was perhaps a more recent introduction.
I've got the feeling, though, that the twin vs. single shoulder strap thing must have varied according to country. According to French Wikipedia, early "cartables" had a single shoulder strap, and the twin shoulder strap was introduced only during the XX century. German Wikipedia, on the other hand, says that the "Schulranzen" developed from army backpacks during the XIX century, so it presumably had twin shoulder straps from the outset. English school satchels seem to have been single-shoulder-strapped for even longer than the French "cartables".
posted by Skeptic at 8:49 AM on December 27, 2012


I'm not sure of the timing in this article. I had a Jansport daypack as a college freshman in 1978. On the East coast. Jansport packs and puffy down jackets were fashion necessities, in fact.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:52 AM on December 27, 2012


For me in grade school everybody wore backpacks, used both straps; high school, no backpacks; college most used a backpack, single strap only.

College kids around here mostly seem to use one, but use both straps.
posted by aerotive at 9:04 AM on December 27, 2012


My first schoolbags, in South Africa and later England, was called a satchel but was really more like a miniature suitcase, and made of something that did a pretty bad job of looking like leather but was actually cardboard, which would peel off revealing the grey underneath. I think later on I had some kind of duffel bag - those tube-shaped ones. The kids who were into sports would have one with an Adidas logo on it. I'm not sure when I started using a backpack (I think it came from the Eaton's store, circa 1983) but they were certainly nothing new then. It just seemed a necessity to start using one once you were carrying more books and needed your hands to ride your bike.

I sometimes amuse myself by trying to identify the nationality of people by the backpack they carry. It's actually not very hard: LL Bean - probably American but maybe Canadian; REI - much more likely to be American; MEC - Canadian; MacPac - Australian or Kiwi; Berghaus - British; Jack Wolfskin - German; JanSport - wildcard.
posted by Flashman at 9:09 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Iran, as early as the 1950's at least (probably centuries before that, but I don't have any sources so that's as far back as I can go) kids used a carpet bag as a backpack, a piece of woven carpet (often elaborate), about one foot wide by two feet long, that was folded in half and stitched up the sides with a long, strong but soft wool cord. This cord was looped over both arms and behind the back when kids carried their books to school in the bag. I've seen Maya kids in Mexico and Guatemala using the same method with a sack made of blanket material. In rural China and Mexico I've seen people carrying very heavy loads on their backs in baskets with a woven strap that went around the basket and around both arms. One time in China while boarding an overcrowded train, I saw a tiny woman carrying two kids, a chicken, a sack of grain, and god knows how much other crap in a huge basket on her back using this method. Similarly, in the 60's my parents had a VERY old, tiny man deliver their brand new electric refridgerator across Isfahan, Iran on his back, when asked if he wanted their old, far heavier, non-functioning gas fridge, he then strapped it up without another word and disappeared into the city!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:26 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


In the sixties, because I went to a girls' prep school, we hauled around the equivalent of an LL Bean canvas tote bag with our school seal on it. I developed shoulder problems as a result. Still have the bag somewhere around here. Still carry similar bags as well as backpacks, depending on what I'm carrying.
posted by Peach at 10:04 AM on December 27, 2012


Hands are well-suited for carrying things; shoulders quickly tire.

This is not a universal experience. I, for one, find that my hands tire extremely quickly with only a couple of pounds of weight; my shoulders can support 20lbs or more in a properly designed knapsack, because it directs the weight into my back and core which (partly because I'm female) are much stronger than my arms. Give me hip straps that put the weight to my very strongest place (hips), and I can carry 40-50lb for kilometers.

Carrying devices that use shoulder straps, forehead straps, hips, carrying on the head -- these have existed since prehistory because humans can carry much more weight with their core muscles than they can with their arms, especially women. And, of course, these devices then leave your hands free to do other things (like get out tokens for the bus, or hold a book so you can read and walk - I can even knit and walk while wearing a knapsack).

Also: Jansport really are extremely good knapsacks. I have used a knapsack daily since I was 8 at least, and the cheap ones were always fraying and ripping. Jansport is the first I've ever had where I was kind of annoyed that it didn't rip after a few years because I really wanted a new one (a new style). Finally, I got a new one anyways, and my SO is still using the Jansport daily 5+ years later.
posted by jb at 10:06 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


you've got to swing the thing off and put it on the ground to get so much as a pencil out of it; even if it's a backpack with easy-access unzippered exterior pockets, they're still behind your back where you can't reach them.

You didn't use the hooked-on-the-shoulder-undearm-swing to get your stuff out?

In school, we never put our backpacks on the ground (mainly because it was covered in snow half the year) to get stuff out.
Of course, I went to school during the ever-bigger ll bean backback era so it took about an entire class period to find your stuff, but that's a different story.
posted by madajb at 10:09 AM on December 27, 2012


Then again, the question comes to mind -- do you really need to carry 30+ pounds of materials with you at all times?

Maybe not 30 (which is quite heavy), but easily 20lbs -- particularly if you don't have an office to work in. I've even had a full-sized rolling suitcase for transporting books for research from the library to my home. My laptop is not an ultrabook, so that's about 6-7 lbs, add in the adaptor, books, my thermos for coffee, my lunch and I quickly get to 20lbs.

30lbs is more like an overnight hiking weight (I've had up to 40 or 50, but that was a very heavy pack bc I was on my own).
posted by jb at 10:15 AM on December 27, 2012


Studying abroad in Western France, I was amazed by the sheer number of Eastpaks the French high school and college students sported. Exclusively. I'm used to everyone having a JanSport or REI or DaKine backpack, etc.--being from Oregon, I'd never really seen that many Eastpaks, but that is the only kind of backpack these students wore. This was about five years ago.
posted by nonmerci at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2012


I have used JanSport since as long as I can recall. I have been looking for a Boy Scouts khaki canvas yucca in decent shape for a long time but every one I see is beat to bloody hell. Is that considered an obsolete design? If I could buy a new one I would like to give it a try because I think that canvas would hold up better than nylon. The beat to bloody hell condition of all the used ones I see seems to countraindicate that idea. Am I the only person too stupid to know it's obvious that nylon has far superior endurance to canvas?
posted by bukvich at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2012


I carried my books but had a strap to tighten around them so they would not start tilting in all directions.

I remember seeing old cartoons depicting schoolkids carrying books with a belt/strap, and wondering how that worked without books slipping out and splaying all over the ground.

I used a backpack from the time I started needing a way to carry books and stuff to and from school in the early/mid 70s. This was in Catholic schools, and they must have specified use of a bookbag of some type, because everyone used one, and nobody ever did anything there unless it was codified. And the bookbags used were mostly of the backpack variety. I recall vaguely that my Mom thought it weird and unsightly that I used a green canvas hiking type knapsack for school, but practicality won the day, and it never crossed my mind that it was unusual at all. I wrote off my Mom's objections as one of her many idiosyncrasies about various fashion improprieties, so it's interesting to find the root of her objections.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2012


Actually, since 1971, Eastpak brand backpacks have been called Bangladesks.
posted by theodolite at 10:36 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Then again, the question comes to mind -- do you really need to carry 30+ pounds of materials with you at all times?

My highschool years totally destroyed one of those L.L. Bean Book deluxe book packs, despite their legendary toughness, because 6-7 classes a day combined with overcrowding that made it absolutely infeasible to visit my locker at any of the 5 minute breaks between class periods meant I was using it to carry over 40 pounds of books and homework folders every single school day for four nine-month school years.

When it came time to replace it, I couldn't bring myself to even try to cash in their lifetime guarantee, because I was sure that if I sent it in for a replacement, I'd get a letter back asking "what did you DO to this poor thing?!?"
posted by radwolf76 at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2012


I still have my 2nd Jansport x-c ski backpack. Black cordura with brown leather reinforcements and a giant ladder-loop patch. I bought the first one in college, and it was stolen a decade later in Portland, OR. The 2nd one has been back to the factory once for blown-out pocket seams, and will be returning there for the same reason soon. It's just a big rectangular compartment with two side pockets; it's now 20 years old and still in frequent use. The straps, zippers, and everything has held up perfectly, though I'll say I wish the shoulder straps were a bit sturdier/padded, with a sternum strap.
posted by Dreidl at 10:45 AM on December 27, 2012


For reference, here's a French schoolboy from 1913 (one-strap satchel, derived from the game bag used by hunters). The satchel made of boiled cardboard (without straps or with 2 straps) or wood (!) became popular in the 1930s and was ubiquituous in France until the 1980s when kids started using backpacks (though the traditional model is still used). Here's a Doisneau photograph from 1954.
posted by elgilito at 10:56 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Backpacks may have a much longer history than people think- this guy apparently wore one (of course, he was European).



(and it may have actually have been the frame from a snowshoe)
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:15 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In addition to lockers, the influential anti-homework movement probably had something to do with American school children schlepping less stuff between home and school.

By 1930, the anti-homework sentiment had grown so strong that a Society for the Abolition of Homework was formed. Many school districts across the United States voted to abolish homework, especially in the lower grades:
posted by Authorized User at 11:18 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I started second grade (1974) in Georgia, I was using a small gym duffel bag to transport school supplies. Textbooks weren't all that necessary to carry at that point, since most of our homework was (as was mentioned above) mimeographed worksheets and soft-cover workbooks. But we still needed to carry pencils, erasers, notebooks, etc.

I think it was the following year, in third grade, when we started having to be a bit more organized. I got a Trapper Keeper, with an awesome sci-fi image of a triangle illusion (similar to this) and thought it was the bee's knees! The thing had conversion charts and multiplication tables in one of the inserts and you could have a little zipper bag for pencils that would fit in the three-ring binder! The subfolders allowed you to keep all of your homework and other assignments separated by subject, too.

In 4th grade, we started having to change classes for different subjects (science and math were in different rooms). We also started having to carry larger hard-back books around, especially for reading and social studies, which I remember were especially large. At some point near the beginning of that year (1976), Mom made me a canvas book bag, which was basically modeled on a shopping bag. It wasn't as handy as the shoulder-strap on the gym bag, but it was shaped right for books and large notebooks. Plus, she also sewed a separate pocket inside the bag for special items that you didn't want to fall to the bottom and get crushed. I used that book bag for most of the next two years. Other students were using satchels and gym bags, though I did occasionally see someone with an early version of a day pack.

When 7th grade rolled around ('79), I headed off to junior high and the canvas book bag was quite passe'. Many kids were adopting the day pack, and nylon packs seemed to take the place by storm. In 6th grade, they were quite rare. In 7th grade, they became almost ubiquitous. I ended up with a yellow and green Jansport day pack that lasted a couple of years before fraying seams ruined the zipper.

Once we moved to Arizona, I used backpacks almost completely. Cool students wouldn't wear them with both shoulder straps, of course. But the mass of books we had to carry caused my shoulder to ache like crazy. So eventually, when I was a senior in high school (1984), I shifted to a Cordura nylon satchel that was actually designed to be worn on one shoulder. It was made by Sandpiper (model "Picasso") and, when I bought it, hadn't given much thought to high quality or anything - I just needed a decent bag. It had a large inner pocket and two smaller outer pockets, one of which had sub pockets for pencils, etc.) I remember this bag vividly because, despite the fraying seams that occasionally clogged the sipper, I used it through my senior year in high school, through my whole time in college, through grad school and studies and teaching overseas. I still use it today as my professor's bag to transport materials to and from class.

I've used a number of other options for short times, including rolling luggage when taking organic chemistry. The texts for the o-chem lecture and lab were both huge, plus the workbook, plus the solutions manual, plus the notebooks, plus the molecular model kit, flash cards, etc....it all made for a monstrously large load to transport. But I've kept coming back to that little Sandpiper bag and am amazed that it's stood up to nearly 30 year of use, still looking pretty sharp. I wish everything I bought lasted for 30 years.
posted by darkstar at 11:38 AM on December 27, 2012


Er...triangle illusion.
posted by darkstar at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2012


And wow, I just realized we now have an edit-window on comments (although I misssd it)! How cool is that??
posted by darkstar at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2012


I should add that the item that replaced the good old cardboard satchel in the hearts of fashionable / politically conscious French teenagers in the 1970-80s was the olive drab shoulder bag, supposedly from US military surplus, though they were probably just cheap canvas bags with "US" stenciled on it. The kids would then customize the bag with band names, left-wing political slogans etc. They're still popular actually.
posted by elgilito at 11:47 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


pla - Yeah, first off, she had to carry all her books which I'd guess was something like 30+ lbs, and shes a 14-18 yo girl, most importantly I think, they can't actually wear it correctly, its hung off the shoulder unbalanced and remember, you are constantly twisting and bending to pick it up. I really didn't think about it until she complained and I picked up her pack and I was like whoa, what the fuck?
posted by sfts2 at 11:57 AM on December 27, 2012


Early '60s, we used book bags, which were like a drawstring laundry bag, dark green or blue and rubberized on the inside. No straps; you carried it like Santa's toy bag. IIRC, everyone stopped using them in high school and just carried their books, sometimes with a specialized rubber belt around them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:03 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember a wealthy family in the town I went to high school bought their kids copies of the textbooks the school had issued them so they wouldn't have to carry them home. In the mid 90's, before laptops were widespread or tablets existed, that was a really clever solution to this problem.
posted by exhilaration at 12:03 PM on December 27, 2012


Btw, for the trip from school to home, I would put my books in my "mousetrap" on the back of my bike if a friend wasn't sitting on it getting a ride. (He would hold all books if he took the ride). Rubber strap on a mousetrap.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:31 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been using Jansport backpacks off and on for over 35 years. They're one of the cheapest brands out there, but mine have held up great and they're nice and roomy. For me, they've always been one of the best utility-returned-per-dollar-spent deals ever.
posted by marsha56 at 2:12 PM on December 27, 2012


In Scotland of the 1980s, you had to have a Rucanor nylon sports bag. They were not a huge name, they weren't the best quality, but you were not a cool kid without one.
posted by scruss at 3:26 PM on December 27, 2012


In elementary school in Seattle in the early-mid 70s: no backpacks. I think I had a duffle bag at some point, but mostly I just carried books in my arms if I had to.

Started junior high school in 1977 and suddenly everyone HAD to have a backpack. Worn on one shoulder only, unless you were the sort of person who also wore high-water trousers and buttoned your shirts up to the neck. Always Jansport in my case -- we were broke, but I remember getting a big one as a donation. I carried the same one for years. It was indispensable in college.
posted by litlnemo at 3:42 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Stephen King's 11/22/63, the hero from today is back in the 60's and thinks he'll just get a backpack to carry his stuff. His girlfriend tells him he'll look like a boy scout.
posted by MtDewd at 4:01 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those of you with Jansport bags that are worn out and broken, I recently took advantage of the warranty to replace a couple of totally busted old bags from the mid 90's, and they pretty much just replace them with new ones if (I'm guessing) they're so old. In this case I wound up with an all black air cure.

The only caveat- make sure to send in every bag separately with it's own cover letter. I had stupidly packed one bag into the other and then into one shipping envelope to save on freight. Since these things had been sitting in the back of the closet for years the nylon had started to break down and smelled, well, a bit pukey. I imagine they opened the thing, put on blue gloves, glanced at what they could see and then bagged and binned it without further inspection. Can't say I blame them really. Anyways, they sent me a sturdy replacement valued at around $70 on some old bookbags which were pretty much free at the time (I don't know of anyone in college who ever sent in their bags, and I always wound up rescuing them from the trash to use storing miscellaneous stuff around the house.) Will certainly stick with them for any new purchases.
posted by mcrandello at 4:49 PM on December 27, 2012


Could someone with more time than I have right now link to the introduction of the signature-nylon backpack that gave birth to Prada as a fashion house, no longer just a suitcase-maker.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:26 PM on December 27, 2012


Japan Times:

For the past several weeks some good Samaritans have been sending gifts to various child-welfare facilities throughout Japan. All of the senders identified themselves as “Naoto Date,” the name of the fictional character who was a professional wrestler called Tiger Mask in a popular animated series that aired between 1969 and 1971. Date also grew up in a child welfare facility, which for all intents and purposes is an orphanage; when he grew up and made money, he gave some of it to the facility that raised him.

In at least three of these charitable incidents, the anonymous donor deposited gift-wrapped randoseru at the entrances of the facilities. English-language news outlets translate this word as “school bags,” which doesn’t do justice to the thing it describes. Randoseru, a local rendering of the Dutch word ransel, is considered a uniquely Japanese accoutrement to the lives of young children.
...


http://www.dannychoo.com/post/en/1656/Randoseru.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randoseru
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:33 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm still searching for a backpack that is actually stylish as well as capacious and sturdy. It's a remarkably hard item to find, particularly when you really don't want it to have a padded laptop sleeve. Incidentally, I would argue that the backpack's increased recent popularity might well be due to the fact that so many (other) people now have to tote a laptop around.
posted by Go Banana at 8:39 PM on December 27, 2012


(Another interesting subject is how, even in Europe, different countries were intensely loyal to different brands: I remember nearly all Danish schoolkids carrying Fjallraven backpacks, whereas the Italians swore by Invicta, and the Germans all had Scout schoolbags)

I spent a year studying in Italy not long ago and one thing that really stuck out to me was (a) that practically everyone had an Invicta backpack and (b) none of them looked like they were less than 10 years old. I went looking for photo evidence and this totally belies my experience; not one that I saw didn't have those crazy bright colors completely faded out.
posted by psoas at 9:26 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I graduated from high school in '80 and never needed or even owned a backpack until I entered college because all of my schools had lockers. My son has never seen a school locker outside of episodes of Glee: neither his elementary nor middle schools had them or even any place on the school grounds where lockers might have once been installed. He was small for his age and toting a lot of textbooks so we ended up getting him a succession of wheeled bags, each of which lasted at most two school years before becoming too thrashed to use (giving the 100% satisfaction guarantee on Land's End bags a good workout). He wasn't alone with the wheeled bag, his school's hallways looked like a airport populated by children.

There's no lockers at his high school either but due to a grant every student has a laptop and they do all of their assignments on Google Docs. I haven't seen him handle a piece of paper since August and the only thing in his backpack is his lunch, which is kind of awesome.
posted by jamaro at 1:51 PM on December 28, 2012


I have had very good luck with L.L. Bean backpacks holding up to the likes of me, who has tons of crap to carry around even after the school years. I usually don't have to replace them for about 7-8 years.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:51 AM on December 29, 2012


> Early '60s, we used book bags, which were like a drawstring laundry bag, dark green or blue and rubberized on the inside

That's what I used in Finland in the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, in Denmark, I had one of the Fjallraven bags Skeptic mentioned (mine was orange, with blue straps, and I would use it today if I still had it).

My kids are both in elementary school now, in the US, and are required -- by custom, if not law -- to have backpacks, and have since Kindergarten.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:09 PM on December 29, 2012


Oh, but you know what's lousy about backpacks? They're not waterproof. Most of the school year it's raining while we're out waiting for the bus, and yet standard backpacks are barely water resistant. I have one from EMS with a waterproof hood I can pull out and tuck over the bag, but that's more complicated than a kid wants to deal with.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:10 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Early '60s, we used book bags, which were like a drawstring laundry bag, dark green or blue and rubberized on the inside.

You know what, I did have one of those. It was from the school I went to for Kindergarten (this would have been 1981). We didn't have books of course, but we must have been given them by the school, or perhaps my parents bought it as a fundraiser. I remember liking it as a boy because it had a cartoon of an angry hornet (the school's mascot) on it. I used it for various carrying purposes until the rubberization started to flake off. Never would have occurred to me to use it as a bookbag, though.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:01 PM on December 29, 2012


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