The Extraordinary Workhorse of Leather Bags: The Backpack

Most adults can attach fun memories of their young school days to personal backpacks used to carry school “stuff”.  The backpack has grown up with us through adulthood as a daily carry or for specific activities such as hiking or perhaps an overnight trip..     

Although prior to the 1970s, school children were more apt to either carry their school books in their arms or tied together with a rope or leather strap (as seen on any black and white nostalgic television shows). 

As we all are familiar,  the end of summer ritual of shopping for clothes along with a new backpack for the upcoming school year, from Kindergarten to high school was a big deal. Did your Mom write or sew your name on the bag to prove ownership?   

Throughout middle and high school, backpacks represented both  functionality and creativity in adding personal art, trinkets and decor to express students’  personalities and  fashion statements. 

In college,still desiring being fashionable, but more importantly, selecting backpacks was about durability, because students walked everywhere on campus and  that bag had to survive weather, wear and tear, and unbelievable weight of books (anyone under a certain age may find lugging around pounds of books amusing), materials and snacks for a full day of classes. Good memories!

The Backstory of Backpacks 

The backpack story is as old as time.  Ingenuity driven humans constantly devised ways to carry objects easier from point A to point B.  Centuries ago this was done by tying belongings in a cloth sack hung over a shoulder.  

Evidence of the world’s earliest backpack was found in the Alps in 1991 among the artifacts of the frozen mummified remains named  Orzi the Iceman who scientists  believed lived 5,000 years ago during the Copper Age (between 3359 and 3105 BCE).

A backpack is referred to by other names including Knapsack, Book bag, Rucksack, and Satchel.  The backpack’s truest origins were essentially developed for two groups:  early explorers/outdoor adventurers and the military.  During the Civil War, soldiers carried sackcloths created from wood sticks and canvas which was the only option at that time to carry rations.   Credit can be handed out to several innovators who had a hand in the development of the contemporary backpack.  

  • Henry Merriam, the innovator of the functional knapsack for the U.S. military, in 1877 used sheet metal to reduce the weight of the bag, however it turned out to be quite uncomfortable.
  • The Duluth Pack,created by Camille Poirier in 1882, modified the military canvas backpack by adding a head strap secured by straps and buckles freeing the wearer to carry a pack and a canoe at the same time.
  • In 1908, Norwegian hunter and inventor, Ole F. Bergan’s patents integrated soft cloth and juniper wood (which ultimately became a light tubular steel frame) to follow the shape of the wearer’s back for comfort.
  • Lloyd Nelson’s redesign in 1920 was inspired by a visit to Alaska where the locals used wood and sealskin bags.  His “Trapper Bag” was designed with a canvas bag attached to a wooden frame by steel pins making it more sturdy and easy to detach.  It became one of the first mass produced bags in the world.
  • In 1938, Gerry Cunningham introduced the first back with zippers allowing adventurers to access their belongings easily.  In the 1950s, he patented the drawstring clamp or Cordlock device to replace knots.  And then later in 1967 he would introduce the Teardrop backpack made with a lightweight nylon.
  • Outdoors-man, Ake Nordin, in 1950 is credited for redesigning the canvas bag, made with a wooden frame and leather fastening straps to be worn high and close to the back.
  • In 1952, Dick and Nina Kelty revolutionized the material of the backpack by using leftover material from World War II:  airplane aluminum for the frame and parachute material for the soft covering.  The also are credited for creating contour frames, waist straps and padded shoulder straps.
  • Greg Lowe, in the late 1960s introduced the first internal frame backpack
  • One of the biggest known names in traditional backpacks, Jansport in the late 60s, early 70s created the “Ski and HIke” bag out of lightweight nylon 
  • Fast forward to today’s backpack designs that cover the gamut in shapes, sizes  and uses including rucksacks, everyday packs, laptop bags, duffel backpacks, smart backs  and anti theft locks

Styling A Backpack

Mind you, there are opposing sides to the argument as to whether or not to wear a backpack at certain professional levels.  One camp frowns on high level executives wearing a bag on their back as if still in college and questions their maturity level. 

In the opposing camp are those who believe wearing a backpack makes utilitarian sense, especially if you work and live in a city where driving a car is non-existent (New York or Philadelphia for instance). One blog writer even opined that carrying a briefcases is so passé and a smart CEO would only sport a backpack. 

This certainly could be a generational divide style issue but we believe within particular professions a beautiful briefcase is a most powerful statement accessory.   Plus, high producers and senior level professionals would most certainly employ a driver to manage their time more efficiently having no need for a functional backpack

Now we did agree with that same columnist on two things:  one, the benefits of backpacks are comfort and convenience along with contemporary designs to be much more stylish;  and two, that modern backpacks have transition seamlessly based on what is being carried in these bags in current times:  tech devices and all the the necessary accessories.  Bag designers have kept up nicely by offering backpacks the space and compartments to accommodate the mobile tech traveler.

Speaking from the luxury point of view, there is a time and place for coordinating a luxury backpack with certain attire:

1.   Casual or Business Casual attire for the office works best with a backpack

2.   Suits and backpacks (and any bags with shoulder straps) just don’t mix.  Straps can damage the padded shoulders and wrinkle the back part of the jacket.

3.    Women have a little more flexibility in selection of backpacks but again, unless you’re in a profession that celebrates creativity and individualism, a classic backpack look  (or a different style of bag) may be more appropriate

4.   The best material to wear with professional wear is leather.  Nylon or other soft fabrics have a slouchy or overly relaxed look

5.    If you absolutely have to wear a backpack with a suit coat or sports coat, some gentlemen style sites suggest holding the backpack from the bag’s top handle in your hand (although we all agree what’s the point of a backpack if you’re going to  hold it in your hand)   or wear it over your dominant shoulder while using your arm to support it.

·        Backpacks are designed from different types of material including Nylon, Polyester, Cotton, Canvas,, Vegan Leather and Leather or a mixture of materials.  

·        Nylon the most popular of material of mass produced backpacks, is inexpensive and has a shorter lifespan and will need repairing or replacing in a short period of time as compared to Leather.

·        Without a doubt, a leather backpack is an investment and simply elevates the owner’s style.  With care and regular maintenance, leather is  timeless and evolves     

If you’re ready to upgrade or purchase a leather backpack, keep these points in mind:

·        Determine your needs first.  Use?  What types of items will be carried (i.e. laptop, files or folders, cell phone, wallet, cosmetics, water bottle, tech accessories, etc.)?  Size according to your height?    Carry options such as shoulder strap padding, top carry handle, sleeve on the back of the bag to slide over the handle of your roller suitcase.

·        The type of Leather is key to a long lasting durable backpack.  When doing your research be aware that all leathers aren’t equal.  In ranking the leather from premium to adequate:

1.        Full Grain – the top layer of the hide, it’s the highest quality and toughest of the layers and comes with all the imperfections.  Because it absorbs body oils quicker and will develop the beautiful patina that many people love.

2.       Top Grain – second-highest grade and is split from the top layer.  The surface is sanded to get rid of imperfections.  The leather is smoother and is used to produce suede and nubuck.  High–end Handbags and jackets are normally made from this grade. 

3.       Corrected Grain (Bottom Cut/Split) – Better known as genuine leather and comes from the skin layers that remain after the top is split off and come from the corium layer.  The surface is usually spray-painted and embossed.   Mostly used with furniture back and sides, jackets, handbags footwear.

4.       Bonded Leather – Lowest and cheapest of the grades; it is the leftovers of the hide including dust and shavings.  The leftovers are bonded together using polyurethane or latex, rolled out into a sheet, and then spray painted to look like full or top grain leather.  Used for making furniture, bookbinding, and other fashion accessories.

·        Mass produced leather brands will be less expensive (except for high end brands)

·        Design – quality designs will be minimalistic yet structured, with several pockets and compartments for housing objects.  For most backpack owners having a dedicated compartment for a securing a laptop or tablet sleeve is a must.

– Maybe adaptability comes into play meaning a backpack can be converted into a messenger bag and/or soft briefcase.

– Two type of pockets for security and those that are readily accessible.

– Avoid thin linings that will eventually rip or tear away from the leather from regular use.  

Lastly, buying off the shelf may not satisfy your needs and desires in the perfect backpack.  This is where working with a leather artisan, such as Beau Satchelle Bespoke can design and build a bag that perfectly fits your style.   -AJ 

Share your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter!

We appreciate the following sources for providing us with great content:

Quality Logo Products – The History of Backpacks:  Who Invented Them and When

Thanks to the following photographers for adding the gorgeous backpack visuals to this week’s blog:

Gil Riberio – backpack on the move (Header)

Charles Deluvio – Black bucket backpack/ white background

Jonathan Borba – Brown backpack in fields

Natanni – Blue Backpack (Header)

Jason Blackeye – Woman Mountain Hiker

Karsten Weingeart – White Backpack (Header)

Surya A – Red Backpack

Alex Azabache – Canvas and Leather backpack

Micah Tindell – Brown backpack on ground

Surya A – Wiser By The Mile Black backpack design

Tamara Bellis – Posing backpack in middle of road


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