Words by Amanda McCorquodale
As a backpack’s sole purpose is to help you forget about the heavy load you’re carrying, you could be forgiven for not giving them a second thought. But this year, the student backpack as we know it (that is, made of lightweight nylon with zippered compartments) celebrates its 50th anniversary, and we thought it deserved a moment of our attention.
Cultures throughout time have figured out some way to carry things backside, but how did the trusty campus backpack or bookbag come about? Well, it was a slow journey of about 700 years, followed by an accelerated half century of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity. So let’s take a look back at the evolution of the backpack.
13th to 16th Centuries
At this point, the only folks carrying around books are monks, clergymen and aristocratic nobles, and they used girdle books to go hands free while keeping text close by. These books had a loose leather binding with a long, tapered tail that could be tucked into a person’s girdle or belt. The books hung upside down so that they could be swung right-side up for reading.
Now comes the American ingenuity. In 1920, Lloyd F. Nelson, considered the father of the outdoor sporting industry, strapped an Inuit pack made of sticks and seal skins to his back as he hiked Alaska. He eventually tweaked the frame design for better weight distribution and began mass producing the “Trapper Nelson’s Indian Pack Board” two years later.
At the turn of the 20th century, school children bound their stack of schoolbooks in a book strap, a glorified leather belt, to be slung over the shoulder or alas, likely swung at schoolyard peers.
By the 1930s, however, book straps fell out of favor and kids simply — wait for it — carried school supplies in their hands. Other students relied on single-strap leather briefcases called satchels.
Back on the trails, most hikers were using rucksacks, typically bags with one opening that is tied or cinched closed. Yet mountaineer Gerry Cunningham was unsatisfied with how rucksacks slid around his back, so he spent hours on his mother’s sewing machine to create the first-ever zippered backpack out of canvas cloth.
Cunningham continued to make improvements on his backpack, eventually releasing a nylon version called the Teardrop Backpack that was lighter and stronger than its canvas predecessor and is the prototype for backpacks made today.
So how did backpacks make the leap from hiking gear to the backs of school kids like Data on The Goonies? Around the time of Cunningham’s Teardrop, outdoor company JanSport also released a nylon Ski and Hike daypack. When a sports shop inside a University of Washington bookstore began selling it, students co-opted the hiking backpack for carrying books in order to shield them from the Pacific Northwest’s near constant rain.
Lands’ End releases a simple version in just four colors made from nylon to be “kid-proof” and featured little more than an extra back pocket. Today they’re crafted with rugged polyester, plenty of pockets and tons of fun designs.
1984 – Today
Since then the student backpack has remained more or less unchanged, although there have been some experiments in innovation: The aughts saw the rise of rolling backpacks to save students from back pain. Some districts began requiring clear or mesh backpacks for safety concerns. Yet the majority of students still use the design dreamed up 50 years ago – at least for now…