The Return of the Backpack

by post_author

An unspoken trend in my highschool, for senior girls, was to trade in their backpacks for purses after college applications were submitted. After years of associating my backpack with homework, school, stress, and heavy, hard-covered textbooks, I was relieved to be rid of the cumbersome bag. Ironically, I didn’t start wearing a backpack again, until my senior year of college, when my friends decided I needed a traveling backpack. Within seconds of trying my new backpack on, I was won over.

Backpacks have been around since the hunter-gatherer days, when hunters would store and take home the meat in bags made out of animal skin and sewn together by animal intestines. Framed backpacks have existed as early as the late 1800s, but in the early 20th century, most students used a “book strap” to carry their books, or carried their books by hand.

In the 1920s and 30s, outdoor enthusiasts starting to make modifications that would bring about the modern backpack. In 1924, Lloyd F. Nelson patented a full frame with an attachable backpack. In 1938, Gerry Cunningham added zippers to his rock climbling rucksack. Asher “Dick” Kelty and Nena Kelty would add the hip belt in 1952 and the modifications utilizing nylon, zippers, more compartments continued.

In the 1940s-50s, leather backpacks and satchels grew in popularity, but the modern outdoorsy backpack didn’t start appearing in the student community until the 1960s-70s. Companies, such as Jansport and Caribou Mountaineering, started selling their backpacks in college bookstores, such as University of Washington, where the rainy weather made the backpack a popular purchase, and made modifications when they noticed saturation or popularity. From then on, the structure of the backpack remained, while fashion and slight modifications to accommodate growing school work and books continued to this day.

It was interesting to see the trajectory of a solely outdoorsy product modifying to represent an activity like school, which is solely indoors, yet still be reminiscent of its roots. While it was ironic that I received a backpack for senior year, the message to use my North Face for adventures and travel was clear, and is something I plan to execute definitively.


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