The Evolution of The Backpack

The Evolution of The Backpack

Backpacks have changed the way that we live our lives. We use them as a portable storage to carry our books, clothes and personal belongings from one place to another. Can you imagine what your life would be like without a backpack? If you didn’t have a backpack to strap onto your back and carry your personal belongs securely from one place to another? Over time backpacks have dramatically changed and evolved.

Before backpacks there were leather strap belts wrapped around books that were used by children to carry their books to school. We now use functional, stylish, well built bags to carry our laptops, clothes, books and more without a problem. Here is a timeline on the evolution of backpacks.

1930: Leather Strap Belt Bag       

The Leather Strap Belt Bag originated in the 1930's and was used by children to carry their books to school. It was simple to make and easy to use. You simply wrapped your books in the leather belt, strapped on the buckles and carried it over your shoulder. The Strap bag was really just a belt with buckles and was mainly made for students. Back then students didn’t carry many books so carrying this over the shoulder strap bag wasn’t a problem.


1938: The First ever Backpack

Gerry Cunningham created the first ever modern backpack, it was the first backpack to use zippers and it forever changed how backpacks were made for years to come. This backpack had a very simple design, it was in a triangular shape and was a rucksack that was made out of canvas and had a leather strap buckle that came down the middle. These backpacks began to spread slowly throughout the West Coast. Gerry was a lover of the outdoors and founded a outdoor company known as Gerry Outdoors that made hiking and climbing gear.


1960's: The Satchel Backpack

The Satchel Backpack was a simple designed backpack that was made out of canvas and had a front compartment that was covered with a flap. These backpacks were in a squarish shape and had buckle snap closures with small bag handles.

They were used by students to carry their books to school, it had a very simple, classy look. Women and girls used satchel bags instead of backpacks which looked like small briefcases, these bags were very trendy and stylish during their time. Satchel handbags and book bags are still around today.


1967: The First Nylon Backpack

Gerry Cunningham was determined to improve on his invention of the backpack and he made it even better. He created the first ever Nylon Backpack, this pack was made out of a stronger, higher quality material that was great for hiking and climbing.

Before this backpack canvas was the norm and ideal material for backpacks or any bag for that matter. Making a backpack that was made out of nylon was very innovative and fresh and Cunningham quickly set a new trend for bag makers. Many outdoor companies in the 1960's such as The North Face, JanSport and Patagonia latched onto these trends and created newly designed outdoor, nylon backpacks.

1969: The Birth Of JanSport

In 1967 Skip Powell and Murray Pletz who were cousins founded an outdoor company in a single bedroom in Seattle. They designed what would later be the classic, modern school backpack but the problem was that they both couldn’t sew.

Luckily, Murray Pletz had a girlfriend named Jan Lewis who agreed to make the backpack on the condition that Murray would name the company after her and marry her. Murray and Skip named their new company JanSport and released their first two bags in 1969.

The Jansport founders made a few changes to Cunningham's Nylon design by making the bags smaller, lighter in size and changing the shape. They were now ready to take their bags to the next level so they sold them at a Sporting Goods store at The University of Washington.  

Students at The University of Washington began buying the Jansport backpacks which were originally intended for hikers and the outdoors. These bags began to spread like wildfire and multiple college campus stores began to sell the Jansport bags to their students.

What actually sparked the idea of the student backpacks was that a staff member from The University of Washington Sporting Goods Store noticed that students were buying more of the Jansport backpacks as opposed to their normal hiking, outdoor backpacks. He then suggested that they design backpacks tailored towards students. The Jansport company slowly started to grow into an empire.


1982: L.L. Bean Backpack

In 1982 Marcia Briggs, a sewer made a new type of backpack for students which was a squarish shaped backpack with an outer squarish pocket and she brought it to L.L. Bean. This backpack instantly blew up and became the top backpack in the U.S. The backpack was very successful in the market it was the new modern backpack for students.


1984: Jansport Takes Over

In 1984 Jansport founders decided that it was time to take over and dominate the backpack market once and for all. They released a completely new designed backpack that was stylish,simple and was the perfect sized backpack that was tailored towards students who carried multiple books.

The bag was very deep and spacious and had a front square pocket on the front of the backpack. This backpack became a classic bag that was used by students throughout the 1980's, 90's and 2000's.

1990's: It’s All About JanSport

JanSport continues to stay on top of the backpack market, they introduce a sleeker, slimmer backpack that is the perfect size backpack for students. JanSport releases The Super Break Backpack which was a better version than the Spring Break Backpack.

Over the years JanSport chose to use the same designs but just implemented small changes here and there and it has worked for them. JanSport has grown into a global, iconic brand that is known for their classic, simple designed backpacks for students that are timeless.


2000's: Modern Day Backpacks

The North Face

The North Face was founded in 1966 by Douglas and Susie Tompkins in San Francisco, California. Originally it was founded as a climbing, equipment retail store but they later began to manufacture and produce their own products.

People now began to wear technical, outdoor backpacks that were built and intended for outdoor & hiking for school and regular day commuting. The North Face backpacks were very trendy and are very popular, reliable backpacks.

The North Face backpacks are well recognized backpacks that were very popular throughout the 90's and 2000's. Their backpacks are made of the highest quality and are exceptionally functional and stylish. All of their backpacks have a cool look but are still technical, quality backpacks.

JanSport Stays On Top

JanSport continues to dominate the backpack market into the 2000's by keeping their backpacks simple and not making any changes to their designs. They accounted for over 50% of the backpack market and are regarded as a global, classic brand.

Ironically JanSport was owned by the same company that owned North Face and they dominated the backpack market consistently.

Its fair to say that JanSport backpacks were the most popular modern backpacks for students from the 90's into the 2000's.


Patagonia was founded in the 1960's by Yvon Choulnard in California. The outdoor company has grown to be one of the top outdoor gear companies in the 2000's.

During the 2000's technical bags became more popular and are used by regular commuters who are attracted to the design, size and durability of technical backpacks.

Patagonia has produced multiple high quality, functional, popular backpacks during the 2000's. Patagonia is a well known company in the active wear and backpack market that is known throughout all of the world.


Herschel Supply Co.

Herschel Supply Co. has grown to become arguably the most popular backpack brand of the mid to late 2000's. Some may call Herschel the modern day JanSport brand of backpacks.

Herschel was founded by Lyndon and Jamie Cormack in Vancouver, Canada in 2009 and their backpacks have very simple designs that were brought back and modernized.

When you look at a Herschel backpack your first thought may be ¨Hey, I´ve seen that before. Its not a new design.¨ Which is true, Herschel uses older designed backpacks and modernizes them into a contemporary, classy, urban backpack.

They use leather lash tabs, smaller slimmer shaped bags and leather zipper pulls to have a simple timeless look. Herschel is definitely without a doubt a growing brand that is known globally and will continue to grow throughout the 2000's.

Where do you think backpacks are heading?


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