History of Backpacks

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Published: August 30th, 2018

Updated: April 22nd, 2019

The end of summer is a bummer, but it was still fun as kids to shop for back to school. All those colorful notebooks, fun erasers, and cool new lunch boxes. It was enough to feel more cheerful at the prospect of returning to the classroom. Perhaps the most exciting part was choosing a new backpack. Even as adults, we love the convenience offered by a stylish, practical bag.

Who invented the backpack? When was it first used? Put on your thinking caps, it’s time to learn about the history of backpacks!

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We all grew up carrying backpacks to school, and they’ve been a staple of every hiking or cross-continent adventure since they were invented. They went from simply being a necessary way to carry stuff to being something that’s just as important of a fashion statement as the shoes you wear.

Pete Cantone, Leed’s Branded Items

Hour Glass

History of Backpacks Timeline

Backpacks have been used well before the rise of education. Early explorers and soldiers relied on these handy bags to carry essential equipment.

  • 1870

    Source: https://sinkorschwim.wordpress.com

    Bindles were created from sticks and canvas cloths during the American Civil War. These were a burden to carry, but nothing else was available for soldiers on the battlefield at the time.

  • 1877

    Source: https://patents.google.com/

    Henry Miriam developed a better knapsack for the U.S. military. He used sheet metal to reduce the weight that had to be carried during missions.

  • 1882

    Source: https://patents.google.com

    Camille Poirier improved on the military backpack with his Duluth Pack. This bag featured a head strap that was secured by straps and buckles and is commonly used for canoe and kayak trips today.

  • 1908

    Source: http://www.scandinavia.sk

    Ole F. Bergman made bags with wooden frames called Sekk Med Meis. These were made from birch bark and a soft material that made them easy to compress during lengthy travels.

  • 1914

    Source: https://onlinemilitaria.net

    The start of World War I in America brought the need for improved military backpacks. These bags strapped on the upper and lower back and held ammo, canteens, and other equipment.

  • 1922

    Source: http://www.historylink.org

    Lloyd F. Nelson designed a backpack with a rigid frame for hiking called the Trapper Nelson. The original bag was made from sticks and seal skins for his hike across Alaska until being mass produced in canvas two years later.

  • 1938

    Source: Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969

    The first zippered backpack was created in Boulder, Colorado. Gerry Cunningham didn’t like how rucksacks slid around his back so used his father’s sewing machine to create a nylon bag with zippers.

  • 1943

    Source: https://go2guysauction.hibid.com

    Military bags evolved to be able to hold more weight. This was crucial during World War II as soldiers had to carry a plethora of heavy equipment.

  • Late 1940s

    Source: http://bakprotek.com

    Kids started bringing backpacks with them to school. After World War II, more materials were available to make these bags functional, lightweight, and fashionable.

  • 1950

    Source: https://www.fjallraven.com

    Åke Nordin returned home from a trip in the mountains and created a cotton bag with a wooden frame that could be held higher on the back. He went on to create a company that sold these bags called Fjällräven, which still sells modern bags like the one pictured here.

  • 1952

    Source: https://www.sierratradingpost.com

    Husband and wife Dick and Nena Kelty made bags in their California home. Dick welded the metal frame by hand, while Nena sewed on the material, forming the structure that came to be associated with modern backpacks.

  • 1959

    Source: https://www.etsy.com

    Plastisol ink opened a new world of printing on backpacks for back-to-school season. Kids could carry a bag decorated with popular characters like Mickey Mouse, The Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny.

  • 1960

    Source: http://www.sasionline.org

    The Vietnam War brought a new streamlined backpack called the ALICE. The bag was strong enough to carry heavy items and featured multiple departments that could be opened by loosening metal straps.

  • 1960s

    Source: https://www.officedepot.com

    Transparent bags first came onto the scene in the form of plastic Lucite clutches. Today, see-through backpacks are mandatory at many sporting events and concerts due to security reasons.

  • 1967

    Source: https://lowealpine.com

    Greg Lowe created the first internal-frame backpack in his garage in Colorado. These bags also featured special wheels that were perfect for vacations and business trips.

  • 1967

    Source: https://www.jansport.com

    Skip Yowell and Murray and Norman Pletz started JanSport in Seattle, Washington. The bags were originally designed for mountain climbing, but soon found their way to university bookstores.

  • 1980

    Source: http://www.slate.com

    A Harvard law student sent a suggestion to L.L. Bean to start selling bags to carry heavy books. They happily obliged, creating the Book Pack, which found its way shortly after to Harvard’s bookstores.

  • 1981

    Source: http://www.eyetap.org

    High school student Steve Mann fused technology and backpacks with a wearable computer. The computer, also known as EyeTap, was wired into the bag and ran to a head-mounted display.

  • 1989

    Source: https://www.camelbak.com

    A paramedic named Michael Eidson wanted a way to carry water during a 100-mile bike ride through Texas. His solution was the CamelBack Hydration Pack, which was on the market only a few years later.

  • 1997

    Source: https://www.ebay.com

    The military introduced the MOLLIE backpack, also known as Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. It was a standard supply for troops, featuring durable nylon straps for maximum comfort.

  • 2002

    Source: https://b-wap.com

    B-Wap, started by Lauren Cross and Jayln Curtis, is dedicated to making “Backpacks with a Purpose ®”, creating their very first model for children in need in Oklahoma City.

  • 2014

    Source: https://www.gucci.com

    Fashion backpacks were a trendy way to carry daily essentials. They could be found in leather, canvas, and a variety of other materials, some even being designed by major fashion brands like Gucci and Prada.

  • 2016

    Source: https://www.aliexpress.com

    These backpacks feature multiple compartments for maximum storage. A little holding case comes out of the side, perfect for storing cameras while the straps on the back can carry the stand.

  • 2018

    Source: https://www.courier-journal.com

    Jefferson County Public School supplied digital backpacks to every student. The idea behind these bags was to make it easier for parents and teachers to track progress.

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The heart of backpacking lies in the journey, the desire to explore a world beyond our everyday lives, and in so doing explore ourselves.

Chris Townsend, author of The Backpacker’s Handbook

When Was the First Backpack Made?

The first known instance of a backpack being used comes in 3300 BC. Ötzi the Iceman was traveling across Val Senales Valley in Italy when he was killed and preserved in the glaciers. Among the items found was a rucksack made of leather, hazlewood, and latchwood.

A couple of German hikers stumbled upon Ötzi's corpse, as well as his clothing and equipment in 1991. The backpack was used to carry essential items like medicinal fungus, arrows, flint tools, awls, and needles. Today, you can see all this gear on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy.

Source: Rick Hampson, Argus-Leader, South Dakota

Of course, the Iceman wasn’t the only one using a backpack. Many famous explorers relied on their own animal skin knapsacks to get through expeditions. This includes Lewis & Clark, the famous duo who explored the land of the Louisiana Purchase; Ferdinand Magellan, who set out to discover a sea route to the Spice Islands; and Marco Polo, the first European to travel to Asia and the guy whose name we say a lot in the swimming pool. As evidenced by these sea-faring gentlemen, we have relied on backpacks throughout history to carry our essential supplies.

Source: Rick Hampson, Argus-Leader, South Dakota
Did you know?

The word “backpack” wasn’t used until the middle of World War I in 1916. Before then, it was referred to as either a rucksack or knapsack.

Take a Hike: A Journey in Backpack Design

The Iceman didn’t cause a cold freeze on the practice of hiking. In fact, backpacks were initially designed for the wilderness and mountains. Outdoorsmen like Lloyd Nelson and Gerry Cunningham moved away from animal skins and introduced new materials and features to the bag’s design.

Lloyd Nelson and the Trapper Nelson
Lloyd Nelson, known as the father of outdoor sports, was hiking around Alaska with a bag made from sticks and seal skin. Two years later he received a patent for a backpack with a wooden frame called the Trapper Nelson, which was mass produced and sold all over the country in 1922. It came in three sizes, with the largest costing $7.50, which today would be equivalent to about $112.

At first, the canvas bag wasn’t successful since wilderness hiking wasn’t a popular outdoor activity. Any sales came from Forest Service firefighters and U.S. Geological Survey teams who actually had a need for this gear. However, after Nelson sold his business during the Great Depression, the Boy Scouts of America discovered the joy of Trapper Nelsons. That was all it took for the product to spread like wildfire, becoming the most popular bag for outdoorsy folks.

Gerry Cunningham and the Zippered Bag
Another active individual in New York named Gerry Cunningham took the backpack even further about a decade later. Cunningham enjoyed spending his days in the great outdoors by camping in the woods, skiing on the slopes, and climbing the mountains. He had spent time in the military and knew the value of carrying a lightweight backpack; something that would make outdoor living more accessible to a wider range of people.

Source: Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969

He took this idea and his father’s sewing machine and created the world’s first zippered backpack. Instead of using uncomfortable straps and buckles he added zippers and nylon to the bag. The compartments made it easy to distribute weight evenly, while the nylon made the bag waterproof. The material and two zippered sections made everything lighter to carry, which was perfect for the mountain climbing for which it was designed.

People have enjoyed travelling across different terrains for years, and there has always been a need for the portability of goods. Nelson and Cunningham saw a market in our basic desire to explore and kicked off the entire backpack industry!

Source: Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969
Did you know?

Gerry Cunningham is the same guy to perfect the design of the metal carabiner.

Who Invented Backpacks?

While bags were in heavy rotation for outdoor use, the modern backpack as we know it didn’t emerge until 1952. Credit goes to Asher “Dick” Kelty, known as the “Henry Ford of Backpack Design.”

Like Nelson and Cunningham, Kelty had a passion for hiking, often frequenting the Sierra Nevada area. However, he found that the backpacks he used were uncomfortable to carry. Kelty and his wife Nena started designing their own bags using material left over from World War II. As an aircraft engineer and Navy veteran, Kelty used his experience to construct small aluminum frames in his garage in Glendale, California. Nena sewed on material from a military parachute, added wool carpeting on the shoulder straps and a webbing belt to the bottom, and secured everything with clevis pins.

At first, they sold only 29 of these new bags for $24 each to family and friends, but as they became more successful, they were eventually able to open a small store in a former barbershop in Glendale. They also started a mail-order catalog business that made their bags more accessible to a wider range of people.

Source: http://www.oregonphotos.com/

Modern versions of Kelty’s backpacks are available at many sports stores, as well as online through American Recreation Products in Boulder, Colorado. His son, Richard, also went on to start his own outdoor gear companies called Sierra West and Big Dog.

Source: http://www.oregonphotos.com/
Did you know?

The Kelty backpack created by Dick and Nena Kelty was used in the first summit of Mount Everest in 1963.

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It was an honor to play a small role in Dick’s revolutionary impact on the modern backpack. The realization of how little equipment I needed to see stunning beauty gave me a sense of freedom and joy I’d never known before.

Nena Kelty, author of Backpacking the Kelty Way

Military Backpacks: Armed on Our Arms

Before backpacks found their stride in the world of hiking, the United States military was busy developing bags of their own. If you’ve ever seen an early morning cartoon, you’ll notice the character bundle everything into a plaid blanket, secure it with string, place it on a stick, and then set off down a dusty railroad. This concept isn’t too far off from how soldiers originally carried items on the battlefield during the American Civil War.

Source: http://blog.fieldtexcases.com

It was a lot of work lugging those bindlesticks around rugged terrains. The military was in need of something more durable and lightweight and found that with new backpacks in the late 1800s. First up were bags designed by a Civil War veteran named Henry Mirriam. These were made from sheets of metal and were large enough to reduce the amount of equipment that had to be carried. However, they were also extremely uncomfortable to hold.

Source: http://blog.fieldtexcases.com

The lack of comfort in Mirriam’s design led Camille Poirier to create the Duluth Pack in 1882. This bag sat lower on the soldier’s back and featured unattractive head straps that were secured with straps and buckles. It was designed to fit easily at the bottom of ships for the U.S. Navy, but eventually found more of a life outside of the battlefield in canoes and kayaks.

Despite all of its perks, the Duluth Pack still wasn’t quite what the soldiers needed. Aside from a few different backpacks during both World Wars, the troops hadn’t quite found a bag that met their needs. The magic formula finally came during the Vietnam War and about 30 years after with the ALICE (All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) and MOLLIE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) respectively. These bags were a long way from bindlesticks as they were lightweight enough to be comfortable, yet large enough to store heavy equipment and gear. Overall, the military backpacks borrowed a lot of their design from the bags used for hiking since both needed to be lightweight and durable.

Backpacks in the Classroom

Hikers and soldiers were already loving their backpacks, but today we most often associate backpacks with back-to-school season. Interestingly enough, though, backpacks weren’t seen in schools until about the late 1940s. Many resources were going toward World War II, which meant that the construction of schools had completely stopped. As such, there wasn’t really a need for backpacks in school before then, especially since kids went to one-room schoolhouses in rural areas. Following the war, however, the state of public education was completely different. In fact, in the 1950s California alone opened an average of one new school a week. Books and supplies had to be carried to and from the classroom, and the thought was if the adults were using backpacks, why shouldn’t the kids?

Source: https://www.huffingtonpost.com

The early school backpacks looked sophisticated and sleek as they were made from leather or canvas and featured buckles and straps. Over time they started to have some personality and show a kid’s interests. Movie and TV characters could decorate the front of the bags by 1959 due to the invention of plastisol ink. This made printed bags a valuable marketing opportunity for these programs. Today, you’ll see backpacks featuring every color, design, and character imaginable. The most popular for 2017 among kids were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Disney’s Frozen, and Emojis.

Backpacks completely changed the face of public education in America. With easy portability, books and other supplies could go to and from the classroom. It was easy to bring work home, much to the disappointment of kids everywhere. Now digital tablets can be part of the classroom and much more, all thanks to the ease that comes with carrying backpacks!

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I still remember the excitement I felt shopping for my first backpack. It signaled such an important transition as I entered elementary school.

Rebecca Heidank, Upper Elementary Teacher at Fox Valley Montessori School

Did you know?

Kids in Japan carry leather backpacks called randoseru. These typically come in black for boys and red for girls.

The JanSport Story

Of course, the kids weren’t the only ones going to school. Ever since the rise of universities in America, college students have had a need for backpacks. JanSport, a popular backpack manufacturer, recognized that need in the early 1970s.

Source: https://www.jansport.com

The company was started by Skip Yowell, a self-declared hippie who hiked Mount Everest and left college to win a design competition for a new flexible aluminum backpack frame. This design was so inspiring he started an operation over his father’s transmission shop, bringing along his cousins Murray and Norman Pletz. Murray promised his girlfriend, Jan, that he would name the company after her if she would sew the packs and marry him. At the end, he got a new wife and a thriving business that today makes over $32.4 billion a year in sales.

Source: https://www.jansport.com

At first, the team tested out their backpacks themselves as they hiked Mount Rainier in Washington. However, by the 70s they found their stride in the world of academia. They started selling their backpacks at the University of Washington and sales were through the roof. This led other colleges to want their own bags on campus. In fact, in 1980 a student at Harvard University wrote to L.L. Bean demanding a way to carry his books. The company happily obliged, creating the now famous Book Pack for the university’s bookstore. JanSport is a huge reason why backpacks left the mountains, wilderness, and battlefields and found their way into classrooms across the country.

Learn even more about JanSport’s fascinating history in this informative video:

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When I see the product on people’s backs I still get excited. The passion is living our lifestyle and turning it into a business.

Skip Yowell, founder of JanSport.

Promos in Action

Many companies turn to custom backpacks when it comes to advertising. Perhaps the best-selling style is drawstring bags. Organizations like Stellar Power Yoga in Atlanta, Georgia use promotional backpacks to spread the word and get more customers. The fitness studio offered bags and water bottles at their Grand Opening, as well as during a corporate event at Westin Peachtree Plaza.

Source: https://business.facebook.com

Aside from Stellar Power Yoga, there are other organizations that use backpacks to raise awareness and donations for worthwhile causes. Feeding America provides easy-to-prepare meals in backpacks to more than 450,000 children a week. School in a Bag fills backpacks with school supplies, eating utensils, and other items for orphaned children in Africa. Finally, B-Wap donates two backpacks for every one sold to non-profits all over the world.

Source: https://business.facebook.com
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Backpacks are great for advertising because they are used when you are on the move. In life nothing stays the same. we are always on the move and these bags can help promote growth and progress.

Miriam Frost, owner of Stellar Power Yoga

A World of Advertising is on Your Back

Schools will always need to be attended. Mountains will always need to be climbed. The military will always need a way to carry their equipment. In short, a classic backpack will never go out of style. These are excellent promotional items for any company, especially those involved in outdoor living or education.

Pete Cantone of Leed’s Branded Items believes backpacks are more professional than they’ve ever been. Meanwhile, Lida Citroöen, a personal branding expert for Entrepreneur, has a colleague who is constantly stopped in airports or office buildings every time she carries an attractive backpack featuring her company’s logo and tagline. It just goes to show how valuable these items are when it comes to advertising a business or event.

Take a look at some of the brands that have gotten additional exposure from customized backpacks!

Stats for Success

As of May 2014, backpack sales among adults were up over 33%.

More than 79 million students in the United States carry backpacks.

In Spring 2017, there were over 47 million people who went backpacking in the United States.

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re a hiker, soldier, or student, the backpack has had your back for years. Maybe you carried a Dora the Explorer backpack until you were in your 30s. No judgment there! These bags are a practical way for us to carry everything we need.

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world’s first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC’s logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

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Ashcraft, B. (2018, April 11). Japan’s School Bags Are Expensive and Fashionable. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://kotaku.com/

Hans, S. (2016, January 27). An American History of the Backpack. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.padandquill.com/blog/2016/01/27/an-american-history-of-the-backpack/

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Blecha, P. (2013, October 22). Lloyd F. Nelson Submits Patent Application for His Trail-Blazing External-Frame “Trapper Nelson” Backpack to U.S. Patent Office on July 31, 1922. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.historylink.org/File/10624

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Hale, L. (2015, November 2). From ‘Book Strap’ to ‘Burrito’: A History of the School Backpack. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/11/02/445339503/from-book-strap-to-burrito-a-history-of-the-school-backpack

Outdoor Industry Association. (2004, January 14). Asher “Dick” Kelty, 84: Outdoor Innovator Known as the ‘Henry Ford of Backpacking.’ Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://outdoorindustry.org/press-release/asher-dick-kelty-84-outdoor-innovator-known-as-the-henry-ford-of-backpacking/

Harrell, B. (1969, March 16). His Hobby Turned Into Industry: Outdoor Path Led to Cash. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Chawkins, S. (2015, October 20). JanSport Co-Founder Saw Future in Backpacks. The Washington Post.

DiMartino, M. (2015, February 16). Vans Tops $2 Billion in Sales. Retrieved July 3, 2018, from https://www.ocbj.com/news/2015/feb/16/vans-tops-2-billion-sales/

Tuttle, B. (2014, July 29). The Stunning Sales Figure That Shows Nobody Wants to Grow Up. Retrieved July 3, 2018, from http://money.com/money/3034806/backpacks-sales-fashion-trend/

Alabama Living. (2011, August 9). Back-to-School Burden: 79 Million Students in U.S. Carry Backpacks. Retrieved July 3, 2018, from https://www.al.com/living/2011/08/back-to-school_burden_79_milli.html

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Bodden, V. (2018). Wearable Technology. Minneapolis, MN: Abdo Publishing.

Feldman, R. (2001). Don’t Whistle in School: The History of America’s Public Schools. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company.