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The History of Backpacks: Who Invented Them & When?

Alyssa Mertes

Published: May 19th, 2021

The end of summer may have been a bummer as kids, but it was still fun to shop for back to school. All those colorful notebooks, shaped erasers, and cool new lunch boxes – it was enough to make anyone feel more cheerful about returning to the classroom.

Perhaps the most exciting part was choosing a new backpack! Even as adults, we use one for hiking trips, mini vacations, and even as our everyday bags. So where did backpacks come from? The answer involves an ancient iceman, World Wars, and adventurous mountaineers!

Quote

We all grew up carrying backpacks to school, and they've been a staple of adventures ever since. They went from being a necessary way to carry stuff to just as important of a fashion statement as the shoes you wear.

Pete Cantone – employee at Leed's Branded Items

Hour Glass

History of Backpacks Timeline

It may be surprising, but backpacks were around well before schools were even in session! Early explorers and soldiers relied on these handy bags all the time. Take a look at this timeline!

  • 1870

    Bindles Source: https://sinkorschwim.wordpress.com

    Bindles were created from sticks and canvas cloths during the American Civil War. While these were a burden to carry, there was really nothing better available for soldiers on the battlefield at the time.

  • 1877

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

    Henry Miriam developed one of the first functional knapsacks for the U.S. military. He used sheet metal in order to reduce the weight that had to be carried around during missions.

  • 1882

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

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

  • 1908

    Sekk med mois Source: http://www.scandinavia.sk

    Ole F. Bergman designed bags with wooden frames that he called "Sekk Med Meis." These fashionable backpacks were made from birch bark and soft fabric, both of which made them easy to compress down during lengthy travels.

  • 1914

    Military backpack Source: https://onlinemilitaria.net

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

  • 1922

    Trapper nelson Source: http://www.historylink.org

    Lloyd F. Nelson designed a backpack with a rigid frame for hiking that he called the Trapper Nelson. The original bag was carried along for his hike across Alaska and was made from, no kidding, sticks and seal skins! Thankfully, it was mass produced in canvas two years later.

  • 1938

    Gerry Cunningham Source: Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969

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

  • 1943

    Military bags 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, weapons, and ammunition.

  • Late 1940s

    1940s bag 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 stylish.

  • 1950

    fjallraven bag Source: https://www.fjallraven.com

    A man named Åke Nordin created a cotton bag with a wooden frame that could be held higher on the back and carried through the mountains. Later, he started a company named Fjällräven, which still sells trendy bags like the one pictured here to this day.

  • 1952

    kelly backpacks Source: https://www.sierratradingpost.com

    A husband and wife team named Dick and Nena Kelty took backpack design to the next level. Dick welded a metal frame by hand, while Nena sewed on the material, forming the structure that came to be associated with modern backpacks.

  • 1959

    Mickey mouse Source: https://www.etsy.com

    Plastisol ink opened a new world of printing on backpacks for back-to-school season. Kids could now carry a bag decorated with popular characters from the time period like Mickey Mouse, The Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny. This is a trend that still exists to this day with modern characters.

  • 1960

    ALICE bag Source: http://www.sasionline.org

    A new streamlined backpack called the Alice made its debut during the Vietnam War. This bag was strong enough to carry heavy items and featured multiple departments that could be opened by loosening metal straps.

  • 1960s

    TrailMaker bag Source: https://www.officedepot.com

    Transparent backpacks first came onto the market in the form of plastic Lucite clutches. Today, see-through bags are mandatory at many sporting events and concerts as they provide added security.

  • 1967

    Bag with wheels 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. This is rumored to be the first rolling backpack ever created!

  • 1967

    JanSport 1967 Source: https://www.jansport.com

    A college student named Skip Yowell started JanSport with his cousins in Seattle, Washington. The backpacks were originally designed for mountain climbing, but soon found their way to university bookstores. Today, they are one of the bestselling backpack brands in the world!

  • 1980

    LL Bean backpacks 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 with the Book Pack, which found its way shortly after to Harvard's bookstores.

  • 1981

    Steve mann bag Source: http://www.eyetap.org

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

  • 1989

    camelbak bag Source: https://www.camelbak.com

    A paramedic named Michael Eidson wanted a way to carry water during a 100-mile bike ride through Texas. To make that happen, he created the first CamelBak Hydration Pack, which was on the market only a few years later.

  • 2002

    BWap backpacks Source: https://b-wap.com

    B-Wap, started by Lauren Cross and Jayln Curtis, is dedicated to making "Backpacks with a Purpose." They created their very first bag for children in need in Oklahoma City

  • Mid 2000s

    MOLLIE backpack 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 during the Iraq War, featuring durable nylon straps for maximum comfort.

  • Late 2000s

    Gucci Bag Source: https://www.gucci.com

    Fashion backpacks became a trendy way to carry daily essentials. You can now found bags in leather, canvas, and a variety of other materials. Some are even designed by major fashion brands like Gucci and Prada.

  • Late 2000s

    Camera bag Source: https://www.aliexpress.com

    Backpacks started to be more functional. For instance, these bags are designed for photographers and have 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

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

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

  • 2020

    backpacks Source: https://www.capitalgazette.com

    The COVID-19 pandemic caused many students to switch to e-learning instead of going to a classroom. This, on top of limited travel, unfortunately hurt backpack sales for the year.

What's Another Word for Backpack?

backpacks

You typically use the word "backpack" when you're talking about a bag with straps. However, it can also be referred to as any of the following:

  • Bookbag
  • Knapsack
  • Satchel
  • Rucksack
  • Bag
  • Pack

No matter what you call it, a backpack is a wonderful way to carry around everything you need. It's a must for hikers, students, and busy professionals who are always on the go!

backpacks
Did you know?

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

When Were Backpacks Invented?

backpacks Rick Hampson, Argus-Leader, South Dakota

The first backpack ever discovered was found alongside the frozen remains of Ötzi the Iceman in 3300 BC. This ancient man was traveling across Val Senales Valley in Italy when he was killed and preserved in the glaciers. A couple of German hikers stumbled upon his corpse, as well as his clothing and equipment, in 1991.

Among the items found was a rucksack made of leather, hazelwood, and latchwood. Ötzi used this bag to carry essential items like medicinal fungus, arrows, flint tools, awls, and needles. Today, you can see his backpack and other gear on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy.

backpacks Rick Hampson, Argus-Leader, South Dakota
Quote

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

Who Invented the Backpack?

It's tough to give credit to one person for inventing the backpack as there were a few people who deserve credit. Lloyd Nelson and Gerry Cunningham, two men in the hiking industry, created bags with lightweight materials, straps, and zippers in the 20's and 30's. Dick and Nina Kelty then took the design to the next level by crafting modern bags with padded straps that look similar to the backpacks we use today.

Heres what you need to know about these forward-thinking inventors:

#1: Lloyd Nelson: The Trapper Nelson

Trapper nelson pinterest.com

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.

The Trapper Nelson came in three sizes, with the largest costing $7.50 each. With inflation, that would be equivalent to about $112 today. Sales mostly came from Forest Service firefighters and U.S. Geological Survey teams.

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 use in the great outdoors!

Trapper nelson pinterest.com

#2: Gerry Cunningham: The Zippered Backpack

Zippered backpack Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969

Gerry Cunningham enjoyed camping in the woods, skiing on the slopes, and climbing the mountains. He also 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.

Cunningham took this idea, and his father's sewing machine, and created the world's first zippered backpack in 1938. 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.

Zippered backpack Bob Harrell, The Atlanta Constitution, March 1969

#3: Dick & Nena Kelty: The Modern Backpack

Lloyd Nelson http://www.oregonphotos.com

In 1952, Asher “Dick” Kelty, also known as the “Henry Ford of Backpack Design,” used his passion for hiking in the Sierra Nevada area to dream up a new type of backpack.

Dick and his wife Nena designed the bags in their garage in Glendale, California. As an aircraft engineer and Navy veteran, Dick used his expertise to construct small aluminum frames. Nena, meanwhile, sewed on material from a leftover military parachute, adding wool on the shoulder straps and a webbing belt to the bottom. She secured everything with clevis pins.

At first, Dick and Nena sold only 29 of these backpacks for $24 each to family and friends. However, as they became more successful, they were eventually able to start a mail-order catalog business in a former barbershop in Glendale. Sports stores and outdoor goods companies started selling their bags, and by 1963, a Dick and Nena original was used in the first summit of Mount Everest!

Lloyd Nelson http://www.oregonphotos.com
Quote

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

When Were Military Backpacks First Used?

military soldier

In the American Civil War, soldiers carried bindles, which were tiny scraps of fabric wrapped around sticks. It wasn't until the start of World War I in 1914 that more durable backpacks were used to carry equipment and weaponry.

That isn't to say backpacks weren't used before World War I. Henry Miriam, a civil war vet, made bags from sheet metal in 1877 And then there was Camille Poirier who created the more advanced Duluth Pack a few years later. The only problem is these bags weren't as comfortable and practical to use. World War I is really when backpacks became standard issue for the U.S. military!

Here's a quick look at the military backpacks that have been used since World War I:

military soldier
haversack

Haversack

World War I
1914-1918

Field Pack

Field Pack

World War II
1939-1945

Alice Pack

Alice Pack

Vietnam War
1955-1975

M-1941

M-1941

Korean War
1950-1953

Mollie

Mollie

Iraq War
2003-2011

Sources: Haversack: https://militaryantiquesmuseum.com/uxg0067-wwi-us-army-m1910-haversack-field-pack.21482.archive.htm Field Pack: https://www.wwiiimpressions.com/products/479aaa Alice Pack: https://survivalmag.net/alice-pack/ M-1941: https://www.machinegun-figures.com/usmc-m-1941-backpack-p-5025 MOLLIE: https://www.mcguirearmynavy.com/products/medium-acu-molle-rucksack

A well-designed backpack is a must for military personnel. It can mean all the difference in survival and the ability to help out fellow soldiers during high-stakes situations.

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.

When Did We Start Bringing Backpacks to School?

Children at bus stop https://www.huffingtonpost.com

Backpacks weren't seen in classrooms until about the late 1940s. This was at the end of World War II when schools were starting to be built again and more resources, like fabric and metal, were available to make the backpacks.

Prior to this point, kids went to one-room schoolhouses in rural areas where all the supplies were kept inside. The state of public education was completely different following the war. In fact, California alone opened an average of one new school a week in the 1950s. Books and supplies had to be carried to and from the classroom, and backpacks became a necessity ever since.

Newspaper clip https://www.huffingtonpost.com
Did you know?

Back in the 40s and early 50s, kids would carry backpacks made from leather or canvas. These were much more sophisticated than the ones young students use today!

When Did Backpacks Start Getting Printed With Characters?

Movie and TV characters were printed on the front of backpacks starting in the late 1950s. The was possible due to the invention of plastisol ink and the rise of the screen printing industry.

Today, you'll see backpacks featuring every color, design, and character imaginable, from superheroes to Disney characters. They're even sold as branded merch by companies like Coca-Cola and Netflix!

Take a look at a few awesome backpacks from your favorite brands:

What Are Popular Backpack Brands?

Person staring at lake

Over the years, a ton of trendy backpack brands have emerged. Here are the most popular:

  1. 1. JanSport
  2. 2. L.L. Bean
  3. 3. Herschel Supply Co.
  4. 4. Camelbak
  5. 5. Pantagonia
  6. 6. The North Face
  7. 7. Deuter
  8. 8. Fjallraven Kanken
  9. 9. Kipling
  10. 10. Osprey

JanSport is very popular with students, while Camelbak is a must for hikers and bikers. No matter which one you choose, you can't go wrong with any of these tried and true brands!

Person staring at lake

Who Invented JanSport Backpacks?

Skip Yowell Jansport.com

JanSport was started by Skip Yowell in the early 1970s. He was a self-declared hippie who hiked Mount Everest, left college, and won a design competition for his flexible aluminum backpack frame.

Yowell's design was worth more than just a prize in a competition. He started a company 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. The group ended up finding success in the world of academia, first selling their backpacks at the University of Washington bookstore.

At the end, Murray Pletz got a new wife and the three men got a thriving business that today makes over $32.4 billion a year in sales!

Skip Yowell Jansport.com

Watch this video to learn more about JanSport's fascinating history!

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Quote

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

Why Do We Love Backpacks?

Person hiking

Almost every person on the planet owns at least one backpack, and for good reason. We love to carry them because they're stylish, easy, and have enough room for everything we need!

If that's not enough, backpacks can also be used for good. Take for instance Feeding America, which provides easy-to-prepare meals in backpacks to more than 450,000 children a week. Then there's School in a Bag, which fills backpacks with school supplies, eating utensils, and other items for orphaned children in Africa.

Overall, a backpack is in equal parts a fashion statement and a practical item for our everyday needs. We'll always love carrying one around, whether we're a kid in elementary school or a working adult!

Person hiking

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

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

Stats 2 icon

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

Stats 3 icon

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

The Bottom Line

Whether you're a hiker, soldier, or student, the backpack's had your back for years. So go ahead and carry that Dora the Explorer backpack until you're in your 30's! These bags are a practical way for you to carry everything you need.

Alyssa Mertes

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

Forno, S. (2015, September 30). The Evolution of the Modern Backpack. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://onyourterms.com/the-evolution-of-the-modern-backpack-2df9340ff31e

Ogden, J. (2018). How the Backpack Evolved? Retrieved June 29, 2018, from http://blog.serbags.com/how-the-backpack-evolved/

Hassard, C. (2016, April 26). The Life and Times of the Tactical Backpack. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://huckberry.com/journal/posts/history-of-the-backpack

Siegel, A. (2013, January 7). The Evolution of the Backpack. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.startribune.com/the-evolution-of-the-backpack/185941002/

Leibowitz, L. (2017, December 06). The Evolution of the Backpack: School Bags Have Changed, Adorable Children Have Not. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/backpack-school-bags_n_3860144

McCorquodale, A. (2018). The Evolution of the Backpack: An Origin Story. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.landsend.com/

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/post/an-american-history-of-the-backpack

Bahn, P. (2005, April 1). Otzi the Iceman. McLean, VA: Cobblestone Publishing.

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

Parris, A. (2018, May 17). The History of the Backpack. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/the-history-of-the-backpack

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

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

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.

Fieldtex Contract Sewing Blog. A Brief History of Military Backpacks and Rucksacks. Retrieved from, https://blog.fieldtexcases.com/brief-history-military-backpacks-rucksacks/