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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kids started bringing backpacks with them to school. After World War II, more materials were available to make these bags functional, lightweight, and stylish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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:
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!
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
Over the years, a ton of trendy backpack brands have emerged. Here are the most popular:
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!
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!
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!
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 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.
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