Other Lessons in This Course
- History of Tote Bags
- History of Promotional Products
- History of Fidget Spinners
- History of Tote Bags
- History of Pens
- History of Modern Trade Shows
- History of Stress Balls
- History of Lunch Boxes
- History of T-Shirts
- History of Koozies
- History of the Frisbee
- History of Coffee Mugs
- History of Pencils
- History of Reusable Water Bottles
- History of Logo Design
- History of Keychains
- History of Backpacks
- History of Sunglasses
- History of Baseball Caps
- History of Flashlights
- History of Sticky Notes
- History of Sports Merchandise
- History of Lip Balm
- History of Wedding Favors
- History of PopSockets
The first promotional tote bag was used in 1886 when Cantwell Shoes advertised their store with custom burlap bags printed by Jasper Meek. Today, non-profits, small startups, and major companies market their services using custom totes.
If you need a way to carry towels to the beach, clothes to the dry cleaner, or groceries home from the store, you can’t go wrong with tote bags. For years, we’ve been carrying our essentials in these eco-friendly bags, though they’ve grown more in popularity over the last few years, especially as advertising items.
Why did we start printing our logos on tote bags? What are some of the first tote bags in use? Let’s take a trip down memory lane to explore the history of tote bags!
L.L. Bean introduced their iconic Boat & Tote, an oversized canvas carryall. The original model of this bag was used for the practical purpose of carrying wood and ice during household chores.
The Strand, an iconic bookstore in New York, released a black canvas bag featuring their logo. Since then, their designs have become increasingly popular with their customers.
IKEA is good for more than just frustrating assembly directions and delicious Swedish meatballs. Their iconic oversized tote emerged in the 90s and was designed to hold a large amount of trendy home goods.
Polypropylene became a popular material to use in promotional tote bags. This lightweight fabric is flexible, easy to customize, and cheap to produce.
Whole Foods has a wide selection of reusable tote bags in their store. Sheryl Crow, the singer behind “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun,” collaborated with the grocery chain on this organic design.
Following in the footsteps of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s began offering their own custom tote bags. These sturdy bags are available in a wide variety of colors and cost only 99¢ each.
L.L. Bean introduced their limited edition Fenway Boat & Tote. This bag was made from a tarp used to protect the Red Sox’s infield during the 2010-2011 season!
When Target customers shop with this reusable red bag, they receive a 5-cent discount on their purchases. To date, shoppers have used more than 190 million reusable bags!
This tote bag from The New Yorker became a status symbol after being used as a free giveaway. Just by carrying the tote, people in the city were able to show how they stood behind the stories printed by the publication.
L.L. Bean introduced a customizing option on their website. You can go online and create your very own tote bag, which is built by hand in Maine and shipped to your doorstep!
Where Did the Word “Tote” Come From?
The word “tote” as in “to carry” can be traced back to the 17th century. It was a time of great exploration, political unrest all over Europe, and new scientific ideas proposed by innovators like Isaac Newton. With many nations interacting for the first time, words like “tote” were adapted into the modern language. In fact, “tote” actually derives from the Swahili word “tuta,” which means “to pile up or carry.”
The Father of Promotional Products
We may see custom tote bags all over the place today, but they weren’t officially born until the 19th century. In 1886, newspaper owner Jasper Meek came up with an idea that would keep his printing presses running during the slow season. He approached a local shoe store called Cantwell Shoes in Coshocton, Ohio and suggested printing “Cantwell’s Fine Shoes” on burlap bags. These totes served as free giveaways for every customer who came into the store. Children in the small town reused these bags to bring books to and from school. Other parents would see this and wonder how they could get one of their own, driving more customers to the small store. This kind of recognition benefited both Meek and Cantwell, and just like that, promotional tote bags were born!
Meek’s simple tote bags launched the entire promotional products industry. We wouldn’t be where we are today with such a large variety of custom stress balls, promotional water bottles, and other company giveaways if it wasn’t for the success found in Coshocton!
Spilling the Beans
Custom tote bags were made popular thanks to Meek, but it still took some time for them to become mainstream items. In 1944, Maine-based company L.L. Bean introduced its “ice bag,” which was a stylish way to carry ice and wood. The Boat and Tote® was made of canvas and to this day is one of the company’s most popular items, with over a half million sold each year. The bag has evolved from its 1944 edition to include many different colors, a variety of sizes, and different handle lengths and materials. Today, the navy and red straps are the company’s best-sellers, with new seasonal colors coming out every six months.
The Boat and Tote ushered in a new wave of tote bags as practical accessories. For the first time, people were entertaining the idea of using them to carry everything from groceries to fishing gear. By 1991, L.L. Bean also got into personalization by including a monogram of their initials on each bag. This helped promote their company, while also offering customers something practical and trendy.
It wasn’t long before these stylish, oversized bags were used as promotional materials by many organizations, including the Boston Red Sox. In 2010, the Sox celebrated over 100 years at Fenway with a limited edition L.L. Bean Boat and Tote®! The bag was created from an imprinted tarp used on the field during the 2010-2011 season!
Read It on a Tote
Following the self-expression of the 60s, people were more likely to carry tote bags than ever before. Since canvas bags were cheap to produce, they became increasingly popular advertising items. Many companies, such as famed bookstore The Strand, began using promotional totes. In 1980, they released a black canvas bag with the store’s name, contact information, and the tagline “18 miles of books.” This bag is still extra popular in New York and has become iconic in its design.
The founder’s granddaughter, Nancy Bass, is behind the store’s modern initiatives in keeping the custom tote bags fresh. Today, the store offers bags featuring the profiles of notable public figures including Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. These are all created in-house by full-time designers at the iconic bookstore.
The tote bags we know and love today owe a lot to the discovery of polypropylene. Back in 1954, chemists Karl Rehn and Giulio Natta first perfected and synthetized the material. Since it was so durable and reliable, polypropylene began to be produced for commercial use in everything from carpeting to laboratory equipment.
From there, it became a mainstay material for creating promotional tote bags. While the exact date isn’t certain, polypropylene came onto the promo scene sometime in the 2000s. Since then, this material has been a staple in some of the best promotional totes. In fact, the extra popular Eco-Friendly Non Woven Tote Bag was brought onto the Quality Logo Products® website in 2008. This bag, like every other made from polypropylene, has many benefits including:
#1 - Easy to Customize
Manufacturers are able to dye the material without affecting its chemical makeup. This means the tote bags will stay vibrant and won’t fade after continual use and exposure.
#3 - Flexible and Durable
It’s easy to store a large amount of items in the bag without worrying about it tearing apart. This lightweight material is extremely sturdy and able to last for years.
The Growing Popularity of Custom Tote Bags
Today, many popular stores such as IKEA, Target, and Trader Joe’s offer their own brand of tote bags to customers. This helps shoppers save both the environment and money.
Perhaps no grocery store’s tote is more popular than the one offered at Whole Foods. This iconic store was the first supermarket chain to eliminate disposable plastic grocery bags completely in 2008. Currently, Whole Foods throughout the Midwest offer tote bags made from 100% recycled soda bottles. These convenient carryalls are machine-washable, with the seasonal designs becoming very popular with customers.
The Value of Promotional Tote Bags
The Bottom Line
When it comes down to it, personalized tote bags are a tote-ally awesome promotional product. They work as both stylish fashion accessories and a practical way to carry your daily essentials. Whether you use them to hold ice, novels from your favorite bookstore, or a laptop to and from work, tote bags will always carry you through each day!
Alyssa is a super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.
1. Promotional Products Work, “A Look Inside The History of The Promotional Products Industry”
2. Online Etymology Dictionary, “Tote”
3. Langley, Edwina, Grazia, “Totes Amazing: The History Of The Tote (And The Ones to Buy This Season)”
4. HBX, “A Brief History on Tote Bags”
5. Irish, Anni, Racked, “A History of the Humble Tote Bag”
6. Waremakers, “Introducing the Tote Bag”
7. Bucci, Jessica, Startup Fashion, “Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of the Tote Bag”
8. Fishbein, Rebecca, Gothamist, “A Brief History of The Strand, As The Legendary Bookstore Turns 90.”
9. Fishbein, Rebecca. Gothamist, “A Brief History of the Strand.”
10. Johnson, T. ThoughtCo., “Learn the Basics of the Plastic Resin Polypropylene.”