History of Tote Bags

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

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!

Hour Glass

History of Tote Bags Timeline:

When did tote bags first appear on the scene? Get ready to dive into a full look at some of the most influential tote bags in history!

  • 1940

    LL Bean Tote Source: racked.com

    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.

  • 1980

    The Strand Bag Source: strandbooks.com

    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.

  • 1996

    Ikea Tote Source: cosmopolitan.com

    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.

  • 2000

    Polyprylene Bag Source: qualitylogoproducts.com

    Polypropylene became a popular material to use in promotional tote bags. This lightweight fabric is flexible, easy to customize, and cheap to produce.

  • 2008

    Whole Foods Tote Source: wholefoodsmarket.com

    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.

  • 2008

    Trader Joe's Tote Bag Source: blue-kitchen.com

    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.

  • 2012

    The Strand Boat and Tote Source: businesswire.com

    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!

  • 2013

    Target Tote Source: sustainableisgood.com

    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!

  • 2017

    The New Yorker Tote Source:marketwatch.com

    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.

  • 2018

    LL Bean Customizable Source: sustainableisgood.com

    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.”

Fun Fact!

The phrase “tote bag” wasn’t commonly used in our language until roughly 1900.

Let’s Speak About Meek!

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!

Handbag Source: jhmusem.org

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!

Handbag Source: jhmusem.org
Quote

That simple quote, ‘Buy Cantwell Shoes,’ drove so much traffic Meek and Cantwell didn’t know what to do.

Greg Coffman of the Elliot Calendar Company, one of the last remaining promo companies in Coshocton, Ohio

Image Courtesy of L.L. Bean

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.

Image Courtesy of L.L. Bean

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!

Source L.L. Bean
Quote

Many of our customers comment on the attachment they feel for their tote. A worn tote is a testament to the many miles traveled and the adventures you’ve taken together.

Pam R. Jones, L.L. Bean Senior Designer

Source: inhabitat.com

You Say You Want a Revolution

Promotional tote bags proved to be functional items to have on hand, but they became so much more in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, these bags were used as political statements. This was due to their accessibility, the ease that came with screen-printing, and the increasing popularity of custom t-shirts with bold messages.

Source: inhabitat.com

Even today, many causes, such as FEED, turn to spreading awareness with custom tote bags. Founder Lauren Bush was inspired to help improve child malnutrition and school meals in poverty-stricken areas like Cambodia, Guatemala, and Chad. The charitable custom totes offered by her organization are sold from $28 to $278 each and the money goes toward fighting hunger around the world. Each bag features a number stamped on it that signifies the amount of meals or micronutrient packets provided with each purchase. FEED also branches out by collaborating with popular retailers like Lord & Taylor and other nonprofits such as UNICEF.

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.

Source: newyorkcityreflections.blogspot.com

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.

Did you know?

The Strand sells approximately 89,000 custom tote bags every year.

Props to Polypropylene

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.

#2 - Cost Effective
Polypropylene is an inexpensive material, making it accessible to more customers. Some promotional totes can cost as little as under a dollar per bag.

#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.

Whole Foods

The Value of Promotional Tote Bags

Source: Gaby Juergens, Homefront Girl

Promos in Action
Major stores like Whole Foods aren’t the only ones making a statement with their tote bags. Gail Juergens of Homefront Girl prints her custom designs and inspirational messages on bags for military families, particularly the spouses left behind. The idea is to pay tribute to “the other half of the brave” and give them a product that represents their lifestyle.

The Homefront Girl line includes not only totes, but also custom t-shirts, teddy bears, candles, and other products. However, Gail’s totes remain one of the bestselling and most popular items in her collection. In fact, over a year she sells about 1,000 tote bags. It touches a lot of military families and first responders to have a practical item that represents their identity. In fact, customers like Michelle C. have raved over the power of these tote bags, saying they “shine a light on the love we have for our service members.”

Quote Icon

A custom tote bag is eye-catching and says, this is who I am. It’s part of your identity and seeing yourself reflected in the brand.

– Gaby Juergens, Owner of Homefront Girl

Promote with a Custom Tote

Custom tote bags have been popular for over 100 years. No matter what your organization, you can’t go wrong offering personalized tote bags featuring your unique logo or advertising message!

50% of US consumers own a trade show bag.

Custom tote bags create more than 5,700 impressions every year.

87% of consumers keep promotional tote bags because they’re useful.

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 Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

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.

References

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.”