Backpacks are a staple for many types of people: working professionals, travelers, hikers and, most of all, students. From leather straps to JanSport packs, the modern student backpack is only about 44 years old and has seen many new fads and changes in a short amount of time.
According to Time, an American weekly news magazine, the first vessels for students’ books weren’t pack-like at all, rather, a strap of leather or cloth, basically a belt that was fastened around a stack of books to make them easier to carry. Straps remained in use for many decades, but they eventually went out of fashion.
In 1938, when Gerry Outdoors invented the first backpack with a zipper, backpacks were still primarily in use for hiking, camping and alpine recreation. Between the 1930s and ‘60s, some kids also made use of canvas or leather bags with a single strap, miniature briefcases that were usually called satchels, for trips to and from school. Some students could also be seen carrying their academic luggage on their backs in squared leather bags, fastened shut with buckles.
Leather, wood, and sometimes light steel implements were the materials of the day. According to Heddels, a leading destination for those seeking to understand and find well-made, enduring denim, footwear, and other clothing that improves with wear, various designers made intriguing and long-lasting contributions to backpacks over the years between the invention of the Trapper Pack and the dawn of academic backpacks.
In 1938, Jerry Cunningham was the first to add zippers to backpacks; in 1950, Åke Nordin founded Fjallraven when he made a small canvas bag that sat high and tight on the wearer’s back; and in 1952, Dick and Nina Kelty created the modern backpacker’s bag by using surplus airplane aluminum to make large, lightweight frames for their gear.
Everything, however, changed when the first lightweight nylon daypack was invented, blowing the door wide open for backpack redesign, according to Time. Gerry Outdoors claims to have created the very first “modern nylon backpack in existence” in 1967. The smaller and lighter backpack caught on among other gear brands, and became immensely popular among outdoor enthusiasts.
While the original student backpack came about organically in response to practical student needs, novelty backpacks that are made mostly with aesthetics in mind, have become popular in more recent decades. Backpacks that feature shiny images of favourite children’s TV and movie characters demonstrate the ways in which back-to-school has been commercialised, and is marketed as a fun, sometimes whimsical time for young people. Backpacks aren’t just about the business of carrying things to school anymore. They’re a part of a student’s identity.
The evolution of backpacks from a simple strap to back-to-school basic—and, possibly, to obsolete remnant of the pre-digital age—reveals that backpacks can carry a lot more than books; they’re also a symbol of changing expectations for students and for the education system as a whole.