Backpacks. Much like the number two pencil and the mysterious lunch lady hair, our school years are hard to imagine without them. But unlike that homeroom teacher who always called you by our older sibling’s name, backpacks haven’t been around forever. In fact, they’re a rather recent—and accidental—addition to the scene.
The very first proto-backpacks were really just leather straps that American school children used in the first decades of the 20th century to transport their books. It wasn’t until the zipper came along in 1938 that backpacks began to resemble what we see used in school hallways, airport concourses and hiking trails today.
The line has blurred considerably in the last fifty years, but backpacks were originally made for hiking and other outdoor activities. It was only by accident that clever students started purchasing nylon water-resistant backpacks to safely transport their books in the rain. Naturally, manufacturers took notice and started producing backpacks with reinforced bottoms and more rectangular shapes in order to better accommodate a weighty load of bulky textbooks. Today, the terms “backpack” and “book bag” are largely seen as synonymous. While some backpacks are obviously intended for more strenuous outdoor activities, most backpacks can also function as book bags.
A book bag or backpack can absolutely be used for sports. However, you may want to ask yourself this question beforehand: how much will you mind letting the funk of used gym socks get inside? As an alternative consider picking up a cinch bag that will be used exclusively for that purpose, so you won’t have to think twice about storing your items in a book bag or backpack that could be a little sweaty or dank-smelling. The simple, unstructured nature of a cinch bag also means that it can be easily washed out with a little bit of soap and water in the sink for an instant refresh.
The first backpacks were made out of canvas, and canvas continues to be a popular backpack material. But today many backpacks are made from nylon or polyester, which come with the added bonus of being water-resistant (not to mention stain-resistant). To ensure that your backpack will last, you’ll want to pay attention to something called the denier scale, which is a way of measuring the toughness of polyester fabrics. The higher its score along the denier scale, the harder wearing and tougher the backpack will be.
The first backpacks were actually used in college campuses by clever students who wanted to keep their books safe from rain spells. These early adopters bought backpacks that were intended for outdoor use, but turned out to be just as adept as holding textbooks and school supplies, too. As backpacks saw increasing use as book bags, manufactures began to design them explicitly for elementary and high school use. The first backpacks for school use began to appear in the 1980s, and have remained a classic childhood staple in the years since.
For centuries, outdoor enthusiasts and hikers would carry gear and supplies in large packs known as “rucksacks,” which were worn on the back. The creation of the zipper in 1938 inspired one outdoor enthusiast to make his own version of the rucksack, one that had a zipper compartment that could be easily reached during wear. This was the very first backpack, and the rest is history.