What’s the Most Versatile Bag in History? The Fabulous Tote, of Course!



“To carry, wield, or convey”

Sounds powerful, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s why the classic tote bag has been a staple in wardrobes for decades. And this includes every type under the sun; from the tote you use for groceries to the chic “night-on-the-town” bag, the design lives on in many forms. So, can we trace back to when the tote came into popularity and how we’ve come to love it so? Here’s a brief history of the beloved bag:

The Ancients

When humans first became bipedal and began collecting possessions, they ran into a dilemma. How could they ensure they always had their things by their side while on the road? Thus, the “bag” was born over 2.5 million years ago out of the mother of necessity. People needed to “tote” their things with them and this simple, strappy little number was the perfect solution.

Tote bags first made their appearance in the Hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. Bags can be seen carved into antique walls, frescos, and Egyptian papyruses. These ancient bags have never been recovered as most were made from perishable items.

Ancient Greece and the Romans also used tote bags. The Roman city of Pompeii adopted the Classicism movement and women’s fashion began to alter the style of the tote. As the shape of dresses didn’t allow for thigh bags, women began to adopt the tote as an alternative. After this period, the tote took a back seat to other styles until a small shop in Maine changed everything for good.

L.L. Bean

It all started with the Maine-based outdoor store L.L. Bean in 1944. Back in the day when refrigerators ran on blocks of ice, there was a need for something to transport the ice from the car to the hearth. In other words, carrying a massive block of ice from your car to kitchen was awkward and often proved a terrible effort.

– The Ice Bag

L.L. Bean began to work on a solution to the issue and soon developed the very first tote known as an “Ice Bag.” Legendary and easily recognizable today, the large and boxy canvas bag was the durable resolution people were looking for. Now, they could use L.L. Bean’s tough tote to cart ice from their car to their home with ease.

– The Boat Bag

The strength and versatility of the ice bag lent to instant popularity, but the trend died down for a few decades. That is until the company reintroduced the product in the 1960’s. The design for L.L. Bean’s boat bag was sleeker and more refined than the ice bag. The canvas stayed, but other colorful elements were added, including iconic parts and a handsome trim.

Although the exact figure is not known, it is estimated that L.L. Bean manufactures over half a million Boat and Totes every year in their Brunswick, Maine factory. Today, the bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and material. You can even customize your tote through L.L. Bean to create the exact style that suits you. From leather handles to zippers and extra pockets, they continue to remain incredibly versatile.

Bonnie Cashin

Once totes were accepted as a practical addition to every household, they began to be viewed through the lenses of fashion. During the stylish 1960’s, American fashion designer Bonnie Cashin decided to take her own spin on the favored tote design.

-Cashin Carry Tote

Bonnie decided on leather as the material and created totes in every color. She called it the “Cashin Carry Tote” and it was the first time the bag was viewed in a stylish light. The elegant design of Bonnie’s bag elevated the tote to the next level and inspired a range of designers for years to come. After the Cashin Carry, the tote design proliferated.

The Strand

Fashionable advertising and making a statement were the next steps for the tote bag. In the 1980’s the iconic New York City bookstore The Strand introduced their own version of the tote.

– Strand Tote

The Strand Tote was originally ordered in bulk and made from blank stock tote. It had an interior lining and the material was made from natural cotton duck canvas. In large red letters, the store advertised their name, address, and slogan “18 miles of books.”

Over time, just like the L.L. Bean tote, The Strand was developed with improvements. Velcro closures were added, and the handles reinforced. It was an incredibly popular item all over the city—which can still be seen on people’s arms today.

The Strand Tote was also the first to start incorporating art into the designs. Starting with iconic pictures of figures like Frida Khalo and Ruth Ginsberg, they combined backdrops of animals, city scenes, and a variety of colorful images. Their design process is a community effort, involving members from the marketing, design, and visual merchandising team meeting up to brainstorm. In 2016 alone, almost 90,000 Strand Totes were sold, so the trendy bag has truly taken over the bookstore.

High-end Totes

After years of practical iterations, it was time to branch off. The tote started making methods down the runway. Rebecca Minkoff, Tory Burch, Prada, Coach, and other large designer houses began to take interest in creating their own versions of the popular bag.

Unlike the typical tote made of canvas, the fashion world played around with a variety of materials and shapes that still bore the name “Tote.” This included materials like:

  • Leather
  • Denim
  • Snakeskin
  • Crocodile
  • Velvet
  • Vinyl
  • Lace

And any other type of high-fashion material you can imagine. As designers caught on, some, like Kate Spade, made this style their signature design. Louis Vuitton followed with their version called the “Neverfull” the idea being, of course, that a tote has endless space. Other popular high-class versions include:

– Madewell Transport Tote

The Madewell Transport is larger than your average tote and a tad pricier. It boasts a greater level of sophistication than your day-to-day bag but is still utilitarian in function. The bag is made out of genuine leather that seems to only look better over time. The sleek and simple form make it a popular item that perfectly complements denim.

– The Birkin Bag

Perhaps the most expensive bag in the world, the Birkin Bag is also a form of the tote. The story goes that Hermes executive Jean-Louis Dumas was seated on a flight next to actress Jane Birkin in 1981. She spilled the contents of her straw bag all over and he was immediately inspired to create a bag that would allow jet-setting women to carry a lot onboard.

Considered the apex of the tote bag, the most expensive Birkin was a 30-inch matte white Himalaya niloticus crocodile bag made with 18-carat white gold and hardware bearing 245 diamonds. It sold for $377,261 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong and remains one of the most expensive bags on the planet. You could buy a house for less than this tote.

Practical Totes

The birth of totes was made for practicality and that’s where the heart of this design will always remain. In recent times, they have been used to replace grocery bags. Some cities, like San Francisco, have outlawed plastic bags completely. This created a greater demand for the bag in these areas. The results for this have been mixed. A 2014 study revealed that 40% of people forgot their reusable bags when shopping and the bags were only used a total of 15 times before being thrown away.

Ikea has also updated their tote after 20 years of the same design. Sold as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags, the newer version is more sustainable and larger than ever. Recently, the French luxury brand Balenciaga released their own high-end version of the Ikea bag. This gives people a variety of options and price points for the popular furniture brand’s tote.

Tote Designs and Materials

Most practical totes can be folded to fit in your pocket, while you wouldn’t dream of doing that to a high-end luxury tote. These types of bags have been around for a long time and thus have many variations and versions depending on style, size, material, color, and design. The more rigid the structure, the more the bag retains its shape. Here are just a few of the different styles on the market:

– Jute Tote

Made from a vegetable fiber that’s traditionally used for burlap and sacking, the Jute tote is cheap, strong, and biodegradable. These are typically the totes used in place of shopping bags and are incredibly durable.

– Art Tote

You can barely go to any installation or museum these days without being offered some type of tote. Described as the “The Art World’s most ubiquitous accessory” every exhibition is sure to have their own commissioned bag. This is a smart move on their behalf as each person carrying a tote becomes a walking advertisement. However, it also alludes to the owner being an intellectual creative with a deep appreciation for the arts. It’s a win-win.

– Leather Tote

These totes are priced to be more of a fashionable accessory, than a practical one. Although you can still fit groceries in a leather tote, you probably won’t want to. Leather is an extremely durable material and totes are known for space, so if you carry the kitchen sink with you, this bag would suit you perfectly. Leather totes are a tad harder to clean than canvas (you can’t throw them in the wash), but they last a lot longer.

The nature of the tote is utilitarian. It’s easy to see why it remains a popular item to this day. It’s functional, practical, and deftly transitions to any environment. From carting ice to sporting diamonds, it’s been a long road for the tote. But with the love that people have for this convenient item, it’s not going anywhere soon.

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