As students gear up for the coming academic year, there’s one item that’s essential for students from elementary school to university -- a backpack.
Backpacks are more than just a way to carry books. They’re essentially a mobile office for the academic set. They can carry books, pencils or pens, notebooks, laptops, tablets, even the occasional water bottle or juice box. You’ll be hard pressed to find a campus at any level where backpacks aren’t ubiquitous.
And with good reason. For most people, backpacks are the most convenient way to carry school necessities to and from campus. That wasn’t always the case. School backpacks are a relatively recent phenomenon, within the past few decades. Options before then were more limited.
Students are far from the only people who use backpacks, of course. Hikers, campers, air travelers and others rely on them as well. But it’s likely the student population is the largest single group of backpack users.
Before backpacks became popular, students had limited ways to carry books and supplies. For many years, the only option was to carry them in one’s arms.
Some used a book strap, which was little more than a belt of leather or cloth to be wrapped around the books and fastened. It made carrying textbooks somewhat easier, but still left a lot to be desired in terms of comfort and flexibility.
By the 1960s (or a bit earlier -- Shakespeare refers to them), another option came along – the book satchel. This was a canvas or leather bag with a closed top and a single handle or one carrying strap. While it was better than a book strap, it too wasn’t ideal. It also tended to mark the carrier as a hopeless nerd (or at least that was our experience.)
Origins of the Backpack
Long before students began carrying backpacks, hikers, soldiers and others needed a way to carry necessary items. This often took the form of a simple cloth sack with shoulder straps and no frame.
In 1878, U.S. Army General Henry Merriam patented a design that used a sheet metal frame. The “Merriam Knapsack” proved so uncomfortable to use that soldiers began calling it the “murdering knapsack,” and it soon fell into disuse. Still, it was a first step toward the modern backpack we know today.
The word “backpack,” usually hyphenated as “back-pack,” came into common use around 1904.
Development of the backpack continued gradually through the early years of the 20th century. By the 1920s, companies were mass-producing framed backpacks.
A major improvement came in 1938, when Gerry Cunningham created the first backpack with a zipper. The added ease of access and greater security proved a boon to hikers.
Cunningham later founded the Gerry Company, credited with the next major advance in backpack technology. Before 1967, backpacks were typically made of canvas. That year, Gerry (the company) introduced what it claims to be the first backpack made of nylon. Both stronger and lighter than canvas, the nylon packs quickly caught on.
The same year, three friends in Seattle formed a company to make outdoor gear. They named it JanSporta, after one of the friends. The company a small backpack called the Ski and Hike in 1969.
Soon, students in the rainy Pacific Northwest began buying the Ski and Hike to keep their books dry on the way to and from class at the University of Washington. Success at other colleges soon followed.
As JanSport became increasingly popular on the West Coast, outdoor retailer L.L. Bean began selling the Book Pack. It quickly became a hit on the East Coast, becoming a huge selling product in 1982.
Backpacks in School
Beginning in the 1980s, students in elementary, middle and high schools joined their college elders in using backpacks. Today, they’re a standard part of the education scene.
In addition to their functional appeal, backpacks have become a vehicle for self-expression as well. They’re easy to customize with drawings, stickers, custom patches and much more. Students can easily create something that reflects their personality and interests.
Over the years, backpacks have evolved and added features to make them more versatile. Separate compartments allow for better organization of supplies. An outside zipper pocked provides easy storage for small items.
A padded laptop compartment and zippered pockets inside permit easier storage and better protection for laptops, chargers and accessories. Water bottle pockets make it convenient for wearers to stay hydrated on the go.
As more and more students began carrying backpacks, concerns arose about the possibility of back injuries caused by heavy packs, especially among younger students. That led to the creation of backpacks with wheels and extendable handles, essentially a miniature suitcase.
Backpacks Get Smart
In recent years, backpacks have added electronic features. Built-in USB ports and power blocks enable on-the-go charging of phones, tablets and even laptops, all without needing to open the backpack.
Custom Imprinted Backpacks
That same “blank canvas” nature also enables custom imprinted backpacks. That makes it easy to boost school spirit with printed school logos, names or mascots. Younger students can celebrate their favorite children’s TV, comic or movie characters. Older students can even make a fashion statement.
In recent years, an increasing number of schools and school districts have begun requiring clear backpacks. These help increase security for students, faculty and staff.
Backpacks are a time-tested way to cope with the challenge of transporting books, notebooks, laptops, tablets and other necessities. Today’s students at all levels depend on backpacks to help keep them organized, their gear safe and dry and accessible. With new materials, styles and options, new backpacks are sure to be even more popular in the future.