Piggyback Journalism

The history of the backpack, and why misinformed people seem to assume that they’re for kids. Here’s a story worth keeping in your knapsack.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: In the universe of bad takes, there’s the rest of the internet, and then there’s this guy who ripped on half the adult population to criticize their use of backpacks. Really, the post is about one guy’s hangup in a world where we’re increasingly required to carry lots of stuff just to get around. But it got me thinking about this evolution of backpack into a basic but practical tool that makes sense in any context, and how it must have caught this professional off-guard. Today’s Tedium talks about how the backpack makes sense—pretty much everywhere, basically. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s issue is sponsored by Lemonade. What’s Lemonade’s deal? Keep reading to learn more.

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How backpacks evolved from tactical to practical

I’m not going to tell you that the backpack is a new idea—people have been carrying stuff on their backs for centuries, of course.

But the backpack does highlight the fluid nature of language, the way that terminology shifts over time, and how the market helps accelerate existing innovation.

Variants of the backpack have existed for centuries. During the Pony Express era, it became common for riders to store goods inside a “mochila,” or the horse’s saddle, and were designed in a way that allowed for the bags to be easily removed from one horse and put onto another one. This cover evolved into modern mail sack, an object that has to deal with a whole lot of material on a daily basis.

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An image of the M1910 haversack, from its instruction manual. (via Internet Archive)

The U.S. military played a key role in the evolution of the backpack, which carried a soldier’s rations. At first, the designs of these bags, called haversacks, were simple canvas bags with single straps, similar to modern-day messenger bags, but over time they grew increasingly complex. By World War I, the common haversack used by soldiers, called the M1910, had evolved into a highly complex system seemingly intended to prevent ration waste—so complex that it needed a multi-page booklet to use. A passage from the illustrated US Marine Corps in World War I 1917–18 lays out how complicated this bag truly was:

The overly complex M1910 haversack was an awkward carry when fully loaded. It could only be worn with its straps attached to the cartridge or pistol belt, since it lacked a separate set of should straps. For the assault it was obviously packed much lighter and smaller. Unfortunately, to get something out of the pack it had to be fully opened.

Slight modifications to the pack, called the M1928, were largely used throughout World War II, though a separate variant, called the “jungle pack,” saw use in the war’s Pacific theater, where the more narrow M1910 design proved inefficient.

Overall, these packs, for all their strengths and weaknesses, helped set the stage for the backpack’s evolution in the consumer market—which was driven in part by a growing interest in the outdoors.

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Vintage Boy Scout backpacks from the 1950s (left) and 1970s. (puuikibeach/Flickr)

The association of backpacks with the outdoor innovations dates to at least the 1920s, when inventor Lloyd F. Nelson added a wooden frame to the sack, which made the bag more sturdy. Nelson’s invention came to be called “Trapper Nelson’s Indian Pack Board.”

Later, the Sierra Club likely helped to popularize the term backpack through a booklet it helped produce, “Going Light With Backpack Or Burro,” of which it published numerous editions during the 1950s and 1960s.

And by the middle of the century, two Colorado companies helped modernize the device in ways that make it feel recognizable today.

Gerry Cunningham, the founder of the first, had been working on ideas before World War II, returning to them after the war. Cunningham, an outdoorsman, had an interest in keeping things lightweight and simple to carry, and his company, Gerry, is credited for introducing two of the most fundamental materials to the backpack concept—the zipper, which helped simplify how a bag could be closed, and the use of nylon, which made the bag more lightweight and less likely to move around. (A third invention of his, the drawstring clamp, is still widely used in backpacks today.)

A more recent innovation in backpacks gave us what’s probably the best-known name in the field. In 1967, a designer named Murray Pletz came up with a backpack concept that put an aluminum frame inside of the pack. The idea was good, and won a design competition, but starting a business based around the pack proved a problem for one reason: He and his business partners didn’t know how to sew. Pletz knew someone who did, however—his girlfriend, Jan Lewis.

He asked Lewis if she would be willing to help. Pletz promised that if she did, he would marry her—and name the company after her. The marriage didn’t last, but that company became JanSport, which remains probably the biggest name in traditional backpacks to this day, in part because it didn’t stick with outdoor designs.

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A modern-day JanSport daypack. (rocor/Flickr)

In the 1970s, the company created a daypack using a lightweight panel-style design—and this design, further developed by other companies, became fundamental to the way that we carry stuff around.

By the mid 1980s, the backpack had evolved from a hardcore utility used by soldiers and outdoor enthusiasts into a mainstream product used by students.

Then it became cool for people to wear to the office. Where it belongs.

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The recommended maximum ratio of backpack weight to body weight that the American Occupational Therapy Association recommends for children. (The association says that weight levels above that ratio can create long-lasting pain years into the future.) Which means that if your kid is wearing a backpack, it probably should only weigh a couple of pounds.

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Why backpacks are simply too functional to be confined to the classroom or trail

The thing that makes the anti-backpack argument very strange is how it touches on something that isn’t really considered very much, but I’d like to give some voice to.

That point: How often do we avoid doing things that are objectively better than the alternative simply because of some unspoken rule of perception or decorum?

That appears to be the entire point Michael Callahan seems to be leaning on.

“I have no idea who thought making something designed for third-graders suitable for the office was a good idea, but I am here to say: You were wrong,” Callahan, the vice president of marketing and communications for Diversified Search, an executive search firm, wrote.

Callahan’s point is, essentially (and in paraphrased form), “You look like a child because you still wear a backpack despite the fact that you’re an adult.” Or, to put it in a between-the-lines way, “You’ll never be CEO if you continue to wear a sack on your back like you’re still in junior college.”

But logically, Callahan is on the losing end of a losing battle. Putting a pack on your back makes sense. It’s perhaps one of the largest areas of unused real estate on your entire body, and (as long as you’re not carrying 100 pounds of bricks) it’s likely more balanced than other places where that bag could live.

And in a large city like Philadelphia or New York, you’re probably not traveling to work or into the city in a car. So you need something to carry your stuff in. And briefcases don’t make a lot of sense for that purpose anymore. This isn’t the 1970s, and it’s simply more efficient to have two open hands available as needed.

Now, to be clear, backpacks are certainly not perfect, but avoiding wearing them out of a sense of vague decorum seems bizarre.

Here’s another way to think about it: Minus the noise they make when you’re tearing them off, Velcro shoes are clearly better than laces in just about every way. They’re easier to use, tend to be more secure than laces, and are made of tougher materials than many laces are.

Basically, the only reason why people don’t wear shoes with Velcro straps very often is because they carry a negative reputation that is more cultural than functional.

But backpacks have proven extremely functional beyond this reputation—partly as a result of shifting designs, and partly as a result of shifting perceptions. I rock a messenger bag myself, which works well for me because it’s designed in a way that distributes weight more efficiently. And when you have something that is often loaded down with heavy stuff, it simply makes sense.

And there’s evidence that backpacks are replacing other kinds of bags. The Atlantic recently noted, for example, that women are increasingly carrying backpacks as an alternative to purses in professional settings, with sales up by 28 percent in the past year.

Another factor here involves what we actually carry in these bags: Technology. Certainly, the devices we carry in our bags are smaller than they were two decades ago, but we need them more often, along with their accessories. And not carrying something by a handle opens up your hands for tweeting horrible jokes. Hence, a backpack looks more and more like a good idea.

And let’s be honest with ourselves: Wouldn’t you prefer your CEO be practical, rather than reflexively formal?

“Finding the option with the highest or lowest value can be difficult because the set of available options may be extremely large and/or not explicitly known. Frequently, only conditions are known which characterize the feasible options out of a very general ground set of theoretically available choices.”

A passage from the book Knapsack Problems, a textbook that considers the theories around the “knapsack problem,” a key concept in mathematics and programming. The concept, for those who aren’t into either, breaks down as such: If you’re given a certain number of items to fit into a backpack of a certain size, what’s the most efficient way to do so while getting everything in, considering the constraints of the bag? It sounds like a simple idea, but the concept has helped inspire loads of thinking in software engineering; one of the earliest examples of public key cryptography, the Merkle–Hellman knapsack cryptosystem, was based off this basic concept. (We don’t use it anymore because the system was successfully broken in 1982.)

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(National Air and Space Museum)

How NASA created (then quickly retired) the greatest backpack of all time

In the 1940s, the image of Dick Tracy talking through his wristwatch helped to create a popular image of what the future of technology was supposed to hold, and is widely believed to help inspire the smartphone.

The Rocketeer, a comic book series that evokes a similar era of history as Dick Tracy, came about way too late to actually inspire jetpacks—the comic first appeared in 1982, about a decade before its film adaptation—but even if the jetpack had already been invented in the 1950s, you have to wonder if the folks at NASA took any inspiration from the comic when they were putting the finishing touches on the manned maneuvering unit, or MMU.

The unit, effectively a massive backpack far larger than any pack Michael Callahan ever complained about, was effectively a jet pack that allowed astronauts to freely travel in space, untethered to the space shuttle.

The MMU was long in the works, with the original inspiration coming from Charles “Ed” Whitsett, who formulated his idea while in the Air Force in 1960. As Smithsonian notes, the pack was first tested inside of the Skylab space station in the early 1970s, but it had its first true test in February of 1984, when astronauts Bruce McCandless and Bob Stewart got a chance to fly a few hundred feet away from the space shuttle Challenger.

The idea was interesting, but it had its limits. One such limit: It did not travel very quickly, as fuel conservation was a key goal of the MMU design. (The Rocketeer, being a fictional character, faced no such limitations.) Secondly, the use cases for such an untethered device were limited.

George “Pinky” Nelson, who was tasked with attempting to rescue an errant satellite, used the MMU to get close to the satellite, but due to issues with his capture device, he was unable to secure the satellite. (More traditional means were used instead, though a later satellite rescue was more successful.)

Nelson, who was a fan of the technology, noted that the technology was somewhat redundant because of the already existing space shuttles, and after the 1986 Challenger disaster, the MMU was retired.

“The shuttle had such an amazing capability to fly right up to something, and it made more sense to just reach out and grab it, either with the [robotic] arm or just with a person, that the MMU became a really cool piece of technology that didn’t quite have a purpose,” Nelson told the magazine.

A replacement eventually emerged. The Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER), while not nearly as functional at the MMU, is designed as a spacewalk safety mechanism in case an astronaut loses physical contact with the shuttle.

Perhaps one of these days the MMU will make a comeback. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, NASA astronauts could fly through space using a fancy backpack.

Backpacks are simple and functional. But the thing is, they once were overly complex devices that were used in utilitarian contexts that weren’t particularly mainstream.

But eventually, the improvements in what was once a plainly utilitarian object helped to make it something lightweight, easy to carry, and perfectly practical.

And that evolution happened quickly enough that, if you’re someone who works at an executive search firm, you might mistake what is clearly a generational difference—the backpack really came into its own outside of the outdoors world in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that older executives may not have grown up with them in quite the same way—for a signifier of professionalism.

Backpacks (little black ones or otherwise) don’t make or break your ability to be the boss. Your skills as a boss—your ability to communicate, your approach to leadership, your capability of seeing the big picture—make you a good boss.

Your choice in bags simply highlights that you understand the value of carrying goods in a receptacle.

(And, side note, when are we going to accept that you can still be a great leader while still wearing Birkenstocks and wearing old, faded T-shirts?)


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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