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the backpack: most humane luggage. Justin Hall's personal site growing & breaking down since 1994

watch overshare: the story contact me

justin hall
april 7, 1997
design of everyday things
t. kaori kitao

the backpack: most humane luggage.

To undertake a study of backpacks is to confront an open field. No articles or books detailing the history of baggage, or the place of the backpack therein, appear either in the swarthmore college library, or in the vast electrosphere. Fortunately, years of use-time in academics, where backpacks are assumed appendages, and holding the current popular model up next to the somehow vastly different briefcase and suitcase, both of these spawn musings on the human roots and function of this device.

First, I define backpack here by its form, and throughout this paper by its context. The backpack is most often formed of flexible material, affixed with two straps intended to hold the bag over the shoulders against the back. Typically, items are placed irregularly within; there is an implicit informality to packing the backpack's three dimensional space. In context, the backpack has come to stand for independence, mobility, action (note the regular appearance of the word "sport" in backpack brand names), and self-sustaining access to necessities.

Where the business briefcase is clearly designed for papers and files, the backpack holds best sustenance scale items. The briefcase, as titled, holds literally briefs, the backpack title is more user-directed, being named originally in the German, rucksack, sack on the back. even in its naming, the backpack is a more intimate luggage, and in its physical presence the backpack is an extension of the body to encompass portable possessions. A full backpack renders one less wieldy, more bulky than slender, but it is the volumetric flexibility of the back location, its potential for expansion in three dimensions, that clearly distinguishes the functionality of the backpack from that of either the briefcase or the suitcase:

contents items such as foodstuffs, which often require bulky containers, as well as clothes and other fabrics, such as sleeping gear, would never fit in a narrow and compartmentalized briefcase (these are sustenance scale items), moreover, the handle arrangement provided on a briefcase would not suffice for long term carriage; who would prefer to carry a mass of bulky items solely by hand?

with the suitcase, the dimensions are often more favorable to broader goods, hence its place in the tourist symbology of travel (indeed the rectangle with handle icon pervades loci of departure). But it too suffers from handle trouble; lugging around over 20 pounds by hand is just silly - even in luggage-friendly situations such as airports. Imagine a large Samsonite in the urban jungle daily, let alone the forest untamed.

So its potential cargo and convenient means of carry identify the backpack as a utility and independent foot-travel favorite. Lazy Westerners untrained in head use utilize their backs to lug their lives around.

This mobile character, as well as the goods that might be carried within, hint at a military origin. Using the back to carry volume-centric items leaves the head free to turn and jerk about, and the arms free to work and kill.

The two straps serve this goal as well; the load and the carrier both are stabilized by distributing the weight over both shoulders. If camping and military supplies are being foot-transported, and they might total over 40 pounds, it could be physically harmful to carry that load in the wrong way. Equal distribution of myriad objects' weight across the body saves any one part from taking too much strain (though one wonders if in fact carrying with the head might not encourage better posture - some backpack users have a most alarming tendency to hunch forward under their load).

It's the two straps that make the backpack and its intended carriage a commitment: when leaving somewhere, assembling and donning a backpack can take as much as ten times as long as closing and snatching up a briefcase. Many students on the go opt out of this by only using one backpack-strap, and some even leave the primary pocket open. But it may be the difference in packing and closing time that really slows the backpack user, and not simply donning the straps. Bulk items must be adjusted within a three dimensional framework; there are three axes for mistake and variance, whereas the briefcase provides one less plane to worry about. In addition, the typical closing mechanism of the backpack requires either lacing, drawstring, zipper, all of which require more time than slam and latch briefcases.

The preceding analysis was performed without research; the assumptions that might be made by looking at several backpacks, and more than a decade of steady use, and thereby judging its character and development. What research might reveal is the progression from military to civilian use, current use patterns, and foreshadowings of future development of the backpack form. Unfortunately, a virtual trip to the library reveals ten irrelevant books on baggage, thirteen on briefcases (mostly metaphor - titles of poetry and prose collections), one book subject listing containing the word "rucksack" by Solzhenitsyn, and one measly book on backpacks having to do with backpacking (which, while it may be the verb form of the subject at hand, is just one particular use-context for this device that will be taken up later in this paper).

Regardless of its lack of presence in the library, the backpack is now ubiquitous in this country, if not the (western) world over. It is omnipresent on high school and college campuses, and has penetrated the business market; like modern non mammalian marsupials, most Americans today extend themselves with a pouch.

Commonplace models, the two straps and vertical alignment, top opening version, are available for ten to hundreds of dollars. A recent visit to a Delaware County Staples office supply superstore revealed the cheap end of the backpack spectrum fashioned of synthetic fabrics (canvas-like feel) with passable use-value although flimsy looking construction, and the next step up (at least in price) featured Harvard colors and logo on similarly fashioned packs (status symbol for students?). Towards the high end, backpacks were crafted in leather with gold colored zippers, and occasionally featured dedicated, protected space for laptop computers.

Since 1995, I have used such a sack: a padded pocket protects computer equipment and holds it secure against my back. When I am not carrying my computer, or even sometimes when I am, I try to use this pocket to carry papers, file folders. Even in this narrow vertical pocket, papers in backpacks do not last in a pristine condition. (Recent developments have begun to merge the briefcase and the backpack; a narrow paper pocket behind pockets for bulk and books, or a laptop pocket also serving this function: my friend Ethan Devine has a "Silicon Sports" brand backpack like that.)

Mine is a popular brand, "Jansport," and fashioned of some sort of synthetic canvas material, but I long ago threw away the accompanying tag explaining its material composition. Unlike clothes, other things I most often wear on my back, there is no label inside the backpack with an ingredients list. There is a small tag sewn into the lining with care instructions and a guarantee. While my backpack is cool because it has a spine-side padded pocket for laptop computers, the materials used to fashion it are nothing for Jansport to brag about once i've bought it. Perusing an online catalog ( reveals that all of their packs are made with "1000 denier Cordura Plus nylon" (denier - "a unit of fineness for yarn equal to the fineness of a yarn weighing one gram for each 9000 meters (100-denier yarn is finer than 150-denier yarn)" - according to Websters Collegiate Dictionary.) Other portables with more fabric personality, leather, hemp, vinyl, are visibly fashioned of something immediately exotic. Indeed, in an issue unarchived in our library, a Vogue magazine article title in 1994 says that "Today designers are adding a glamorous edge to the once purely practical backpack - with everything from exotic skins to intricate beading." (Vogue v. 184 (Mar. '94) p. 440).

I've seen in recent years a proliferation of vinyl backpacks the size of two stacked fists between the shoulderblades of mostly women at raves. baby pack No larger than a purse, the strange size of these packs matches the scale of the t-shirts those ladies wear: often called "baby-tees," remarkably small shortsleeved shirts ending at the midriff, shirts sized for ten year-olds worn both provocatively and regressively by teenagers and twenty-somethings. Traditionally small-scale women's evening baggage has been hand-held or single shoulder carried. The use of a backpack in this case would seem to signify both a measure of mobility and independence for women out on the town, in addition it rejoins the rave movements youth identity: these backpacks emerge from a generation that is comfortable carrying their belongings primarily on their back. Now, while these miniscule bags have largely receeded from fashion (so much so that the very trend-aware student Aaron Wong told me he couldn't imagine a single person on campus who still had one, except perhaps a teacher), it is not unusual to see a woman in her thirties at a fashionable bar in New York with a small leather two-strap pack hanging from one strap off her shoulder. And should she need to carry her coat, it being a warmer night than she expected, she can carry it herself, granted the backpacks three dimensional capacity. To be sure, not all ladies fashion backpacks are super-small, some, most, are somewhere between the remarkably tiny and the typical student model.

Young men, on the other hand, seem to favour an over-the-shoulder with a single strap, flap-based, flexible fabric but ultimately rigid for paper commuter case (similar to the recently urban-trendy bike messenger bag, which is typically made of stout but flexible nylon, intended to be worn across the chest, with one large closing flap, secured with velcro and optional straps; utterly despicable treatment of loose papers is typical therein). We have already noted the use-value of two straps, in this case the one strap and flat orientation, but made of looser material, with a flap, seems a compromise between the backpack's flexible informality and the briefcase's professional practicality - the ease of shoulder carrying and some volumetric flexibility combined with paper or professional orientation (Jansport catalog calls this model the "commuter" or the "mvp" - like you can fit your wadded up raquetball outfit into it if you forget your gym bag, and still carry the prospectus home in good condition).

Who, then, is the backpack for?
If we examine the way the backpack serves as metaphor, we might understand that, and corroborate or not these findings above.

Baby carriers might be the original backpack (if I can use that term, now so loaded with meaning). American children are brought up gazing at textbook illustrations of Native American mothers working, their babies strapped to their backs. The proximity of the child to its mother, and the freedom of the mothers arms and movement all serve a critical function similar to that of the modern backpack (proximity in the case of laptop computer carriers).

So called "Nuclear Backpacks" arose in the course of my search; the eighties metaphor for theoretical single soldier atomic death dispatching devices. Again, this underscores the concept of backpack as self-contained portable, and harkens back to the unconfirmed military origin of the modern backpack.

backpack vacuum backpack vacuum Perhaps merging product studies, internet searching yielded a vacuum-backpack advertisement, loaded with language of hands-free convenince and mobility: "The backpack vacuum enables operators to more effectively maneuver throughout buildings and cover areas missed by uprights and canisters." (from

But the most persistent metaphor is that of backpack as catch-all carrier of necessities:

More searching the internet turns up "CyberSurfer's Backpack - software to get started surfing the internet" and "Internet Backpack Multimedia Resources from Web Marketing" - clearly having little to do with two straps and volumetric flexibility, except as the backpack has come to symbolize a portable collection of everything you need.

So we arrive finally at the persons designated by this device: the "backpacker."A backpacker, according to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is one who hikes with a backpack. If we expand that, we might see a bearded man of European descent, wearing shorts with long wool socks and leather hiking boots, standing with his wife, in long blonde braids, the two of them on the side of some grassy mountain plateau, in the midst of several days of wandering and minimal comfort, since they use only what they carry with them. A backpacker may not always be a backpacker (in that way they differ from Deadheads, who have notorious trouble reentering mainstream society), but when they are backpacking, they epitomize mobility, three dimensional necessity-goods carriage, freedom for the arms. A backpacker roams, perhaps even climbs, for extended periods, often in a sense becoming one with his/her pack, "living out of it" for days or weeks at a time. This notion of living out of one's backpack enshrines the role of the backpack as flexible, comfortable carrier of essential personal items. It is this personality that distinguishes it from the briefcase, which if it symbolizes anything, has come to stand for corporate office work. The pleasing encompassing incorporation of familiar human items determines the backpack's status as most humane luggage.

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