I know you have at least one. We all do. Maybe yours is comically large. The kind you use to carry groceries for the entire family. Maybe it’s small, a gift bag-sized tote you got at some promotional event. Whatever the case, you’ve definitely encountered the tote bag. In fact, you probably use it to carry books to add to your TBR. The bookish community is now associated with tote bags in a way no other group of people is. They’re spacious, they’re not easily ripped or broken, and they’re even fashionable making them the perfect transportation for the mountains of books you take from the library or your local bookstore.
Now, tote bags weren’t even bags at first and they definitely weren’t used for books. Or rather, they weren’t used for anything at all. The canvas bags we know and love today existed only in verb form in the 17th century. The word “tote” meaning “to carry,” usually in a bag or sack, was the only sign of them during that time. It wasn’t until much later that our beloved bag was born.
Innovation in the 20th Century
The mid-1900s proved to be the right time for widespread tote bag use. The name “tote bag” came from outdoor clothing and equipment brand L.L. Bean. The company created an ice bag in 1944 meant to do exactly what it sounds like: to transport ice. It didn’t take long for people to find other uses for the bag and so, the tote bag exploded as a utilitarian home staple. By the 1950s, homemakers used large canvas tote bags to carry groceries and get household chores done.
A decade later, a transition from purely practical to the beginnings of fashionable changed the look of the tote bag. L.L. Bean reintroduced it with more fashion details like colorful trims, leather handles and bottoms, prints, and zippers. As Bean and other brands continuously reinvented the tote, canvas became a trendy material rather than exclusively industrial.
Take the Cashin Carry Tote, for example. American designer Bonnie Cashin created this version of the tote in the ‘60s with bright and bold colors. Pair these with the Flower Power slogan of those years and the loud, vibrant colors young people wore and you’ve got a wildly popular icon of the era.
Fast-forward to the 1980s and this is where the book-lovers come in: The Strand’s tote bag is suddenly visible all over New York City. The famous bookstore printed its bright red logo on softer totes and sold them as merchandise. As The Strand took off and its inventory increased, the tote bag followed. It started as a small bag holding only a couple of books at a time. But as The Strand grew, the bags got bigger – both in popularity and size. Since introducing tote bags, they’ve offered over 100 designs ranging from funny and whimsical to political to beautiful prints.
Part of the general appeal of totes today is the freedom of self-expression that comes with them. Whether you buy a blank tote or one with a quote or a print or a slogan, you’re sending a message about who you are. They’ve become an intentional accessory in society and especially in the book world. As book nerds, we identify ourselves as readers in as many ways as possible. We post stories with our current read in the frame or talk about how many books on our book list we’ve actually completed this year. The tote bag is another outlet.
Maybe you bought a plain tote and customized it with pins and paint. Or you have something a little more intense like the totes that say something like “Don’t talk to me if you don’t read books.” Regardless of your choice, it’s a clear depiction of personality. For book enthusiasts, bookish totes point people toward the same thought: This person sure loves books.
The High-End Fashion Industry
Though those soft, printed totes are likely what come to mind when you think of tote bags, the luxurious brands of the world also jumped on the tote bag trend. The ‘90s and early 2000s saw the dawn of the “it bag.” Think brands like Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton, and Hermés. These global fashion companies made their own versions with leather and other more luxurious materials but maintained the spacious and useful qualities that make the bags so desirable.
One particularly famous example is the Birkin bag by Hermés. We heard the buzz around these bags more recently but they originated from British actress Jane Birkin in 1983. While seated next to the chief executive of Hermés on an airplane, she spilled the contents of her straw handbag on the ground. What followed was a discussion about her search for a bag bigger than a handbag but smaller than a suitcase. In the end, they created the Birkin bag which finally became a hit in the 1990s.
Aside from the fashion-forward opportunity of the tote, they are also an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. The sustainability of reusable totes sparked a renewed obsession, especially among younger people. And not only that but to use them for books?! That makes them all the more attractive.
It’s safe to say tote bags have come incredibly far. From strictly industrial and practical to everyday fashion accessories to capturing the book-lover persona, they won’t go anywhere any time soon.