The Book Pack first appeared in L.L. Bean’s fall 1982 catalog. At the outset, it was manufactured by Caribou. In the late ’80s, L.L. Bean took over production, which had already moved overseas. According to Guaranteed To Last, L.L. Bean’s 224-page official history, the Book Pack wasn’t an instant smash, but “sales grew steadily as word of mouth and reviews in the media spread the story of the indestructible book bag.” As the decade came to a close, the Book Pack evolved. L.L. Bean introduced the $32 Deluxe edition in 1989 and added a second big pouch, a waist belt, and a safety-conscious diagonal reflective strip. (The 3M-produced material was also added to the smaller model, which got a new name: the Original Book Pack.) Later, the Deluxe got ergonomic curved shoulder straps, more reflective tape, and a port for headphones.
The rise of the backpack signaled a societal shift. The book bags eventually spread from universities and law schools to elementary schools. And school at all levels had become serious business. Cultural anthropologist and author Grant McCracken views the book bag as a symbol of the centrality of education. The days of kids carrying small stacks of books to school in their arms are far, far behind us. Children with big backpacks, McCracken said, are “weighed down and kept from levity.”
In recent years, overstuffed book bags have been blamed for back problems—and worse—in children. In response, L.L. Bean and the American Occupational Therapy Association launched a joint safety campaign, mailing out informational hangtags with backpacks. (A rolling version of the Book Pack also debuted.) But both L.L. Bean and JanSport packs remain well reviewed. In 2009, Consumer Reports named both the JansSport Big Student TDN7 and the L.L. Bean Original Book Pack “best fit” backpacks for kids 4-foot-10 to 5-foot-8. Also, the magazine deemed the JanSport Boost a “best fit” for kids 5-foot-9 and taller.
Over the years, backpacks have evolved in function and style. High-end manufacturers North Face (a JanSport affiliate) and Skullcandy have added new features and designs, and JansSport and L.L. Bean both now make more complex backpacks. But their originals, the SuperBreak and the Book Pack, remain flagships. Prices have slowly gone up, but people are still buying. According to data reported by Consumer Reports, in 2008 Americans spent $1.31 billion on backpacks. “JanSport has been the top-selling brand for at least 15 years,” the magazine wrote, “with L.L. Bean second.”
The product reviews of both are almost too sincere. “I bought this bag for my daughter when she started elementary school,” one mom wrote on the L.L. Bean website in July. “She is going into fourth grade this year, and she has no desire or need for another backpack! L.L. Bean makes backpacks that last and last. She is by no means gentle with her bag. She rides the bus, throws it on the floor...is a kid with it. The bag holds up, resists stains and washes well, too. Love it!” On Amazon, one JanSport fan wrote, “Before I had a car, I had to stuff all of my books and school supplies in my backpack for the entire school day, and somehow after two years of hauling over 25 lbs of stuff every day, my backpack is still in great condition.”
Visit any American bus stop and you’ll see both L.L. Bean and JanSport backpacks. As of 2010, even Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren still had an old school L.L. Bean bag. Kitchel has since left the company, but the Book Pack remains a point of pride. “It’s one of those home runs,” he said, “you only hit once in a while.”