Why Students Everywhere Carry Backpacks

The way things look.
Dec. 26 2012 8:30 AM

Can I Carry Your Books?

The rise of the backpack.

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L.L.Bean Deluxe Book Packs.
L.L.Bean Deluxe Book Packs

Courtesy L.L.Bean.

For today’s kids, it must be difficult to imagine a time before backpacks. They’re ubiquitous in classrooms and on school buses around the country and have been for decades. But as late as the 1960s, they weren’t widely available. Back then, the simple act of carrying stuff to and from school was difficult. “Students had no choice but to tote their textbooks and notebooks around campus with their hands,” wrote backpack innovator Skip Yowell in his book, The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains. “Some tied a belt around them or clutched them to their chest as they walked. Either way, lugging study material was little more than a glorified juggling act—without the pay.”

What saved students from this avalanche of loose books and papers? The smart retooling of an existing product. Day packs, the smaller, lighter offspring of hefty hiking backpacks, were already popular among recreational climbers. JanSport, the company Yowell began with Murray McCory (formerly Pletz) and Jan Lewis in Seattle in 1967, made its own line. It was when these day packs made their way into university bookstores that the revolution began.

By the early ’70s, the sports shop inside the University of Washington bookstore started selling JanSport packs—and not just to outdoor enthusiasts. According to Yowell’s memoir, the bookstore manager soon suggested improvements that would further enhance the product’s appeal to students, and the day pack’s design began to evolve and become more student-friendly. Yowell and McCory added jam-proof nylon coil zippers and used vinyl (and later leather) to reinforce the improved packs, which sold well and eventually landed in Oregon, Idaho, and beyond. “Towards the end of the seventies,” Yowell wrote, “many college bookstores were carrying our revised day packs in stock.” Over the past three decades, the company has built a school backpack empire. USA Today reported in 2007 that since 1979 JanSport had sold 25 million of its bestselling SuperBreak pack.

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Still, it took a while for the backpack revolution to reach the East Coast. In 1980, a Harvard Law student sent L.L. Bean product manager Ned Kitchel a suggestion letter. It’d be great, the aspiring lawyer wrote, if you designed something that comfortably carried my heavy books. “The guy has no clue,” Kitchel, “what impact he had on the day-pack business in the United States.” Two years after receiving that fateful letter, L.L. Bean introduced the Book Pack, the Maine-based mail-order giant’s first backpack made specifically for students. (It had been selling day packs for years, including, for a time in the ’70s, some manufactured for the company by JanSport.) The 1-pound nylon Book Pack, which cost $25 and initially was available in only three colors, looked unremarkable. But since 1992 alone, L.L. Bean has sold more than 12 million Book Packs. Like a lot of New Englanders who grew up in the ’90s, I had a monogrammed one in navy blue. (Initials only. My Jewish mom thought it was too dangerous to include my full name.)

Admittedly, Kitchel didn’t set out to create an icon. In the early ’80s he attended a Las Vegas trade show, where he met designer Marcia Briggs. By then, Caribou Mountaineering, the Chico, Calif.-based company she had co-founded in 1974, was already in the day-pack business. In the mid-’70s, Caribou co-founder Gary Kirk—at the time also a college student—asked Briggs to build him a pack that held his stack of chemistry books. “That’s kind of crazy,” she remembers thinking. “Sure, I’ll do that.” The squared-off bag Briggs came up with, the Cricket, spawned a successful campus day-pack line. The packs first sold at a local community college, then at Chico State, then at universities nationwide. Soon, those day packs made up about 40 to 45 percent of Caribou’s sales. At that point, Briggs was ready to market her company’s products to an even larger audience. To her, teaming up with mighty L.L. Bean was the logical next step. “If you could put something in the L.L. Bean catalog,” she said, “It would do well.”

Luckily, Kitchel was on the lookout for a book bag. When he looked at the concepts Briggs came up with for L.L. Bean, he was immediately impressed. The design Kitchel picked was roomier than a hiking pack and also squared off to fit books. It was made of water-resistant 420 denier nylon packcloth, and it had a spacious main compartment, adjustable foam shoulder straps, and an organizer pocket for pens and pencils—all features that ended up in the first L.L. Bean Book Pack.

To ensure L.L. Bean’s packs were as durable as Caribou’s, Briggs also incorporated several less obvious touches. In the ’70s, she picked up extra work fixing backpacks. The most common repair, she said, was a broken zipper. But it wasn’t actually a zipper problem. It was a fraying problem. Threads from a poorly constructed pack’s inner seams tended to unravel and get caught in the zipper. To prevent that flaw in L.L. Bean Book Packs, Briggs said in an email, “We decided to bind each inner seam with a nylon binding tape (1-inch heavy duty grosgrain ribbon folded over the seams and stitched after each pack was assembled). No one else in the industry was doing this at the time so the extra cost was a risk we were willing to take. It paid off. … Our seams never frayed.” She also made sure to address the fact that students often carried their packs on only one shoulder. “Knowing that one-shoulder carrying would continue, we reinforced those points with extra stitching in the seam where the straps (both top and bottom) entered the pack,” Briggs wrote. “Putting all this extra stitching in one place, however, actually perforates the fabric so I spread out the reinforcement stitching, forming an ‘X’ at each stress point.” 

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.”

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.

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