Our Guide To The Satchel: History, FAQs & Alternatives

Table of Contents
    Satchels in education

    When was the satchel invented?

    There is of course no definitive answer to this question. Sacks made from animal skin are one of human being’s oldest forms of technology. The satchel is a more sophisticated development, it features a shoulder strap to enable hands free use and a flap to cover the aperture and protect the contents of the bag. We know that something very similar to a satchel was carried by Roman soldiers. It was called a ‘loculus’ meaning ‘little place’ and was probably used for carrying rations and personal effects. No complete loculus has survived but we have a good idea of what they looked like from depictions on Trajan’s Column.

    Full grain leather satchel

    Why are they so often made of leather?

    Since earliest times bags have been made of leather. An animal hide only requires stitching on two sides to create a rudimentary bag, leather is also strong enough and tough enough to carry weight without tearing. Scottish monks in around 300AD were using leather satchels to carry their precious hand-written bibles. A leather satchel also had the advantage of protecting the contents from rain.

    What size satchel should you get?

    The pleasure of a satchel is that it is a piece of light luggage, if you need to carry in bulk you should be looking at backpacks or holdalls. The size of satchel that you select depends on what you want to carry. The most diminutive satchel is small handbag size, about 12cm high, 15cm wide and 6cm deep. Before the advent of small, lightweight backpacks, children starting school used to carry tiny satchels, just big enough for a first reader and an exercise book. A typical contemporary satchel will have dimensions in the region of 30cm high, 40cm wide and 12cm deep, large enough for you to carry a good selection of personal items without making the bag uncomfortably heavy to carry.

    Which is bigger, a satchel or a tote?

    The answer of course is it depends on the size of the respective bags: a large satchel will contain more than a small tote; however, a tote has a much wider aperture and usually a much greater carrying capacity. 

    So, are satchels still in fashion?

    For centuries the satchel was associated with book carrying, hence Shakespeare’s ‘whining school boy with his satchel creeping unwillingly to school’. Whilst American school children of the fifties and sixties may have carried their books with the minimal book strap, British weather ensured that for generations of school children in the United Kingdom, the satchel was de rigeur.

    The satchel has never gone away but at some point, during the nineteen eighties it got caught up in the post-modern recycling of the past and was reborn as a quirky, yet extremely practical piece of lightweight luggage ware. It was Indiana Jones who brought the satchel to the attention of an American audience, though in fact what Indy wears is a British World War Two, gas mask bag. Like the bicycle, the satchel is an ideal design: variations are possible, but the basic design is timeless.

    Are satchels unisex?

    If Indiana Jones is comfortable wearing one, then surely any man can. They convey a sense of academia and eccentricity. Having said that, men tend to opt for the messenger bag, a briefcase on a strap, whilst women of all ages love their satchels.

    What makes a good satchel?

    Whilst the satchel design can be reproduced in materials such as canvas, if you really want a satchel that’s going to last a lifetime then it has to be leather. Cheap satchels may be produced using bonded leather but over time these will split and crack, so for a lifetime of service choose a satchel crafted from full grain leather. This is not only the most durable leather you can buy it will also age beautifully and part of the joy of owning a quality satchel is the way in which, over time, it will become a prized possession which has moulded to your usage.

    Every element of a quality satchel needs to be constructed from the most appropriate materials: a cotton interior that breathes with the leather and sturdy brass fittings and zips which won’t rust. Check the quality of the stitching, a good quality satchel should work for years without repair. Part of the reason for buying a satchel must surely be the appearance and the tactile pleasure of straps and buckles. Is the satchel big enough to carry your laptop comfortably, does it have a reinforced shoulder strap for extra comfort? Do you want a satchel that has the addition of a top carrying handle? Does the satchel have interior zips pockets for valuables? Is this a bag that you are happy to be seen wearing? 


    Satchel vs Tote

    Nothing could be simpler than a tote: it’s a small sack with two handles. It may be a designer label but essentially, it’s a very simple design and therein lies its appeal. A tote is quick to pack and quick to unpack; if you like to carry lots of stuff around a tote is a great, versatile bag. Put it in an overhead compartment and the chances are it will spill its contents everywhere, go shopping in a crowded mall and it’s an easy target for thieves. With a satchel you’ll carry less but what you do carry will be more secure, those sturdy buckles are a test for the most adept fingersmith and you’ll also be hands free because you wear your satchel slung from one shoulder or cross-body.

    Satchel vs Messenger Bag

    You say pyjamas, I say pyjamas. Although the two terms may seem interchangeable, there are differences. Traditionally, messenger bags were made from waterproof canvas and were worn cross-body, high up on the back. Contemporary messenger bags are frequently made of leather and appear very similar to a satchel, although they tend to be slimmer and longer. Messenger bags are often marketed for men and satchels for women, however, both bags are unisex. In terms of image, the messenger bag is perhaps more of an office bag and the satchel more for leisure.

    Satchel vs Purse

    The contemporary purse is designed as a receptacle for credit cards and store cards, driving licence and id, with a little space for some cash. It usually features zippered compartments and pockets so that the contents can be organized and kept secure. A purse contains our most important and valuable personal effects and consequently it is usually kept within another bag. You are unlikely to use a satchel, however small, as a purse but a satchel is a very secure way in which to carry your purse. The shoulder strap of a satchel means that your hand lies comfortably in front of the bag, reducing the swing of the bag and covering the opening. The buckle fastenings of a satchel are slower to open than a pop fastener and consequently much more secure.

    Satchel vs Cross-Body

    Cross-body is a generic term used to describe any bag which can be worn diagonally across the body and which rests on the hip or just below. The term can be applied to anything from a small purse with shoulder strap to a messenger bag or satchel. The attraction of the cross-body is ease of access and the fact that it leaves you hands free. The downside of the cross-body is that it cuts a diagonal line across your clothing, this may fit perfectly with your style or it may make you look like you’ve been parcelled up. The satchel can be worn as a cross-body but it’s probably more comfortable and visually cooler, when it’s worn as a shoulder bag.

    Satchel vs Backpack

    Backpacks come in all sizes and in designs specific to a range of activities. Children starting school wear small lightweight backpacks. Women and men wear small leather backpacks as office wear or fashion wear and of course climbers and hikers carry full size backpacks with capacities of up to a hundred litres. The backpack is the most comfortable way to carry weight, it is also well suited to activities such as cycling or running. In an urban context though the backpack is vulnerable because its opening is out of your sight and in crowded situations such as on the tube or metro it presents and easy target for thieves. The satchel is designed to carry a small number of personal effects in a secure way. It can be worn cross-body during activities such as cycling but it can also be held close to the body in full sight if the situation requires. Sturdy buckles are visually attractive, but they are also a very secure way to protect your possessions.

    Satchel vs Handbag

    A handbag is a personal statement, whether it’s ferociously expensive and it’s important that everyone can easily recognise it’s ferociously expensive, quirky or austerely business-like, think Mrs Thatcher. A satchel is a form of handbag but it’s a bag that’s not trying to compete with designer labels, it’s arty, a little eccentric, retro and extremely practical.

    Satchel vs Hobo Bag

    A hobo bag is a crescent shape purse or bag made from a flexible material and worn cross-body with a long shoulder strap. It lacks a solid structure, has a roomy interior and is consequently easy to pack. It gets its name from its similarity to the bindle bags carried by American hobos of the 1930’s, like George and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men’. The attraction of the hobo bag is that it’s a chuck it in bag, like the tote. The satchel, by contrast has a rigid structure and a compartmentalized interior, allowing you to organise your possessions. Both bags are casual, but the satchel is likely to be the more durable item of luggage-ware.

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