The Tote Bag – History, Style and Today

Table of Contents

    What is a Tote Bag?

    In its simplest form a tote bag is the most rudimentary of all bag designs: a single panel of material is stitched on two sides to create a bag and looped handles are secured on either side of the aperture. This basic structure can then be enlarged and strengthened by the addition of base and side panels and interior and exterior pockets.

    History and Origin

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘tote’ is a word of American origin. Its precise origins are obscure, but it seems likely that it is from West Africa, perhaps a variant of ‘tota’ – to pick up – in Kikongo or ‘tuta’ – to carry in Swahili, and that it was brought to the American South by slaves. Its first appearance can be traced back to 1676 when it was used as a verb to mean ‘to carry as a burden or load, esp. supplies to, or timber etc from a logging camp or the like’. Author of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Washington Irving (1783-1859) uses it in it’s first printed example in 1807: ‘At Baltimore I made a stay of two days, during which I was toted about town.’ It did not gain popularity as a noun to describe a bag until the mid-twentieth century. In 1944, the American outdoor brand LL Bean introduced a large box shaped bag intended to be used for carrying ice from car to freezer. The strength and versatility of the bag made it instantly popular and recognising this, LL Bean added colour to the design and expanded the range. The breakthrough into the world of fashion came in the sixties when American designer, Bonnie Cashin, created a leather tote bag in a range of colours. From that point onward tote designs proliferated. When, in the twenty first century, supermarkets around the world began phasing out single use plastic bags, the tote became the obvious ‘bag for life’ replacement, although it has been estimated that a cotton/canvas tote bag will need to be reused over three hundred times before it can match the carbon expenditure of a disposable plastic bag. The tote bag’s two flat sides effectively make it a portable billboard and its use as a promotional tool is now ubiquitous.

    The Tote Bag - Birken Bag

    At the other end of the scale is the Birkin Bag by Hermes, a tote bag which can claim to be the most expensive bag in the world. One Birkin Bag sold at auction in Hong Kong for $377,261. Allegedly inspired by actress Jane Birkin spilling the contents of her straw tote over a Hermes executive, while on a plane flight, the bag has a six-month waiting list. Most people now have a cupboard full of supermarket totes, Victoria Beckham has over a hundred Birkin Bags.

    Types, Materials and Sizes

    In its basic utilitarian form a tote made from cotton, plastic or nylon can be folded and kept in a pocket for when it’s needed. More substantial totes made from canvas or leather have a rigid structure and retain their shape. One of the attractions of the tote is that its large opening means that it can be packed and unpacked quickly and that it can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be used for shopping, the gym, as a work or school bag as a laptop carrier or as an overnight bag. As Jane Birkin found to her cost, its easy accessibility can also be a disadvantage because things can also fall out of it easily, consequently fashion totes tend to incorporate a top fastener and interior pockets. In it’s smallest form the tote becomes a purse and in its largest form, well that cube of building sand that you ordered will probably arrive in a giant tote. Standard tote size is around 15x16 inches.

    What is an Art Tote Bag?

    The tote has been described as ‘The Art World’s most ubiquitous accessory’. Every museum and exhibition in the world is almost certain to have its own specially commissioned tote. Your ownership of one of these bags then becomes an act of self-promotion, advertising your intellectual credentials, your cultural awareness, your taste, your affluence or your access to elite events.

    What is a Jute Tote Bag?

    Jute is a vegetable fibre used to make the burlap or hessian traditionally used for sacking. The British began trading in Jute in the Seventeenth Century, although now most Jute is produced in India. Since the ban on plastic bags, Jute totes have become increasingly popular because they are cheap, strong and biodegradable.

    Leather or Canvas Tote Bag?

    You pay your money and you take your choice. A leather tote is the more expensive item and consequently likely to be priced as a fashion accessory. Leather is beautiful in appearance and extremely durable, but it is a heavier option than canvas and consequently probably not something that you are going to carry the shopping home in. A canvas tote is a more versatile and utilitarian bag, it can be folded, is lighter and cleans easily.

    Tote Bags as a Carry-on

    Jane Birkin found out the disadvantage of using a tote bag as a carry-on, it’s fine until you come to get it out of that overhead compartment and then everything falls out. Having said that, millions of people use totes as a carry-on, you just have to be a little careful, that’s all.

    Alternatives to the Tote

    Tote Bag vs Shoulder Bag

    A tote bag is carried by hand and therefore over a certain weight you are going to find it uncomfortable to carry. If the tops of your arms are slim your can carry it on your shoulder, holding the bag between your arm and body, this frees up both your hands but it’s not a carrying position that will be comfortable for long periods. A shoulder bag will have a longer, thicker strap or straps and is consequently more comfortable to carry on the shoulder although a heavy load will place unpleasant strain on one side of the body.

    Tote Bags vs Backpacks

    A tote bag is casual easy access and easy to keep close, a backpack enables you to carry a much heavier load in comfort but it’s unwieldy in enclosed spaces and can be vulnerable to theft.

    Tote Bags vs Messenger or Satchel bags

    A messenger bag or satchel is designed to be carried over the shoulder, leaving you hands free. They will have secure fastenings which make them a more secure way to carry their valuables but if you need to be able to take things in and out quickly then you’ll be best off with a tote.      

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