It wasn’t just the perfectly mummified remains of Ötzi The Iceman that got tongues wagging when he was discovered deep in the Swiss Alps back in 1991. It was what they found him with. Believed to have lived between 3400 and 3100 B.C, Ötzi had been snow-buried alongside his trusty backpack, a piece of hazelnut wood fashioned into a u-shape frame, with remnants of fur pelt and leather covering. The now famous archeological dig taught us a lot about prehistoric life: if nothing else, that the backpack has been the choice carry item for humanity for 5000 years (and shows no signs of stopping). For business, pleasure, indoors and out, the backpack remains the most diverse, versatile and ever-evolving bag in human history. We flash forward from Ötzi’s day to take a glance at the modern day rise of the common everyday backpack.
The Very Long Ride of the Modern Backpack
The backpack’s earliest modern iterations can be seen as far back as the 1600s – depending on where you were in Europe, the knapsack, rucksack, ryggsäck, рюкзак and various other variations provided locals with a reliable means of getting their gear from place to place. Often constructed with leather, and leather straps – or, in the case of the early Norwegian ‘Sekk med meis’, a wooden frame – the earliest modern backpacks were a prime carry choice for mountaineers, outdoor lovers, trekkers and adventurers: effortlessly held by both shoulders, a good choice for longer, more intrepid journeys, especially on foot.
It wasn’t until around 1910 in the US that the term ‘backpack’ started to appear for the first time. This was largely on the back of military necessity, with the earliest models evolving from the American Civil War onwards. Much of the bag’s evolution around these decades dealt with ergonomics – how to best ‘frame’ the pack it to the human body. In 1908, Ole Bergan had created one of the earliest ‘frame’ prototypes, made from Norwegian birch bark, a model refined even further with American Lloyd Nelson’s rigid frame ‘Trapper’ model around 1922.
With the arrival of the 1940s, the basic frameless backpack began to replace the old school children’s ‘book strap’, becoming the new elementary school standard. Around 1952, Dick Kelty and his wife Nena hand-formed and welded their own packframes using aircraft aluminum, while introducing padded shoulder straps and waist belts. Innovation during the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s also changed the face of the carry world: the rise of the ‘backpacker’ traveler, who required spacious, shoulder-carried packs in order to lug their life’s belongings from one side of the earth to the next.
Military evolution meanwhile, and a burgeoning outdoor industry, continued to inspire new designs, materials, shapes, supports, and ergonomic capacity, which in turn trickled down to the mainstream with fresher recreational and academic models.
For Business and Pleasure
Come the ‘80s and ‘90s, the rise in popularity and demand for street and sportswear lead to a swathe of new brands adding their two cents to the conversation, with newer, more accessible colourways and fabrics, cementing the backpack as the only real way to carry one’s gear around.
It’s a testament to the versatility, strength and overall appeal of the bag that it conquered so many diverse fields – business included. Restricted in the past to a basic briefcase, or the odd weekender if heading out on a longer business trip, the backpack began to find its place amongst the business world just as strongly, no longer relegated to students, outdoor lovers, and the military. This boom in appeal continued right through the noughties, laying its claim to the worlds of pop culture and high fashion, and with the rise of the digital nomad and remote work, has since claimed its throne as an ultimate go-to in the work arena, whatever your profession or walk of life.
The Enduring Virtues of the Backpack
What exactly makes the backpack such an enduring universal choice? As well as its versatility and spaciousness, and its ability to provide a comfortable and ergonomically efficient way to carry goods around, it also keeps valuables secure and well protected. Extra padding, modern materials, and compartments make it a truly diverse carry choice, capable of containing bulkier, more angular items, as well as the nous to handle much smaller items too.
In short, they’re workhorses: capable of accommodating pretty much every conceivable material, every feature, while staying on-point and on-trend. They’re also chameleons: simultaneously casual and sleek, high class and functional, laid back and chic. There’s not much it can’t handle. Like all the best models ever devised, the Emigre Backpack was built with the best virtues and most cutting edge specs in mind. The aesthetics are top-notch, the build is robust and enduring, and it cuts a truly impressive profile: the perfect backpack for home, office, and on the road – wherever the modern traveling professional finds himself next.
About Cam Hassard - Writer
Australian-born writer, editor, journalist and musician, Cam Hassard has spent the better part of the past two decades in Émigré-mode living and travelling abroad, and currently calls Berlin home.
About Thanh Hung Trinh - Artist
Thanh Hung Trinh was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and at age three left the country as part of the boat person exodus. Thanh settled in Switzerland where he studied fine arts and launched a career in graphic, product and industrial design. He is a co-founder of Émigré where he currently serves as the Head of Design.