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The Briefcase. A Bag that Means Business

The Briefcase. A Bag that Means Business

Say the words ‘business’ and ‘luggage’ in the same sentence, and it’s likely that the first image you’ll see in your mind is the common modern briefcase. More than any other piece of luggage, the briefcase owns the strongest link to the business and business travel worlds. They come in different shapes and sizes, materials and guises, but the through line of this all-important accessory is clear: if you want to do good business, and get from place to place, you’ve always needed a solid briefcase by your side.

The Long and Short of the Modern Briefcase 

While the briefcase derives its name from the legal field, stemming from lawyers in the 1800s who used to (and still do) carry legal ‘briefs’ around inside them, today’s briefcase used for a lot more than just writs and paperwork. The bag itself has come to be a symbol of business itself, far and beyond the courtroom alone.

Long before today’s range of models, there was the satchel: the briefcase’s centuries-old distant cousin. In Ancient Rome, legionnaires would traverse the Empire for months or even years at a time, their stick-held luggage bindle, or sarcina, loaded with essentials for the transit: extra clothing, food rations, a pot to cook in, and some basic tools. Pride of place in that bindle was the all-purpose loculus, a 45x35cm Caesar-approved leather satchel.

By the 14th century, Rome was yesterday’s news, but the satchel was only growing in its popularity. Merchants and townsfolk embraced it for their money and goods; by the 15th century, it had become an essential accessory in daily life, choice container for toting letters, books, bibles, and every other day to day necessity.

Symbology as a Business and Power Icon

Humans had needed an external accessory to carry their personal effects around for centuries, but that dwindled during the 17th century when clothing started to include pockets. Folks began to keep their things closer to their person, and the briefcase-satchel went into hiding. It returned a century later, re-branded for the ‘use of the day’ as a military accessory – soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars toted an early ‘haversack’, a box-shaped briefcase harnessed with leather straps, something seen again throughout the American Civil War. Here, the briefcase took on a ‘masculinisation’, and became synonymous with order, ceremony, and utilitarian practicality. 

It would soon add power and economics to its suite of symbology. From 1860 onwards, British budget papers were transported in a red wooden briefcase annually every Budget Day (a 150-year-old tradition that held up until 2010). With the Industrial Revolution came a boom in new professions and commuting, and the briefcase became a work necessity. With decades of productivity and commerce came the ‘businessman’ archetype, its highest zenith expressed through the ‘Mad Men’-era executive, wielding briefcase through city streets, making deals, Old Fashioned in hand, getting things done.

Few other accessories, from the industrial revolution to present day, have gleaned such a potent symbolism, or sent quite a message upon first glance. Like Godfather author Mario Puzo once wrote: “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”


Some Things Change, Some Stay the Same

Interestingly, the briefcase also helped shape some of the earliest prototypes of today’s portable computing. In Man in a Briefcase: The Social Construction of the Laptop Computer, Paul Atkinson writes how the briefcase – embedded with James Bond-era notions of glamour, allure and individuality – was the ideal ‘object’ to package up futuristic concepts leading to what would eventually become today’s MacBook Airs and Samsung Galaxies. Atkinson highlights Honeywell’s 1966 ‘Electronics in an attaché case’: a concept design that would ‘transform the hallmark of executive life’ – a gadget-laden briefcase that would ‘allow a government scientist to carry with him a computer, a telephone with computer memory, a TV camera and monitor, and a TV receiver linked to a micro-storage file’ (with space, naturally, for medicines, contact lenses, and playing cards).

We don’t often think about our laptops as a ‘levelled-up’, digitised briefcase, but it’s pretty clear that the briefcase – as well as providing a perfunctory and attractive work accessory – was a crucial link in the chain of product design behind today’s cutting edge digital products. Recent traces of this ‘crossover’ can be recalled – what would Windows 95 have been without ‘My Briefcase’ (a digital loculus if ever there was one), our virtual space for documents and files, and digital hieroglyph for the ‘business end’ of the PC experience. 

As newer, faster, more dynamic ‘Electronic in an attaché cases’ are rolled out with the fast-passing quarters, actual briefcases are just as important ever, because business done in person is still the best way to do it. The humble briefcase – held in hand, carried with class – is as popular, powerful, and symbolic as it ever has been. Styles, builds and shapes abound: from classic black attaché, to trusty lawyer’s companion, soft portfolio, the catalogue and more. The Émigré Briefcase was designed and constructed with all the gravitas and tradition that this iconic accessory has come to be known for, but imbued with a beautiful minimalist aesthetic to channel our own signature symbolism: a briefcase that multi-tasks across diverse environments, yet stays true to its chief purpose. A bedrock of the Émigré collection, and an indispensable item for the modern travelling professional.


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.