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From Knapsack to Backpack

It’s official: backpacks are the newest urban accessory. Both stylish and highly functional, backpacks are now featured on runways and in news columns, sported by schoolchildren and young professionals alike. There are backpacks specifically made to carry laptops or skateboards. Backpacks in every conceivable color and print. But there’s nothing quite like the classic book pack design, which turns out to be a quintessential American invention. Here’s why.

Backpacks began as external-frame packs geared toward hikers and military personnel. The first prototype emerged in Norway in 1880 but an American patent swiftly followed in 1886. The term itself was coined in the United States back in 1910.

In the 1920s, the Boy Scouts popularized the use of backpacks among American youth but backpacks were still regarded as outdoor gear. In everyday life, professionals carried briefcases and students secured their books with leather straps.

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Winslow Homer’s Man with a Knapsack (1873)

It is only in recent decades that backpacks made the leap from camping stores to campuses. On the West coast, three friends got together and launched JanSport in 1967. They modified hiking backpacks to so-called “day pack” size and placed them in university bookstores. On the East coast, L. L. Bean’s nylon “Book Pack” hit the market in 1982. Soon, K-12 kids were using them too.

Today, growing numbers of city cyclists are one of the many factors driving strong backpack sales. Since 2008, the U.S. backpack market has grown by almost 50%; market intelligence firm Euromonitor reports similar trends in the European market.

So what in particular is American about backpacks? JanSport, for one, was built on the principle of “getting out and discovering life for yourself,” says co-founder Skip Yowell. Backpacks signal independence. Spontaneity. Spunk. You might be exploring a new flea market in Brooklyn or an island off the Croatian coast. With a backpack slung over your shoulder, the spirit of adventure remains the same anywhere you choose to go.

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