Famous for dangling from the arms of schlepping New Yorkers, tempting patrons at indie bookstores, or holding the groceries of eco-conscious fashionistas, tote bags have been a cultural phenomenon for generations. This versatile bag has evolved past its humble origins to become a signature look from Fashion houses like Balenciaga, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and more. 

The New Yorker Tote Bag from Etsy

Sources: Etsy New Yorker Store

But what is a tote bag really? What is the history of tote bags?

It Started with a Word

Fashioning a sack out of cotton or leather materials is nothing new, humans have been doing it forever, but what we know as the tote bag--resplendent in its minimalism and radiant in its practicality—traces its origins back to the verb “to tote”. Popularized in the 17th century, the verb “tote” meant “to carry by hand” or, less gracefully put, “to lug.”

HOZEN ColorBlock Tote Bag • Charcoal + Natural

While tote bags are traditionally made of canvas, there are no actual limitations to what a tote bag is made of. As long as it can be lugged around, it’s a tote bag!

The Ice Bag that Became the Everything Bag

In 1944, the celebrated outdoor company LL Bean came up with a reliable solution to what, apparently, was then a common problem: transporting ice from car to freezer. Based out of Maine, with housewives and rural families in mind, they created a no-nonsense water-resistant canvas bag. 

Pretty soon, homemakers realized that the LL Bean tote bag didn’t have to be just for ice. Asking themselves, what are tote bags used for? They answered: everything! The sturdy and reliable bag became a choice shopping accessory for trips to the grocery store, and an essential component of household chores. 

LL Bean Boat and Tote Bag with Zip Top

Source: LL Bean store

To this day, the L.L. Bean Boat Bag, which is based on the original design of the ice bag, is one of the company’s most popular tote bags. Its large size, double handles and open top make it an essential sidekick to any girl on the go. 

The Iconic Jane Birkin and Her Iconic Birkin Bag

The British actress, singer, and fashion genius, Jane Birkin went everywhere with an oversized woven basket. Scandalizing the fashion snobs in Paris, she lugged her signature accessory all over the city of lights—flashing her faux pas with pride.

The Infamous Jane Birkin and Her Iconic Birkin Bag

Source: Bobbins And Bombshells

What she liked most about the basket was its size, which let her carry anything she might need…cigarettes, books, sunglasses, gloves, flowers and later, snacks for her daughters, but the inflexible material could be a burden. There is no end to the question of what a tote bag is made of—but, wicker baskets did have some severe disadvantages. 

Once, in an argument, her husband Jacques Doillon deliberately drove over her favorite basket. Days later, on an intercontinental flight from Paris to London, Birkin just so happened to be seated next to Hermès chief Executive Jean-Louis Dumas. Her brand replacement new wicker basket slipped out of the overhead cabinet and exploded all over the cabin. Dumas, seeing an opportunity, offered to make the fashion icon a new tote bag, the infamous “Birkin Bag.” 

Jane Birkin loved the Birkin bag because it had all the ease and stripped-down elegance essential to what is a tote bag. With her approval, an origins tote bag story was born and the tote was solidified as THE must-have fashion item. A fear years ago, one was even purchased for more than a quarter of a million dollars at a Christie’s online auction.  

Rare Himalaya Hermès Birkin Offered by Christie’s Private

Source: Artmarketmonitor

It should be noted that in 2015, Birkin formally asked Hermès to stop using her name on a crocodile version of the tote bag due to ethical concerns. A staunch environmentalist and animal lover, she insists that what a tote bag is made of is inextricable from its charms

The Custom Tote Bag

In the 1980s, tote bags enjoyed a popular resonance with cosmopolitan city-dwellers. It all started when the bookstore The Strand, which came to define the New York City experience of grit, creativity and, of course, massiveness, introduced its own design for a tote. 

The Strand tote bag has become well-known since the 1980s.

Source: HuffPost

Working with a simple tote made of natural cotton duck canvas and an interior lining, the first Strand tote was introduced in 1980. It boldly advertised the store’s name and address as well as their signature slogan: “18 miles of books”. This opened the doors for all sorts of indie bookstores, neighborhood shops, and artisanal brands to make their own simple, stripped-down tote bags used for sharing their brand’s vision. 

The tote became a personalized statement, capable of hinting at the unique qualities of its wearer. On top of its practicality, people started to realize what a tote bag is used for besides its spacious interior and versatility: personality!

Eco Consciousness and the Reusable Tote Bag

The long and celebrated history of tote bags runs right into the present moment, where eco-conscious shoppers are repurposing the reliable bag as a sustainable alternative to plastics. What is tote bag made of exactly?  Because most tote bags are made of canvas, which is commonly mistaken for a material but is actually a style of weaving fabrics--they can easily be designed with renewable resources. 

Historically, most tote-bags were made from cotton or hemp—but this adaptable bag can easily be crafted from eco-friendly resources. Hozen’s artsy and oversized grocery tote, for example, is made from recycled plastics and cottons.

HOZEN Grocery Tote Bag • Cerulean + Limón

With ever-increasing concerns for the environment, and the very real threat of global warming, wearing a canvas tote is an excellent way to protect the earth. It’s even better if you take a tip from ‘50s homemakers and make it your go-to shopping bag. 

Long Live the Tote Bag

From ice bag to fashion statement to indie bookstore advertisement, the history of tote bags demonstrates two things: 

  1. It might be the most adaptable bag in fashion 
  2. It’s here to stay. 

High-end tote bags are making their way down runways just as the trusted canvas tote remains a reliable companion for the modern (and very busy!) woman. Tote bags play many roles and constantly provide new answers to the question: What are tote bags used for? Whether the beloved tote is serving as an eco-friendly shopping bag or as a fashion purse, it shines as the ultimate marriage of convenience and elegance. Explore our tote bag collection in various designs and styles and learn for yourself its limitless uses.

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