A Bag for Life: The L.L.Bean Boat and Tote

Blue zip-top L.L.Bean Boat and Tote style
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Every now and then a design comes along that not only creates a new kind of product but continues to epitomise it many years down the line. There are but a handful of these cases: Levi’s are still synonyms with jeans, as is Brooks Brothers with button-downs or Lacoste with polo shirts. Every once in a while you’ll get a Converse All Star or an Air Jordan 1 that continues to sell at blockbuster rates long after its invention. Occasionally a pair of fatigue pants, a trench coat, or some boat shoes will nail a design right out of the gate. Mostly, though, these are the exceptions.

Such an exceptional case is the L.L.Bean Boat and Tote. Not only is it widely credited with inventing the modern tote bag, it continues to be all but synonymous with the product it pioneered even many decades after the fact. In the words of David Coggins, it ‘has not been improved upon because it cannot be’.

L.L.Bean’s signature tote was first introduced in 1944 as a so-called ‘ice bag’ made from builders’ canvas and intended for carrying ice and other goods in transit (off boats, in particular, if designer and frequent L.L.Bean collaborator Todd Snyder can be believed — hence the current name.) The company reintroduced the bag in its current form in the 1960s, complete with coloured trim options and the promise of hauling an impressive 500 pounds. As the product copy on the L.L.Bean website reassuringly puts it: ‘It’ll carry more than you can carry. We promise.’

On that selfsame page, should you be on the market for a Boat and Tote of your own, you can choose one of four size options ranging from small to extra-large, as well as a selection of regular or long handles and an open or zip-top. You also have a choice of colours for the trim (including the canonical options of blue, green, and red, in addition to a rotating host of seasonal variations), and — best of all — the option of adding a stylised monogram of up to ten characters, which has been a cheap and easy way to add a touch of class to your carrier since L.L.Bean first introduced the service back in the ’90s (It’s also a feature customers tend to have a bit of fun with, although best you don’t demand they print any cusses since by all accounts you’re unlikely to get what you ask for). Then, once you’ve picked the exact tote your heart desires, you simply add it to a shopping bag shaped — you guessed it — just like a Boat and Tote.

Man holding L.L.Bean Boat and Tote canvas bags in red and blue
Image is my own / All rights reserved

That instantly-recognisable bag design continues to be one of L.L.Bean’s most popular products more than 75 years later, with sales apparently exceeding half a million each year. The enduring appeal is no mystery: the Boat and Tote is about as classic a piece of Americana as blue jeans or baseball hats, and every bit as accessible. While there may have been a time when a tote of this type would have communicated a certain brand of East Coast elitism — every monogram may as well once have read ‘WASP’, shall we say — those overt connotations have long since been brushed off with frequent democratic use. And while there are still a bunch of blue bloods and bigwigs rocking trusty Boat and Totes (Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey, and the Kennedys, to name a few), you can rest assured that you don’t need to own a boat to roll with this particular tote.

And why wouldn’t you want to? Unlike those flimsy, crumpled canvas numbers that perpetually slip off your shoulders and twist around your fingers, these actually look good and will only grow handsomer with every passing use (Seriously, there’s little else out there that looks better than a Boat and Tote that’s been through the wars, so, by all means, put yours to some serious work. It’ll only thank you for it). 

I have a couple of them myself, and they are far and away my favourite bags to use. And, while there’s no chance of me ever wearing out the ones I already have (short of trying to haul around some molten lava), the truth is that I’ll probably be buying a bunch more in years to come, whether to give them away as gifts or just to fill my house Scrooge McDuck-style with the world’s most valued tote. Happily, though, unlike Scrooge’s mounds of gold, my chosen hoard goes for somewhere between £35 and £50 a pop and is frankly likely to hold its value within menswear circles about as well as bullion.

I use my L.L.Bean totes for everything you could reasonably think to do with a bag: hauling and storing, library visits and beach trips, buying groceries and running errands, international travel or just a short walk round the neighbourhood. As I type this, I’ve just finished unpacking the medium-sized zip-top Boat and Tote that housed my passport, wallet, and just about every other piece of essential kit needed on a trip abroad. And even though unloading that bag inevitably spells the end of a holiday, placing it back where it lives in a corner near my front door equally means coming home again. It remains a distinct comfort knowing that it’ll be there whenever it’s needed and wherever else we have yet to go.