How We All Came To Be Drowning in Tote Bags

Black tote bag
Image credit: cottonbro from Pexels

It is a truth universally acknowledged that each and every one of us has a corner of our homes dedicated exclusively to the unwieldy mass of tote bags that has somehow accumulated around us. It seems that to be human is, in effect, to own too many totes. 

In my case, that aforementioned carry bag-themed corner is a drawer in my kitchen that currently houses somewhere in the order of twenty canvas bags featuring a range of sizes, hues, and decorative themes. I have not exchanged money for a single one of that drawer’s occupants (Which isn’t to say that I’ve never paid for a tote bag. Quite the contrary: those simply enjoy pride of place away from these grubby freebies. And, yes, that does mean there are even more of them to be found elsewhere in my home). I also have no desire to own these bags, nor any idea of how they might be put to use, or — most importantly of all — how on earth to rid myself of them short of stuffing them all in landfill. So, instead, there they remain, apparently multiplying whenever I turn my back and guaranteed to outlive me one and all. 

This feels like a peculiarly modern phenomenon, not simply the unmanageable accretion of tote bags but their use at all. Cross any high street the world over and you will likely spot a tote-al dominance of canvas carriers on the shoulders, arms and clasped hands of the people around you. The same can be said of campuses, airports, resorts, markets, malls, and just about any other place people gather in public. Small wonder the tote bag market is thought to be worth somewhere in the order of $334.5 million.

How, you might ask, did the humble tote thus come to dominate the contemporary retail landscape? The word ‘tote’, meaning to carry by hand, has been kicking around the English language since the seventeenth century, with the first known use appearing in 1677, though humans have been using rudimentary bags, pouches, satchels, slings, and similar to carry their belongings for far longer. 

The earliest incarnation of the tote as we’ve come to know it — which is to say a simple bag made of sturdy material that typically (though not exclusively) features two parallel handles and an open, unfastening top — is typically attributed to the beloved American outdoor outfitter L.L.Bean. The ancestor of their contemporary Boat and Tote bags, which continue to be the gold standard of tote bags in our own time, first appeared in the company’s catalogues in 1944 in the form of a hardy cotton bag marketed at the time to ‘those who have found difficulty in carrying ice from car to ice chest’. Its sturdy build and general usefulness meant that it was soon put to use carrying a whole lot more than just ice.

Leather tote bag
Image credit: Ugluk Potroshitel on Unsplash

Cotton, while still the material most widely associated with the tote bag, is far from the only material put to use in its construction. Other commonly-used textiles include jute, nylon, and other easy-care synthetic materials like polypropylene. Another longstanding material of choice is leather, which has traditionally been used to make more durable, upmarket versions of the humble tote. One famous example is Bonnie Cashin’s ‘Cashin carry tote’, which has become emblematic of 1960s fashion and continues to inform contemporary Coach designs (for whom Cashin worked as a designer). Another is inarguably the most expensive bag money can buy — let alone one that might reasonably be called a ‘tote’ — Hermès’s Birkin bag, which was inspired in 1984 by actress Jane Birkin’s need for a reliable, all-purpose handbag (I’ve written in greater detail about Birkin bags here and here). 

On the furthest opposing end of this particular spectrum is the synthetic ‘bag for life’ variety of shopping bag, perhaps best exemplified by IKEA’s famous oversized tote (Although there was recently a Balenciaga version of said bag with a £1 705 price tag, so maybe the distinction isn’t all that stark after all). IKEA’s carrier bags first emerged in the ’90s and seemed to spearhead just about every other retailer introducing a similar style of reusable option in lieu of plastic bags.

Partly, this introduction was down to a kind of commercial savvy first exemplified more than a century prior back in 1886 by an enterprising newspaper printer named Jasper Meek. Mr Meek cannily realised that the printing presses in his possession could be put to work beyond just churning out newspapers. So he managed to convince a local shoe store called Cantwell Shoes in Coshocton, Ohio to print the words ‘Cantwell’s Fine Shoes’ on some burlap bags and in doing so single-handedly altered the course of the entire advertising industry. 

Today, the concept of tote bags is synonymous not just with marketing but with advertising one’s sense of identity. They are used to show one’s allegiance to a favourite artist, shop, brand, or cause. They can communicate (subtly or otherwise) membership of a chosen group and are, in effect, a blank canvas on which to project your dreams, interests, and allegiances. 

Stylish older man carrying a tote bag
Image credit: furkanfdemir from Pexels

A certain kind of bookishness is a particularly common image to telegraph via tote, whether it be in the form of an NPR logo printed on the side of your go-to keister or the Penguin Classics cover of your favourite old-timey novel. The seminal bookcore tote arrived back in the 1980s, however, when legendary New York City bookstore The Strand started selling soft cotton totes with their signature slogan, ‘18 miles of books’, printed on the side. Cue a million marketing departments following suit. The other bookish bag that bears mentioning, of course, is the New Yorker tote, which continues to be an intellectual status symbol du jour. The New York Times recently reckoned that since 2014 Condé Nast has given away a cold two million of these brainy-looking bags to subscribers.

In that same article, the NYT points to another watershed tote: 2007’s ‘I’m Not a Plastic Bag’, created by British designer Anya Hindmarch and commissioned by the environmental agency Swift. It sold for around £5 ($10) in supermarkets and encouraged shoppers to stop buying single-use plastic bags. It was a blockbuster success, prompting queues numbering thousands of people upon its release and inspiring a drop in single-use bags down from around ten billion to about six billion over a three year period. In its wake, however, many sources — the Times included — have subjected the eco-friendly branding often associated with canvas totes to some serious scrutiny by pointing to the ecological costs of the overproduction and underutilization of supposedly reusable bags.  

With that being said, a good tote that’s actually put to its intended use is worth its weight in gold. In my own life, the synthetic IKEA-style carrier bags that I had been using for years to buy groceries finally needed replacing recently. So I swapped them out with some similarly sized but considerably nicer-looking cotton versions from the aforementioned L.L.Bean’s Boat and Tote offerings, and the change instantly made my weekly run to the shops feel that much more pleasant. The same is true of the medium-sized Boat and Tote I use as my go-to in pretty much any scenario in which a carrier is called for. It injects a dose of dopamine into my day every time I reach for it, since doing so invariably means I’ve come up with some reason to leave the house in lieu of the endless string of chores I fabricate in order to avoid writing another sentence. 

Which reminds me, I have a tote bag drawer that could really do with a bit of organising…