Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of the Tote Bag

Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of the Tote Bag

What is a tote bag, really? Is it just a sack with handles that carries your groceries? Well, yes, but it’s also a fashion accessory. The right tote bag can dress up your outfit or make it edgier. It’s versatile and useful. Let’s check the fashion archives for a look at the history of the tote bag.

What’s the History of the Tote Bag?

Totes have a utilitarian origin in the USA with roots in the French luxury goods market, too. Here’s how it all played out.

A Necessary Beginning

The compound term “tote bag” was first documented in 1900. The word “tote” means “to carry.” It appears in records as far back as the 1600s. 

Of course, humans have been carrying bags for centuries. But it was American ingenuity that brought tote bags into the limelight.

In 1944, L.L. Bean invented water-resistant canvas sacks for rural families to carry ice home to their ice chests (the forerunner of refrigerators). These bags were incredibly sturdy, made from the stuff used on conveyor belts. The reinforced cloth and riveted handles were able to hold up to 500 pounds.

Pretty soon, people realized how handy it was to have these bags for other purposes. But then they disappeared from the store.

In the 1960s, L.L. Bean updated the design because they realized how popular these canvas bags had become for everyday use, not just ice-carrying. The famous Boat and Tote was available in different colors and styles including zip-top. The company even offered to monogram them.

Cashin Carry

Also in the 1960s, fashion designer Bonnie Cashin came up with a line of designer bags for Coach. They included a shoulder bag called the Cashin Carry, a clutch purse, and a reusable shopping bag. The latter was a bold and colorful carry tote to match the trends at the time. It was the perfect accessory for hippies who were changing culture and society by leaps and bounds.

Another Fashionable Turn of Events

Not long after that, an actress and singer named Jane Birkin made fashion news by carrying a woven basket everywhere with her. She filled it with sunglasses, flowers, snacks, cigarettes, and books. Unfortunately, wicker isn’t soft and flexible. When her husband destroyed her basket with his car (on purpose), she needed a replacement. The Hermes company fashion chief promised to make her a new accessory – the tote bag. Jane Birkin loved it and soon women across the world were copying her with their own Birkin bags.

As a footnote, Hermes used to carry a model called the Birkin Croco made of crocodile hide. But Jane told them to stop using her name for it as she couldn’t abide the cruel practices of harvesting the hide.

In the Big City, Totes Were Everywhere

In the 1980s, folks in New York City started carrying the Strand tote. This famous bookstore had created a lined canvas bag imprinted with its slogan and address. Pretty soon, many other bookstores and shops started doing the same. The bag you carried became a statement of who you were because of what places you patronized.

Eco-conscious Bags in the 21st Century

Nowadays, we are all encouraged to limit our use of plastic by bringing reusable shopping bags to the store. You can even get mesh totes for produce instead of using those thin, transparent plastic sacks. 

It’s also easy to find promotional totes that businesses give away in stores and at Expos and conferences. Sadly, many of these are made of synthetic fabric or are not made to last.

You see, canvas bags need to be reused over 100 times to match the carbon footprint of a single disposable plastic bag. Cotton is a water-intensive crop. Making a canvas tote bag with it requires a lot of energy.

That’s one of the reasons why we sell durable, heavy-weight cotton totes. They can be washed and used again and again and again. They are printed with fade-resistant ink so that they stay looking good for a long time to come. Here’s an example:

Vintage 1973 Limited Edition 


While we’re on the topic of fashion archives, here’s a retro print tote bag. It would be a nice gift for someone born in 1973. The design prints on either natural-colored cotton or black canvas.

Like all of our totes, it’s made with heavyweight cotton canvas. If you’re curious, the fabric is 12 ounces/yard. This is a durable material that’s still light enough that you can fold it or roll it up for storage. It’s also machine-washable. Turn it inside out and run it through a regular cycle in cold water. Then hang it to dry.

The bag is comfy to use. It features 20-inch fabric handles with a 9-inch handle drop. In other words, it slips nicely over a shoulder but you can also carry it in your hand.

Furthermore, it measures 15 inches wide by 16 inches tall. That’s plenty big enough for a quick trip to the store or a few library books.

We have hundreds of other tote bags with all sorts of designs from sports to Disney to trendy. We’re certain you’ll find some to love.

How to Care for a Tote Bag

You may have heard that reusable shopping bags harbor germs. It’s true, which is why some experts recommend setting aside certain bags only for groceries and washing them regularly.

Can regular laundry detergent kill the viruses and bacteria on the tote bags? Maybe. At a minimum, the soap and washing machine action will reduce how many microbes live in them.

Your best bet is to use a non-chlorine bleach or laundry sanitizer if you’ll be washing in low temperatures. Hot water and a trip through the dryer would also kill the germs but probably shrink or damage the canvas.

If you’re worried about air-drying your tote bags, hang them in the sunshine. The UV rays can kill germs, too.


Now you’ve seen how today’s totes sprang from a utilitarian beginning. What will you be doing with your new tote bag? 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *