The Real Origin of the Duffel Bag

The Real Origin of the Duffel Bag


What is a hot fashion accessory when going to the gym, for a weekend trip, to play tennis, to ski, play soccer or golf? The duffel bag with an image of your favorite country or state flag on it is a great and practical item to have. We explore the origin of the duffel bag and break some of the myths about how and where it came from.

Duffel bags are named after the town where their thick cloth was originally made. The town of Duffel is in Belgium and its production of the bag's coarse, woolen cloth dates back to the mid-17th century. The poet e.e. cummings is credited with inventing the term "duffel bag," during the Second World War, but that is not correct. The U.S. Army issued duffel bags to its soldiers during the way, so it is more accurate to say that duffel bags became popularized during the mid 1940s, not that they originated during that time.

The term duffel bag has been used for far longer. An early magazine dedicated to outdoor leisure activities, named Outdoor, used the term "duffel bag" in September 1907 in a chapter dedicated to camping and mentions that the best material for one is pantasote, an imitation leather material made by the company of the same name. Boys' Life magazine, the magazine of the Boy Scouts, also provided an early definition of a duffel bag in 1914 and reference it in the context of camping: "The duffel bag is generally long and cylindrical, made of water proof canvas, with a handle to carry it like a grip sack, and it either laces up or is locked on the end by a padlock. As a rule, a lock is unnecessary; a dishonest person passes them by as unattractive and not suggesting wealth, which is a fortunate thing for campers." 

Theodore Roosevelt mentions carrying a duffel in his 1914 book Through the Brazilian Wilderness,  and complains about the same thing that we all do today when will fill the bag, "generally the thing wanted will be at the bottom of the bag." And he complains, "the water-proof duffel-bags sold are usually too light in texture and wear through." 

The large duffel bag described in the 1926 book Wisdom of the Woods

The book Wisdom of the Woods, published in 1926 shows an example of an early duffel bag, which is very similar to the bags the U.S. Army would issue during the Second World War. The Army made a big change in 1943 when the Quartermaster Corps replaced the old style bags that soldiers used (each soldier was given two bags, marked A and B), which they called "barracks bags." The barracks bags were large and shaped like a laundry bag and had a drawstring at the top. Instead, they issued a new duffel bag which was equipped with a two-inch strap so that it could either be carried like a suitcase or thrown over the shoulder like a golf bag.

World War II Barracks Bags, picture compliments of Olive Drab

Although the Army's new bag was an evolution toward today's duffel bag, a patent issued to F. J. O'Brien in September 1941 shows a duffel bag more akin to today's version, albeit one that is not light weight, as the design has medal straps and looks somewhat like a carpenter's tool box. It does have a big innovation of using a zipper and not a rope or draw string to close the bag.

An Early Duffel Bag

F.J. O'Brien's 1941 patent for a duffel bag

Duffel bags continued to evolve and by the 1960s and 1970s they started to have the cylindrical look of today's duffel bags. They became especially popular as a vehicle to advertise products with everything from Wheaties to Nike to Pepsi to Esso gasoline being featured on the the bags. The one seen below is made of vinyl and has rope handles.

Duffel bags are popular in the movies and on TV as they make the perfect storage unit for stolen cash or ransom payments. A 1997 movie 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag starring Joe Pesci features a mobster who carries eight severed heads in a duffel bag and gets the bag mixed up with that of a college student. 

A Stately Wear California Hippie Duffel Bag

The good news for today's buyer of duffel bags is that we have solved the problems that the Boy Scouts and Teddy Roosevelt complained about. Duffel bags no longer wear through and they are no longer unattractive. Stately Wear's duffel bags are lightweight, made of soft nylon and are wear resistant. The straps are durable and the designs on the side and ends of the bags can be customized to suit your favorite state or country!

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