Modern messenger bags range from reflective vinyl shoulder totes for bike-riding urban hipsters to trendy fashion accessories for people who wouldn't be caught dead carrying anything other than Gucci. But messenger bags, as their name suggests, have purely utilitarian roots. Early versions of these shoulder bags with overlapping front flaps were used by military couriers, electrical technicians, and mail carriers. Illustrations of American military garments from the late 1770s, for example, depict soldiers carrying a form of shoulder satchel secured with two buckled straps. Courier bags from that era often consisted of simple leather pouches, whose wide profile made them perfect for safely transporting important paper documents.

A similar type of sack for mail delivery was carried in the 19th century by riders working for the legendary Pony Express. Pony Express riders transported mail across the Rocky Mountains before telegraph service was established in the region. Since these riders relied on horses to move quickly over difficult terrain, they needed smaller and more durable leather bags than the standard mail sacks used on trains. Royal Mail carriers in the United Kingdom still employ a version of this bag today.

The use of a flat satchel design spread with the mass popularity of the bicycle at the end of the 19th century. As people embraced this exciting new mode of transit, entrepreneurs recognized the benefits of bicycle delivery. Reports of bicycle messengers working for the Paris Stock Exchange appear as early as the 1870s, while in the U.S., Western Union began employing a number of boys to deliver telegraphs by bicycle during the 1890s.

The potential of a bike-messenger system became especially clear after a major California rail strike halted transport in 1894. One clever bicycle shop owner in Fresno quickly organized a messenger relay system to deliver mail to San Francisco. The success of his enterprise proved the efficiency and ease of carrying small items by bicycle, and businesses following the model soon appeared in many urban centers.

Meanwhile, electrical and telephone repairmen adopted a similar style courier bag, usually made of heavy-duty canvas with a single strap. These bags allowed workers to carry tools high off the ground while keeping their hands free for climbing or repair work.

The bicycle messenger bag as we know it today was created by a small company in New York City catering directly to these telephone linemen. Owner Frank DeMartini began making his single strap utility bags using material supplied by Globe Canvas in the 1950s.

As cars continued to clog city streets during the latter half of the 20th century, traffic congestion became so bad that bike messengers could often deliver important items more ...

Soon, consumers outside the bicycling community wanted messenger bags of their own, both for reasons of style and practicality. In 1980, John Peters of Manhattan Portage reworked the original DeMartini design to include plastic buckles, nylon straps, and reflective striping for a more consumer-friendly product. Other respected manufacturers who got their start in the mid-1980s include Zo Bags in San Francisco and CourierWare in Boston.

The second generation of businesses devoted to the messenger bag came only a few years later with brands like Timbuk2, Chrome, and Pac Designs, who further developed the format by offering features like waterproof materials and designs that the purchaser could customize.

Markus and Daniel Freitag took the style to another level when they founded the Swiss company Freitag in 1993. Freitag bags are composed almost entirely of recycled materials: an old truck tarpaulin provides rainproof fabric, car seatbelts become sturdy carrying straps, and used bicycle tires form protective edging.

Today, the messenger bag is one of the few shoulder-bag styles to become a mainstream fashion accessory for men as well as women. Despite their practical roots, or perhaps because of them, messenger bags are regularly re-imagined  by high-end designers like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Burberry. These luxury messenger bags are increasingly popular among the laptop commuters of our time, but they would probably be unrecognizable to their postal-service or telephone-company forebears.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Authentic Tory Burch Marion Foldover Messenger Bag Handbag Purse Crossbody $ 435Louis Vuitton Vintage Monogram Canvas & Leather Saumur 35 Messenger BagRare! Authentic Chanel Black Lamb Mini Messenger BagLouis Vuitton Saumur 30 Mm Purse Bag Tote Messenger Crossbody AuthenticOrla Kiely Large Messenger / Crossbody Bag Red Pear Print HandbagGucci Messenger Bag Black Mens Leather With Original Receipt No ReserveChanel All Around Chain Blue Messenger BagOrla Kiely Large Messenger / Crossbody Bag Pink Floral Geometric Print HandbagMichael Michael Kors Black Margo Sm Messenger Crossbody Leather Bag Handbag J. Crew Abingdon *stained* Khaki Waxed Canvas And Leather Small Messenger Bag ~pWomens Vintage Extra Large Gucci Messenger Or Travel BagVtg Chanel Large Tan Quilted Suede Leather Messenger Cross Body Purse Bag FranceAuthentic Michael Kors Jet Set Monogram Crossbody~messenger Bag100% Authentic Burberry Nova Check Messenger Bag.Freitag Green And Gray Lassie Messenger Bag Made From Recycled Materials $210Genuine Miu Miu By Prada Distressed Denim Leather Messenger Cross Body BagTimbuk2 Entire Collection *used* Resale Wholesale Messenger / Travel Bag Lot -ak$475 Marc Jacobs Ukita Natasha Large Bag Royal Blue Hobo Messenger AuthenticLouis Vuitton Thomas Messenger Bag Damier GraphiteAuth Louis Vuitton Saumur 43 Shoulder Bag Messenger Monogram Free Ship Tv04564Michael Michael Kors Jet Set Large Travel Messenger Bag Tom Bihn Id Messenger BagDooney & Bourke Messenger Bag - Multi ColorLouis Vuitton Vintage Monogram Canvas & Leather Saumur Gm Messenger BagPrada Messenger Bag Black Tessuto Leather Trim No Reserve Vela Sport TracollaAuth Louis Vuitton Saumur Messenger Cross Body Shoulder Bag Monogram Jv04577Authentic Coach Signature Stripe Swingpack Crossbody Messenger BagMission Workshop Monty Messenger Bag $248 Authentic Michael Michael Kors Mcgraw Medium Messenger BagTory Burch Amanda Foldover Messenger Crossbody Black Leather Bag $435.00Dries Van Noten Brown Leather Messenger Bag Pre OwnedHugo Boss Buffalo Calf Leather 50132212 Black Portfolio Messenger Bag 8481Michael Kors Optic White Black Selma Messenger Crossbody Bag PurseCoach 70th Anniversary Signature Willis Crossbody Bag Purse Messenger Pink 19034Authentic Coach Mint Green Messenger Cross Body BagHarveys Disney Couture Messenger BagMen's Louis Vuitton Messenger Bag 14.5"x11.5"x3.25"Prada Tessuto Nylon Messenger BagChrome Mini Metro 15" Laptop Cordura Nylon Messenger Bag Made In Chico Ca /~Coach Black Leather Cross Body Crossbody Messenger Swingpack Bag Purse, Perfect MarsAuthentic Pre-owned Louis Vuitton Lv Saumur 35 Monogram Messenger Bag M42254 NrCoach Vintage Black Leather Willis Crossbody Mini Messenger Square Purse Vtg BagLouis Vuitton Damier Geant Messenger Bag 100% Authentic Gucci Mcm Prada VersaceHenry Beguelin Huge Black Leather Messenger Bag Brief Case Satchell Laptop EucAuthentic Pre-owned Louis Vuitton Saumur 43 Large Messenger Bag Purse M42252 NrAuthentic Vintage Gucci Web Messenger Cross Body Bag Purse Handbag Tote WalletGucci Ebony Beige Gg Signature Canvas Shoulder Messenger Diaper Bag $1100 Gvd277Reload Currier Bike Messenger Bag With Champ StripesNice Frye Brown Leather Crossbody Messenger Bag PursePorter Yoshida The Hideout Messenger Bag Courier Collaboration Cyclist PortjapanMichael Kors Fuchsia Pink Leather Selma Mini Crossbody Messenger Bag #m0044Jack Spade Brown Designer Wax Canvas Shoulder Messenger Text Bookbag BagLarge Black And Gray Coach Messenger BagTom Bihn Ego Messenger BagMichael Kors Women's Selma Black Saffiano Leather Cross Body Messenger Bag $228-Authentic Michael Kors Hamilton Leather Small Messenger Crossbody Luggage BagChrome All Black Mini Metro Bike Messenger Bag WaterproofAuth Louis Vuitton Saumur 35 Messenger Cross Body Shoulder Bag Monogram Jv04547Mulholland Brothers Leather And Canvas Angler Messenger Bag Vgc