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    

Louis Vuitton Fragment Monogram Eclipse Flash Apollo Messenger Pm Supreme BagYsl Yves Saint Laurent Besace Crocodrile Embossed Messenger Shoulder Bag Gray100% Authentic Louis Vuitton America's Cup Royal Blue Messenger BagAuthentic Chloe Women's Marcie Small Gray Leather Crossbody/messenger Bag PurseGucci Messenger Bag MenGucci Messenger Bag*authentic Louis Vuitton Saumur 30 Monogram Canvas Messenger Shoulder Bag FrancePeak Design Everyday Messenger Bag 15" (charcoal) Westime By Ghiso Navy Blue Leather Toto Mailman Messenger Shopper Bag ItalyKriega Urban Messenger BagVintage 1967 Bucheimer Messenger Postal Bag U.s. Mail Carrier RarePreowned Goyard Women’s Green Canvas/leather Shoulder Messenger BagAuthentic Gucci Men Navy Blue Crossbody Messenger BagPorsche Design Black Seat Belt Shoulder Garment Carry On Luggage Messenger Bag!!Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag 15" (charcoal) Peak Design Everyday Messenger 13 Bag - Heritage TanOna Brixton Camera / Messenger Bag CanvasChanel Bronze Soft Leather Chanel Logo Medium Size Messenger Cross Body Bag A212Fossil Vintage Reissue Flap Messenger Leather Shoulder Cross Body BagDucati Tumi Cross-body Messenger Bag Black Silver RedHarley Davidson Messenger BagTokidoki Lesportsac Campeggio Spiaggia Messenger Crossbody Bag Tote Hawaii BeachAuthentic Ball Trove Messenger Bag5.11 Tactical: Rush Delivery Lima Messenger Bag (color - Double Tap)Authentic Vintage Gucci Cross Body Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Handbag Gg LogoGucci Vintage Turn Lock Blue Monogram Gg Cross Body Messenger Saddle Bag ItalyCoach Marmarade Orange Pebbled Leather Travel Weekender Messenger Bag 70721Authentic Gucci Bag Messenger Crossbody Bag Web Canvas Beige Red Green VintageMichael Kors Black Saffiano Ava Extra Small Messenger Bag Purse $178- #032Tumi Alpha Bravo Beale Distressed Leather Mini Messenger Tablet 92371bh Bag $295Michael Kors Jet Set Travel Large Messenger Bag #16.7Lucky Brand Brown Leather Abbey Road Convertible Messenger Cross Body Purse BagTumi Alpha Bravo - Annapolis Zip Flap Messenger Bag - GreyTory Burch Black Leather Gold Tone Hardware Messenger Bag HandbagKriega Urban Wp Messenger BagFossil Zb4799 Morgan Top Zip Hobo Slouchy Black Leather Messenger Crossbody BagMichael Kors Brown Gold Jet Set Travel Monogram Messenger Bag Purse Large $198Prada Bag Womens Crossbody Shoulder Bag Messenger Black Nylon Leather VintageAuthentic Vintage Gucci Web Messenger Cross Body Shoulder Bag Purse Handbag Original Louis Vuitton Cup Limited Rare Solent Messenger Sling BagMono Efx Fader Dj Bag (jet Black) Laptop Case Messenger Bag / Dj Audio Ili Leather Multi Color Handbag Shoulder Messenger Bag Purse #6097 Citrus Color Lucky Brand "abbey Road" Messenger Bag Blue Leather Euc $229.00 Michael Kors Morgan $178.00 Brown Signature Pvc Medium Messenger Bag PurseMarc Jacobs Crossbody Messenger Bag Black Leather Handbag Patricia Nash Armeno Zig Zag Patchwork Leather X-body Messenger Bag Msrp $249 Vintage Dooney And Bourke Tote Handbag Purse Crossbody Messenger BagPatagonia Messenger BagLucky Brand Leather Purse Flap Over Handbag Messenger Crossbody Hippy Slouch BagChrome Industries Citizen Messenger Bag Good Used ConditionStickman Leather Brown Flap Messenger Crossbody Tote Bag Shoulder Strap BookbagCoach Mens Messenger Style BagCoach 77004 Jacquard Signature C Messenger Laptop/diaper Bag ToteTom Bihn Id Messenger Bag With Absolute Shoulder Strap, Purple/black/greenB. Makowsky Black Leather Flap Convertible Messenger Bag Handbag Coach Brown Messenger File Bag Cross Body Handbag $225Coach L13-9191 Canvas & Tan Leather Crossbody Flap Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Fossil Messenger Bag, Laptop Sleeve, Green Canvas Field BagAuthentic Coach Beige Large Messenger Laptop Diaper Shoulder Bag (euc)Designer 1772 Mens Brown Leather Flap Messenger Bag Bhfo