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    

Auth Celine Small Black Trio Clutch Messenger Crossbody BagGenuine Hardly Used Michael Kors 100% Leather Rust Shoulder / Messenger BagLucky Brand Abbey Road / Messenger Bag / Crossover / Italian Leather / Sand24 Live Another Day Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland Messenger Bag Flashlight IdHarveys Seatbelt Bags Treecycle Messenger & Laptop Bag ***rare***Authentic Louis Vuitton Red Epi Leather St Cloud Gm Shoulder/messenger BagMichael Kors Jet Set Travel Large Messenger Bag Web Id: 796062 #25.1J.crew Leather Bag 'madewell' Messenger Crossbody Dark BrownFossil 1970s Brown Leather Messenger Bag Purse Embroidered FlowersFossil Italian Leather Slim Unisex Messenger Bag Cross Body Tote Laptop Bag MintAuthentic Louis Vuitton Sac Maman Messenger Shoulder Diaper Bag Monogram Khaki Vtg Louis Vuitton Monogram Lv Cartouchiere Pm Crossbody Messenger Purse BagAuthentic Gucci Gg Supreme Canvas Messenger Diaper BagPaul Smith "city Webbing" Leather Messenger Bag..Vintage Brahmin Small Mini Brown Leather Croco Crossbody Messenger Purse BagAuthentic Louis Vuitton Saumur 35 Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Monogram Ts1743Fossil Maddox Brown Crossbody Messenger Leather Bag Purse Tote Vintage Shoulder Fossil Explorer Lg Foldover/messenger Shoulder Bag Honey Tan Leather Ret 238.00Authentic Gucci Brown Monogram Canvas Leather Crossbody Messenger Shoulder BagChrome Metropolis Messenger BagLarge Black Kipling Over The Body Messenger Bag Large With Monkey Davina***il Bisonte Brown Leather Large Zip Crossbody Messenger Bag, Rare!!***Clare Vivier V Gorgeous Classic Messenger Bag, Mustard Yellow Leather, Euc!Mulberry Vintage Leather Brown Messenger Hand BagLouis Vuitton Men/women Designer Messenger Laptop Shoulder Bag (vintage!! Rare)Fossil Large Brown Leather Messenger Cross-body Book School Work Tote Case BagAuthentic Burberry Super Nova Check Dryden Crossbody Messenger BagBurberry Peyton House Check Crossbody Messenger Bag Leather/fabric,rrp $495Leather Lucky Brand Abbey Road Messenger Bag Tote Purse Bourbon Brown CrossbodyMichael Michael Kors Hamilton Mini Messenger Bag In BlackCoach Crossbody Messenger Bag & WalletAuth Pre-owned Louis Vuitton Monogram Sac Gibeciere Gm Messenger Bag M42249 NrAuthentic Louis Vuitton Saumur 35 Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Monogram Ts1728Michael Kors Large Mauve Leather Messenger Crossbody Shoulder BagFossil Women Messenger BagAuthentic Prada Black Vela Two-pocket Messenger BagVintage Fossil Brown Leather Sutter Style Cross-body Messenger BagAuth Michael Kors Bedford Nylon Flap Crossbody Messenger BagCoach Brown Leather Silver Buckle Vintage Crossbody Messenger Bag PursePre-owned Patagonia Half Mass Messenger Bag/pack Color Copper OreFossil Sutter Large Black Leather Crossbody Shoulder Bag Messenger Wow100% Authentic Burberry Messenger Bag Coach Crossbody Small Messenger, Pink And Brown/beige Bag G0973-f13674Tumi Black Chocolate Nylon Laptop Messenger Reversible Luggage Bag $595 Icc040Bnwt Michael Michael Kors Fallon Messenger Bag Pvc Brown $258Mulholland Brothers Holland Bros Messenger Bag Land Rover Custom Leather/canvasTimbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag, Small, Black Nylon, Shoulder Carry Belstaff Messenger Bag 556 Navy Dead StockAuthentic Hermes Messenger Cross Body Bag Handbag Palladium Hardware No Reserve!Prada Vola Black Nylon Logo Shoulder Crossbody Messenger Bag Purse Small $495Authentic Prada Tan Messenger BagAuth Louis Vuitton Saumur 30 Messenger Shoulder Bag Monogram Free Ship Rb1142mAll Saints Spitalfields Black Leather Canvas Pursuit Dispatch Messenger Bag J. Crew Abingdon Cotton Canvas And Leather Crossbody Shoulder Bag Messenger BagAuthentic Louis Vuitton Saumur 35 Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Monogram Ts1699Auth Louis Vuitton Saumur 43 Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Monogram M42252 1230jsFossil Ocean Blue Distressed Patina Leather Small Messenger Bag Shoulder PurseFossil Key Per Messenger Bag, Diaper Bag, Retired PatternAlviero Martini 1a World Map Shoulder Bag Crossbody Messenger W/dust CoverAuthentic Louis Vuitton Saumur 35 Messenger Shoulder Bag Purse Monogram Ts1744