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 quickly than couriers behind the wheel. By the 1970s, many New York courier businesses had adopted DeMartini’s canvas bags, each using a distinctive color to identify its company’s messengers.
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.
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