The History of The Tote Bag


Tote, in its original context, means to carry or wield something heavy or substantial. The origins of the word can be traced back to the 17thc when it was used as a verb ("to tote") but, over time, tote became the noun we know it to be in 2022. This was, in part, due to the influence of the Maine-based outdoor brand L.L.Bean who debuted their ice carrier "tote" back in 1944, designed to haul ice 'from car to ice chest' and tested to hold up to 500 pounds of weight. Pretty cool, right?

Image: Mackenzie Leather Edinburgh.

Although this original tote was designed to be practical, it was soon recognised for its fashion potential. In the 1960's, L.L. Bean upgraded the design of their original ice carrier tote with a colour trimmed bottom and handles to create a bag that was both practical and stylish. This later led to the more expensive and much larger and structured leather totes, distinct from canvas totes in material and style but still designed to hold all of your possessions.

Over time, the tote evolved again and became a tool for advertisement. A well cited example of this is New York bookshop The Strand who printed the name and address of their shop on a canvas tote in the 80s as part of a marketing campaign - one that was successful and is still active now. See also the New Yorker Tote, only available to subscribers of the magazine, and Penguin Book's iconic book totes. 

Another rise of the tote was seen when the world began to wake up to the harsh realities of climate change, and a reusable alternative to the once-loved plastic bag was needed. We can attribute some of this to LUSH, whose "Say No To Animal Testing" totes offered a more sustainable alternative to one-use plastic bags.

Although most of these sustainable totes are made from cotton or canvas, the jute tote has become increasingly popular for those after a more structured, sustainable container. It's important to note that some of these won't be better for the environment - the most eco-friendly option is a tote that is biodegradable, and made completely of recycled materials and organic cotton.

Today's Tote

In 2022, tote bags still fulfil their practical, aesthetic and advertisement purposes, but there is one crucial difference. Like the LUSH "Say No To Animal Testing" bags, totes have become an expressive tool; a way for its owner to make a political or otherwise social statement. 

At Tom'sTotes, some of our most popular totes are the ones that do just this. Our limited edition "Boy's Won't Be Boy's" tote, which draws attention to the issue of sexual harassment, sold the most units in 2022 (with proceeds going to Women's Aid). Another favourite has been our "Fuck the Tories" tote which does what it says on the tote: expresses the wearer's dismay at our government, and functions as a strong and practical container for your things. 

We can expect even more of this statement style in 2022. 

We are Tom's Totes. Our mission is to make plastic bags completely out of fashion, and to make sustainable lifestyle choices stylish. Support independent artists and join our mission to ditch plastic with our collection of biodegradable tote bagsprints/postcards and paint kits online.