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When Were the First Bags Invented? | Part One

ToteBag Factory |

Hearken back to olden times and let’s see what we can pull up! Play a game with me: what’s ubiquitous in modern society and one of the oiled cogs within the global machine? I’m just going to spoiler you straight up: it’s bags. Because we’re the Tote Bag Factory, and that’s what we like to talk about.

How long has it been since we’ve last heard from each other? A week? A month? Even more? That’s perfect - it just means there’s even more for us to catch up on. I’ve talked your ear off about all kinds of bags, no doubt: canvas bags, cotton bags, Jute bags, Valentine’s bags, you have it; but today we have something special.

Today, we’ll be entering my time-tested time-traveling machine (don’t let the FBI know) and taking you back to the origin of bags. Better grab some nuclear power plant schematics or more useful things like, uh, a first aid kit or turpentine. Or a gun. Who knows what we’ll encounter out there?

Don’t worry, though. I’ll always keep an eye out for you. You know you’re important to me.

Now get inside and let’s get to it.

The Origin of Bags


Alright, so the telephone was invented by the Chimu civilization in Peru about 1,400 years ago, the ancient Greeks developed robots way before we did, and we’ve always wanted to strangle neighbors that are too damn loud. In short, a lot of modern things aren’t as modern as we thought.

But what about bags?

As apparent in one of our previous lectures in which long years of research led to the conclusion that an “ice bag” used to be carved from ice during the glacial age (that did not happen and we’re joking), we’ve decided that the origin of normal bags is just as elusive and desperately needs to be discovered.

And boy, have we found some interesting things - even though we’ve gone with research from experienced teams of scientists instead of trying to scry a crystal globe like last time.

Ancient Egyptians


I’m frankly quite stupefied at how many modern inventions come from the hands of ancient Egyptians. Sure, Nile crocodiles, cat gods, and plagues of beetles abound, but just how creative can you possibly get? Inventing water filtration wasn’t enough for Ancient Egyptians: they had to create bags as well.

It’s very hard for us to determine the exact point in time when bags were invented mainly because they were most likely made from biodegradable materials (like our bags, by the way) which means that they eventually decayed. Therefore, there aren’t really many scraps for us to investigate and come to the conclusion that they used to be bags. And bio-friendly bags are good. Imagine if they used plastic!

On the other hand, we know that the Ancient Egyptians had a keen understanding of basket making and matting techniques which eventually allowed them to experiment. Bags were most likely woven from thin but durable reeds or similar materials and did not look as we’d expect. Although I don’t think they look the same, the Australian Aboriginal dillybag is probably the oldest ongoing bag collection in existence and therefore can be used as some sort of visual evidence.

Many hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt depict men carrying pouches and sashes around their waists. They could have been anything from carriers, to couriers, to court officials holding important papyruses. It can be hard for us to determine, but one thing is nonetheless clear: Ancient Egyptians were more than acquainted with bags.

Time Traveling

Not sure how to tell you this, but I think someone’s stolen our time traveling machine. We might be stuck out here for a long time. As long as about 3,200 years, worst-case scenario. Although we haven’t found any bags that were older than the Ancient Egyptians (please prove me wrong if so), we’ve come across something far more interesting. And creepier.

Dozens of bas-reliefs scattered across the globe depict gods from different pantheons holding what appear to be bags. As a matter of fact, it looks like they might literally be holding a tote bag. First of all, are tote bags a divine invention? I don’t know about you, but I’ve just had my whole perspective on bags changed right this moment And I’m obsessed with bags in the first place. Oh, the humanity!

But maybe they're not bags. For example, they look like buckets. Water represents life and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for the gods to carry around a filled bucket for some divine reason or another. The symbolism is pretty clear!

If these bas-reliefs really do depict bags, though, then my theory that bags are older than Ancient Egyptians is right. I guess we’ll never know.

It could be argued that humans have been using bags ever since they discovered animal skinning. Since we know that they made clothes from treated animal furs, it’s not surprising that they would also use the furs of smaller animals as bags to carry around tools or similarly important implements such as arrows.

Take, for example, the childhood stereotype of stealing apples from someone’s garden and bunching them up in the front fold of your shirt. That’s pretty much a bag right there. Now get in the time-traveling machine and let's bop back to the times of ancient cavemen. Imagine them holding a relatively square piece of hide that they simply store something inside of and then grab and carry by the corners.

If anything, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

Ancient Greeks 


Have you ever heard of Medusa? One of the Gorgons, a trio of man-eating sisters with hair made from living, moving, and venomous snakes, and with a gaze so horrible as to turn anything they lay their eyes on to stone? Whether you’ve watched Disney’s Hercules when you were young or are studying the Iliad in college, the myth of Perseus and Medusa might be one of the most popular Greek stories known to man.

Now let’s think about the story for a bit: Perseus knew that he'd turn to stone if Medusa caught his gaze, so he used the reflection of his shield to determine her location before slashing at her neck and decapitating her in one fell blow. Her head slid off her shoulders, all the snakes started hissing in grief, and lo and behold, Medusa is gone.

We all know that Perseus took her head and used it as a weapon later on. But what did he store it in? That’s right. Ancient Greek myth explicitly says that Perseus put her scary head in a bag so that it wouldn’t surprise him with a rock-hewn blanket early in the morning. So bags have been around as far back as the Ancient Greeks, too.

Can’t help but wonder if Perseus would have gone for the other Gorgons if we’d have told him about our wholesale tote bag offers.

As a last note, Greek bags were likely more similar to the canvas tote bags we have on our website than those of Ancient Egyptians as the Greeks had gained a good understanding of working with linen by then. Fun fact, they even made armor from strong layers of linen called a linothorax, so basically layered linen bag armor. Got 'em!

Chinese Tang


The Ancient Chinese developed the art of papermaking and had started using it for wrapping and padding things as early as 100 BC. They made paper from the bark of the mulberry tree, gathering and then pounding it into a sheet. Later on, they realized they could improve the quality of the paper by adding hemp and even fishnet to the mix.

Around the year 800 AD, the Chinese started using paper for tea bags. That means that tea bags are potentially the precursor to paper bags of any type. Pretty fascinating, isn’t it? There’s so much history behind bags!

Much later on, the Chinese started perfecting bags. There is an innumerable amount of pictures depicting extraordinarily ornate and extravagant bags on the internet, so go wild when looking for them! They're seriously beautiful. Around what would be the European Middle Ages, people started using bags as protection against thieves and wore them around their belts or girdles.

The Chinese, it seems, took it to another extreme. I mean, what is this? The ancient equivalent of an Asian Gucci wallet?

While at first the bags were made out of leather (and out of necessity), later experimentation led to the creation of fanciful silk bags for the wealthy or the noble. Floral designs were especially popular for both genders while the most expensive bags would depict traditional artistic scenes such as cranes surrounded by water.

Interestingly enough, bags didn’t stop there. Yes, much later on again they developed pockets, but another potential precursor could have been the sleeves of clothes! A lot of ancient depictions of China show people storing or hiding items in their sleeves, some of which had a small opening where something could be wedged inside.

Later in History

With the ancient period out of the way, we can pay some attention to a bit later in history. That’s when the development of modern accouterments like hoods and pockets started coming into play, although it wasn’t until many, many years later that they became what they are today.

Medieval Europe


The Middle Ages are widely seen as a period of war, famine, disease, and despair by the wider public. The thing is that the truth couldn’t have been farther than that! Although war was a very common occurrence, the strife during that period didn’t even come close to the one exhibited during either of the World Wars, and that happened 100 years ago.

Medieval Europe wasn’t as dirty, uneducated, and stagnant as it’s depicted in the media. As a matter of fact, there are very many places in Europe today (and not just - but all over the world) that still live as if they’re in the Middle Ages, with some villages in the Balkans not even having electricity and running water.

Conversely, in some parts of the world during the Middle Ages, life was far more comfortable than expected. For example, most peasants did not wear drab gray and brown clothing as commonly thought of, instead going for an array of beautifully vibrant colors such as red, green, yellow, or blue with which to dazzle their peers.

And they brushed their teeth, as well. With twigs. And they gave invoices or receipts with tally sticks, and knew that drilling a hole into your skull might draw out the demons if you're hearing voices in your head. Which is the precursor to trepanning, by the way, so I'm not pointing out "barbarism."

Anyways - we know that fashion was a thing even during the Middle Ages: what does that have to do with bags? Pockets, my dear friend. Pockets and hoods.

Medieval Europe was a cold and relatively unwelcoming place. Not necessarily because of its inhabitants or what was going around at the time, but also because central heating hadn’t been invented yet.

Actually, it had been invented by the Romans years before - but people lost the technology during the Early Middle Ages save for a handful of unique exceptions.

Since your average medieval peasant had to keep warm and didn't have an electric radiator, the best way to do so wasn’t with fire, but with layering as many clothes as possible. Why wear one shirt when you can wear three? Many of that period’s fashion statements originated from peasant innovations to clothing, one of which was hoods.

Hoods, Cowls, and Hoodies

There were many, many variations to hoods. It could be part of the overalls you’re wearing or part of a cape called a chaperon you layer over your tunic. It could also be a cowl if you’re a monk, which meant that the hood was part of the tunic. Later on during the Middle Ages, the chaperon became even more fanciful and started being worn in extravagant ways.

So medieval people realized you could create a pocket with which to put your head inside and thus keep it warm. What about another pocket to hold your everyday items in? Not a pouch you tie to your belt - made from leather, just like the Ancient Chinese - since that can be lost, or your belt can tear apart, or someone can just cut it off altogether.

“What about a better way to store our items?” they asked each other, probably in French, and came to invent pockets sometime around the late 1400s. And from then on, the “store your items” mania took on, leading to the invention of modern bags during the Renaissance.

The Advent of the Renaissance

This is a point in history that we can assuredly point a finger at and exclaim: “So that’s where women’s purses come from!” The sparking of the Italian Renaissance led to a revolution in the everyday commoner’s lifestyle. It also led to the emergence of many new technologies and innovations, one of which was messenger’s bags.

The Italian city-states were close-to-independent polities (or outright independent, in the case of Florence, for example) whose governments frequently had messages to share with each other. If carrier pigeons couldn’t do the job, or if they were overkill, then messengers were employed, and often times they had to carry important documents, messages, or missives.

That led to the creation of the modern messenger bag. It looked different back then, but it was the same in spirit.

We Aren’t Done Yet

I like bags. I really like bags. And this article isn’t done yet. We’re going to be looking at how bags developed further in history at a later date in our blog, so make sure to stay tuned if you’re interested. As always, I hope you’ve had a pleasant read. I’m very thankful for your attention and look forward to the next time we’ll see each other.

Which can be in like, ten seconds. Read another blog until then!