It has long been said that the requisite possessions of every true Bostonian are a Boston Bag, a subscription to the Transcript and a high moral purpose.
Emilie Loring walked each morning from her home on Beacon Hill to the fifth floor of the Boston Athenaeum where she wrote. She brought her materials with her–rough draft, paper, pencils, spectacles–and I feel confident that she carried them in a Boston Bag.
It is used by all the men and women and girls and boys, it is used by youth and age, it is used in walking the streets, in shopping, in going to school, in going to business offices, it is carried in street cars and automobiles, it is used for business and for pleasure, it holds books, purchases of all sorts, skates, lunches and anything; it may even at times be empty, but it is none the less carried.
Ramblings Through Old Boston (1916)
From the Civil War through the Gay Nineties, the Boston Bag belonged to Bostonians alone.
When a Back Bay lady or a West end belle walks down Broadway in New York, or saunters through the streets of Chicago, she is known immediately… “That woman is from Boston–see the bag!” Boston Daily Globe, 1896
One origin of the Boston Bag was England’s House of Commons, where a green bag sat behind the Speaker’s chair to hold public petitions. In America, attorneys were called “green bags” by association, but over time, not only attorneys but also businessmen, students, and their mothers carried their books, bags, groceries, and sundries in sturdy, green, cloth bags.
How many a tedious car ride was beguiled by spelling out the contents of your neighbor’s green bag from bulge and angle. Mixed with his legal briefs and unread manuscripts one made out groceries, small articles of dress, laundry, briar pipes, combs, whisk brooms, tin boxes holding typewriter ribbons and guessed at tubes of tooth powder. Boston Daily Globe, 1912
Over the years, the Boston Bag’s shape changed little–“something of the quality of a valise and something of the quality of a portfolio.” About a foot long and a foot high, it had a flat bottom, short handles, and a strap closure. I’m not sure what the fabric was, but it was lighter than today’s canvas totes. Leather sometimes reinforced the bottom, and eventually, all-leather versions emerged, including one like a “doctor’s bag,” with a rigid, hinged opening. Mary Poppins’ carpet bag was similar, though much larger, of course.
The Boston woman carries a Boston bag, no matter what her wealth or social position. If she be rich you will doubtless see her with one of leather in her hand; if she be in moderate circumstances or poor, one of cloth with a leather base will be her choice. Boston Daily Globe, 1896
In the 1890s, New York women carried daintier handbags and wore fussier shoes than their practical sisters of Boston. But the Boston Daily Globe predicted:
“There must be some sort of a conspiracy in society elsewhere intended to discredit and burst the boom of the Boston Bag, but it will fail.”
By the 1920s, the leather Boston Bag was popular everywhere.
Some use it for shopping–some for overnight trips, and there are a hundred and one other uses where a light, high-grade, well-appearing handbag is called into service. The Boston Bag has created such a demand for itself that we are sometimes taxed to keep the stock fully complete. The Washington Post, 1920
Something so enduring, so useful, is hard to ignore. “No visitor who becomes fully impregnated with the Boston feeling ever leaves the city without carrying one away with him.” (Ramblings Through Old Boston, 1916)
But today’s visitor has to look pretty hard to find a true Boston Bag. Over time, the name “Boston Bag” has been used for just about any handbag or overnight bag with short handles.
Ralph Lauren and Gucci call theirs “Boston Bags,” but the shape’s not quite right, is it? See how they’ve lost the slight narrowing at the top? J. Peterman’s “Gladstone Bag” is closer to the original, despite the addition of both a lock and zipper, and The Boston Bag Co. sells a reproduction of their 1928 canvas tote that’s like the schoolboy cloth bag but without a closing strap.
Enter L. L. Bean! If you find a better Boston Bag, let me know, but these from the traditionalists in Freeport, Maine are as close as I’ve found to the cloth and leather originals–and they’re not even called “Boston Bags.”
I travel a lot, and I carry a lot of books, paper, and pens from place to place. I also have a rather large collection of canvas, nylon, and leather totes, bags, and valises.
My favorite is an all-canvas, L. L. Bean tote with a zipper and over-the-shoulder straps–improvements, I think, on the original design. Like the Boston ladies of yesteryear, I carry it everywhere, use it for everything, from lunches to clothing to magazines. For dressier occasions, I have a slimmer, leather version.
Both are sturdy, well-made, and exceptionally functional. They have earned their “lived-in” look.
Neither of my bags is exactly a Boston Bag, but they are close enough to provide the same utility. That’s satisfying somehow. An accessory that performs so well for so long deserves appreciation, and when I carry my materials to the library to do a bit of writing, Emilie and I are kin.
Update 2022: There’s a new Boston bag, and it’s coming from “V,” a member of the K-Pop group BTS. Take a look. It would be right at home in Boston! Now revising my wishlist…