How a Rain-Soaked Seattle Bookstore Helped Invent the School Backpack

Cori Mothersbaugh remembers how she used to get her books from one class to another. Starting in grade school in the 1960s and through her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 1972, textbooks would be wrapped in a heavy brown paper bag and piled up in her arms. “My generation, we didn’t put books in anything,” the 66-year-old tells Mental Floss. “We just carried them.”

By the time that finally changed, Mothersbaugh would be close to graduation. But she could take a little solace in the fact that, as an employee at the University’s campus bookstore, she was an eyewitness to a meeting between an outdoor equipment salesman and a store manager that would forever influence how kids toted their school supplies.

A woman wears a white JanSport backpack
JanSport

A leather belt. That’s what kids in the early 1900s often used to cart their school books around, securing the strap around the pile and using the slack as a handle. Sometimes the strap would be made specifically for the purpose. Other times, kids would just use a waist belt, cinching it to create a bottom-heavy contraption that was probably used by more than one child as a bludgeon.

Around the same time, some enterprising outdoor equipment suppliers were making upgrades to the totes and satchels favored by their outdoor enthusiast customers. Taking a cue from the Inuit designs he saw in his Alaskan travels, entrepreneur Lloyd Nelson patented a pack in 1922 that could be worn across the upper back with a frame for added support. In 1938, Gerry Outdoors improved on the concept by adding zippered compartments that made it easier to fetch supplies while rock climbing. In 1967, the Gerry Teardrop Backpack innovated again by using nylon, a far more durable and weather-resistant material than canvas.

None of these products were created with students in mind. Their target audience was the outdoorsman, the roaming amateur explorers who enjoyed hiking, camping, and climbing. The growth of that industry paved the way for JanSport, co-founded by Skip Yowell and Murray and Jan Pletz in 1967. (Jan had the company named after her because she agreed to help sew some of their early products.)

Operating out of a Seattle transmission shop owned by Yowell’s uncle, JanSport quickly gained traction as a supplier that paid attention to the finer details. When Yowell heard that customers wanted a loop to hang an ice axe from, he added one. When they asked for a day pack made especially for dogs, he made them. His dialogue with customers allowed JanSport to react quickly to the needs of the market.

“Skip had this incredible personality,” Winnie Yowell, Skip’s widow, tells Mental Floss. “He made you feel like you were his best friend, that you had known him forever.”

That comradery was on display in 1972, when Yowell paid a visit to the University of Washington’s campus bookstore and spoke with manager Ed Bergan. With the bookstore connected to an athletics shop that sold skiing and other outdoor equipment, Bergan noticed that students would go pick up their textbooks and then head for the JanSport day pack display almost immediately.

“It was like a turnstile,” says Mothersbaugh, who worked for Bergan. “Kids would buy books and then look for something to carry them in.” Unlike some of the sunnier campuses on the west coast, books needed protection from the ever-present Seattle rain; a large number of students also biked around campus and needed a place to store their books so they could keep their hands on the handlebar.

Bergan mentioned this untapped market to Yowell and suggested a key addition: Since the packs were being used for heavy books, having some added support on the bottom would be beneficial. The reinforced bottom could carry the weight and resist water if it was put down on wet pavement.

Yowell, who had made a practice of listening to customers, agreed. He returned to JanSport and began producing day packs that had vinyl (and later leather) bottoms and jam-proof zippers. He sent them along to Bergan, who reported that they were practically flying off the shelves.

“It was a new way to carry things,” Mothersbaugh says. “I think kids would see other kids with one and it caught on. I know we sold a lot of them.”

Bergan was so impressed by the response that he began telling his colleagues at other campus bookstores in the Pacific Northwest about JanSport and its virtually indestructible backpacks, which Yowell would later dub the SuperBreak. A revolution was taking place—but it would be a few more years before it became a national phenomenon.

A 1984 L.L. Bean catalog page featuring the Book Pack
Courtesy of Andy Gilchrist

At the time JanSport’s book pack exploded, the company had a regional footprint. Students on the East Coast in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t yet aware of the alternative use for the bags, and it was often left up to enterprising parents to improvise school sacks for their children. In 1980, syndicated arts and crafts columnists Ed and Stevie Baldwin offered instructions for a DIY backpack by mail order. The bags were made from jeans and recycled waistbands. For anyone willing to take up the task for themselves, the Baldwins sold the pattern for $3.95.

Of course, college students were less likely to have their parents sewing backpacks for them. That’s probably one reason why a Harvard law school enrollee wrote to Ned Kitchel in 1981. Kitchel, who was the head of product development for L.L. Bean's outdoor equipment category from 1976 to 1991, remembers the correspondence well. “The guy had ordered the first nylon day pack we had introduced to the line,” Kitchel tells Mental Floss. “It was intended for hiking. He said he liked it but that his law books poked a hole in the bottom and could we please make one to hold them.”

Kitchel thought that made sense. Not long after, he ran into a seamstress named Marcia Briggs at a Las Vegas trade show. Briggs was co-owner of Caribou Mountaineering and had already toyed with the idea of adopting a day pack for school use. “I asked if they [Caribou] could do anything and she pulled one right off the shelf,” Kitchel says. “With a few alterations, that became the L.L. Bean Book Pack.”

At the time, there was a crucial difference in reach between JanSport and L.L. Bean. JanSport acted as a wholesaler, dealing with retailers. Bean was a catalog business, selling directly to the consumer. (Without the middle man, their packs sold for $25 compared to JanSport’s $30 to $40 models.) They didn’t need to convince store owners a student-oriented pack was a good idea—they just added it to their pages. “The first year [1982], we sold maybe 10,000 of them,” Kitchel says. “The next year, 50,000. Then 100,000. The numbers were astonishing.”

The Bean Book Pack made some crucial additions to the student book-toting experience. Briggs designed a seamless bottom using a continuous piece of fabric, making it much more resistant to having sharp book corners poking at the sides. Compartments were added so supplies like pencils and rulers could be easily retrieved. Later, Kitchel would add reflective stripes to the exterior so kids would be visible in low light. That feature appealed to parents, who browsed the catalog and then ordered Book Packs for their children.

By 1984, newspapers were taking note of the trend spreading everywhere from kindergarten to universities. Across the country, students were lugging packs made specifically for their needs. Packs from JanSport, L.L. Bean, and a handful of other brands like Eastpak and Trager came in an assortment of colors, including pink and camouflage. Licensed packs featuring ALF, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie grew popular with younger backpackers. Promotional giveaways used them as a way to grab attention. (Send in two Chips Ahoy! proof of purchase seals along with $6.95 for a Chips Ahoy! backpack.) If you were carrying books by hand, you were missing a sea change in education. Backpacks had arrived.

A child with a backpack walks down a flight of stairs
woodleywonderworks, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In terms of brand recognition, not a whole lot has changed since backpacks became a staple of school lockers in the ‘80s. Kids, fiercely loyal to brands, still favor JanSport and L.L. Bean, along with other packs made by VF, the parent company currently behind JanSport.

“At least on the east coast, you can’t walk on a campus and not see L.L. Bean backpacks everywhere,” Kitchel says. Of Yowell, who conquered the other coast, Kitchel echoes the sentiments of most everyone who met him prior to his death in 2012. “He’s one of the classiest guys I ever knew.”

Kitchel estimates that L.L. Bean sold $500 million in packs since 1982. JanSport had tallied 25 million SuperBreak packs between 1979 and 2007.

With digital learning tools on the rise, some outlets are predicting a dip in backpack sales as more classes are moving coursework online. Yet 2014 was a record high for backpack sales, with 174 million sold. Students may no longer be weighed down with 30 pounds of paper, but there’s still a need to pad and protect tablets, headphones, and other learning accessories. There’s also the matter of aesthetics: A student’s choice of color, shape, and features in a backpack can help broadcast their personality to a campus full of strangers. That's not likely to go out of style anytime soon.

“I think Skip realized where the future was going to be,” Winnie Yowell says. “The goal was always to be cool and fun, and that was Skip’s thing.”

Additional Sources: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen.

15 Forgotten Summertime Activities We Need To Bring Back

iStock/wundervisuals
iStock/wundervisuals

Summer is here and it’s time to enjoy the sunshine. It’s also the perfect time to take a break from technology. Ditch your TV, shut down social media, and go outside. To do what, you might ask? Here are 15 summer activities from yesteryear that we should totally revive in popular culture.

1. Skipping rocks

Here’s a recipe for a classic summer: put down the video game, go outside, and throw rocks at water. Once you’ve mastered the flick of the wrist required to get the right amount of spin on your stone, it’s hard to stop counting how many skips you get on each throw.

2. Playing loggits

This game played in Tudor England was sort of like a cheap version of horseshoes. Players stuck a stick in the ground and took turns throwing other sticks at it. Whoever got their stick closest to the target won the game. Consider this activity more proof that all you need to have fun is some yard debris and a sunny day. 

3. Rolling a hoop

Two young girls rolling hoops in a London park in the 1930s
Fox Photos/Getty Images

You’ve probably seen this one in old-timey paintings, but chances are you’ve never rolled a hoop. The activity, also known as trundling a hoop, requires nothing more than a wooden hoop and a small wooden rod like a dowel. For centuries, kids amused themselves by running along and tapping the hoop with the rod to keep it rolling on a straight course. Easy to learn but tough to master, this one kept generations of kids out of mischief. 

4. Having an outdoor dance

“Schottische” is a traditional folk dance, much like a slower polka. It has long been a popular dance at Swedish midsummer festivals, which celebrate the season’s warmth and long daylight hours.

5. Growing giant vegetables

Giant pumpkins in a field in China
China Photos/Getty Images

Giant crop competitions appear in several state fairs. The tradition is particularly notable in Alaska, where longer sunlight hours during the summer make growing enormous produce easier. One Alaskan has grown seven world-record-sized vegetables, including a 76-pound cabbage! Most people no longer grow their own food, but taking pride in creating something uniquely huge is a vital American tradition.

6. Using bathing machines

Before string bikinis were considered appropriate beach attire, Victorian ladies frolicked in the surf within the confines of a bathing machine. These private carts gave women a sheltered space to change their clothes right on the water. Sure, most women are no longer afraid of being seen in a bathing suit, but wouldn’t it be nice to have your own private hut in the surf?

7. Heading to the summer farm

In agrarian Scandinavia, farmers traditionally lived on one farm during the winter and on another in the summer. When the weather warmed, farmers would take their livestock up into the mountains to feed in the meadows while they made repairs and grew hay on their home farm. Milkmaids would stay in the mountains for the summer months with the goats, sheep, and cows, milking them to make butter and cheese. A scenic rural getaway surrounded by dairy products? Yes, please. 

8. Sculpting things out of butter

Carving sculptures out of chilled butter is an American art that dates back to the 1870s, when a woman from Arkansas sculpted the main character of a 19th century Danish play in bas relief using brooms and sticks for Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The activity later became a staple of state fairs, and while it still goes on today, the practice could really use a revival in general culture. The best art is edible.

9. Playing a sidewalk game

Young girls play hopscotch on a sidewalk in the 1970s
Ian Tyas/Getty Images

In early 20th century New York City, kids played a popular street game called Skully. They would draw a large square on the asphalt or cement with several numbered boxes drawn inside the board, then flick bottle caps onto those targets in numerical order.

10. Having a garden party

Victorian England was known for its garden parties, when fancy socialites would gather on carefully manicured lawns to enjoy the nice weather. Guests enjoyed lawn tennis, live music, dancing, and races. While country estates are harder to come by these days, a little backyard lawn tennis followed by tea sandwiches is the perfect way to spend a summer’s day.

11. Taking a road trip

As America’s interstate highway system connected more places and more people bought cars, road trips became a popular vacation after World War II. However, higher gas prices and fewer vacation days eventually made the quintessential family getaway a little less popular. The freedom of the open road may be back within reach—at least for this summer.

12. Legally opening up a fire hydrant

Red fire hydrant gushing water
iStock/tfoxfoto

Flooding the street completely on a hot summer day is a no-no, but city slickers trapped in the heat can still create an urban oasis on a hot day. New York City, for one, offers fitted caps that funnel a gentle spray of water out of an opened hydrant—legally. Your block could be home to the tiniest of water parks.

13. Celebrating the summer solstice

Since ancient times, people have celebrated the longest day of the year with dancing, food, bonfires, and more. Try celebrating it the way they do in Sweden: Traditionally, Scandinavians clean out their houses and decorate them with flowers before the holiday.

14. Tuning into the radio

Vintage radio sitting on a mid-century dresser
iStock/Spiderstock

An integral part of the warm weather season is the so-called “song of summer,” that one tune that seemingly plays in the background wherever you go. Online radio isn’t the only way to find your summer jam. Listening to a favorite rock DJ is no longer how most people get their music, but there’s a bonus that comes with hauling out your old portable radio: You can take it to the beach.

15. Spreading a hoax about a sea monster

During the summer of 1937, newspapers in Nantucket began publishing accounts of a mysterious sea serpent that had come ashore, based on photographs of giant footprints on the beach. As it turned out, the New England seaside’s huge monster was an inflatable balloon, staged by a local puppeteer to draw attention to his shop.

Hotels.com Wants to Pay You $10,000 to Test Out Some of America’s Fanciest Hotel Pools

iStock/FTiare
iStock/FTiare

Getting paid to hang out by the pool all summer may sound like a job that's too good to be true. But popular hotel booking site Hotels.com is looking to hire one lucky "Poolhop" to do just that—and pay them $10,000 for their efforts.

According to the official job application, "The Poolhop’s responsibilities are simple; travel to some of the most incredible hotel pools across the country, sip on fruity drinks, snap some photos, sport a hotel robe, and report back to reward-loving Hotels.com fans."

Along with the $10,000 stipend, the Poolhop's perks will include paid airfare and accommodations at six hotels across the country, one year of Hotels.com Gold Rewards member status, and “eternal bragging rights.” The only serious requirements are that applicants be at least 21 years of age and a U.S. resident. They must also, of course, know how to swim.

Thrillist reports that the chosen hotels aren’t your average accommodations, either. The Poolhop will get to dive into luxury at Hawaii's Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Mondrian Los Angeles, the SLS Las Vegas, Colorado's Garden of the Gods Club and Resort, The William Vale Hotel in New York City, and Miami Beach's National Hotel.

“No one wants to be sitting at a desk all summer,” Katie Junod, general manager of the Hotels.com brand in North America, said. "There are so many incredible hotel pools to explore across the country, and we want to give travelers a first-hand look at the crème de la crème. And who better to live the hotel life than our very own Hotels.com Poolhop?”

The trip will take place during two weeks in August. All applications must be filled out and submitted by Tuesday, June 25th. And don't forget your sunscreen!

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