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 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.
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 , 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.
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.”