The History of the Tote Bag

SANVT Journal

Did you know the word ‘tote’ is a colloquial term that means ‘to carry a heavy load’? Quite ironic considering that nowadays the tote bag is often used to carry a few light things for day-to-day wear.

Most people may not have questioned where the tote bag came from but we bet that you’d never guess it right. Personally, we enjoy learning the history of fashion items. More often than not, it ends up being fascinating and sometimes even uncovers a more profound, political history. This is not the case with the tote bag’s history, but it’s still an unexpected story.

1940s: A solution to transporting ice from car to freezer

Similar to the history of most fashion accessories, the tote bag originated out of necessity. Yep - you read the headline right. L.L.Bean is often credited with creating the first tote in Maine in 1944 when they launched an ice bag - a sturdy, durable, water-resistant canvas bag. The brand introduced it as Bean’s Ice Carrier, to “carry ice from car to ice chest”. The context? Maine was known for stocking a large quantity of premium ice in the 19th century. And at that time, the majority of American households didn’t have refrigerators. So the bag was the solution to what back then was a problem: transporting ice from the car to the freezer.

The first L.L.Bean tote bag (Image:

Thanks to the bag’s resilience, people inevitably used it for all kinds of other things, like groceries and other household chores.

1960s: The tote bag became a fashion statement

20 years later, the tote bag wasn’t just worn because it was convenient and functional, but also because it was fashionable. This was the era in which L.L.Bean renamed the bag to what it currently is, Boat and Tote, and upgraded the design with a few stylish elements, including a colourful trim that has lived until today. In fact, the bag remains one of the company’s best-sellers.

L.L.Bean’s Boat and Tote bag, based on the original Bean’s Ice Carrier

The canvas that they originally used, which used to be considered an industrial material, remained and proved to be a material that could be fashionable. Other designers and brands created their versions of tote bags with different elements, such as leather handles or bottoms, zippers, and prints.

1980s: From business merch to self-expression

In the 1980s, the tote bag was seen as a means of marketing when businesses realised that printing company logos on the bags was cheap and easy to do. It seems that it was the New York bookstore The Strand that pioneered this after the brand introduced its own tote design which is still popular in the city today. The first Strand tote was made with cotton duck canvas (more tightly woven than canvas) and an interior lining, and it boldly advertised the store’s name, address, phone number, and slogan.

One of the recent iterations of The Strand’s tote bag, featuring the new logo

The Strand’s bravery and success quickly prompted heaps of other brands to use tote bags to market themselves, as well as to innovate other iconic versions of the tote bag. During this era, the no-frills canvas tote bag was notably transformed into a high-end bag of celebrity status with the birth of the Birkin bag by Hermès.

2010+: Totes as an alternative to single-use plastic

By the 2010s, the tote bag became a fashion statement capable of expressing personality. There was a tote bag to tell every kind of story - a statement piece for anyone who wanted to let other people know something about them. Tote bags were the norm and you’d see them everywhere. But it wasn’t until the past decade that the demand for tote bags went stratospheric, as sustainability became far more of a concern.

Google searches for ‘tote bag’ over the past 10 years

Tote bags were embraced as a sustainable alternative to disposable plastic grocery bags which were banned or charged for. Whether totes really are a more sustainable choice or not is debatable, but mainly depends on how much it’s being reused or disposed of.

Today: Still trendy, and as versatile as ever

With an endless number of brands, we see an infinite number of tote bag variations. You want a tote bag that’s more fashionable, branded, high-end, colourful, functional, or simple? You got it. Irrespective of the endless choices, it’s interesting to note that the features of the original tote bag have persevered. And into the future, the tote bag is fully here to stay as a timeless piece.

The Canvas Tote Bag at SANVT

Here at SANVT, we’ve recently released our first tote bag. When it comes to picking the right tote, sustainability should be a factor to consider. For us, this is number one. And this is really about having one tote bag that can be reused for years to come and for different purposes.

Made from a robust 310 GSM panama weave, our canvas bag is engineered to withstand heavy-duty tasks with ease. The navy colour speaks elegance while ensuring that your tote bag won’t get dirty quickly. Throughout every step, we’ve ensured that this tote bag will be long-lasting. Similar to what originated in the 80s, our bag has a prominent SANVT logo on the outside - to make a statement. When you wear this bag, you stand for what we believe in.

The Canvas Tote Bag by SANVT

  • Crafted from 100% certified organic cotton
  • Natural dyes
  • Versatile functionality: laptop pocket, clip-on pocket for coins and keys, outside bottle carrier
  • 310 GSM panama weave
  • 45 x 35 x 12cm
  • Made in Poland
  • Pre-washed

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