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Backpacks, Handbags and Things That Carry Things: A History and Some Advice

Years ago a friend and I hiked Mt Kinabulu in the Malay portion of Borneo. We weren’t in the best condition having spent the previous few weeks traipsing through the local (night-lit) culture.

Sweating and swearing, lethargic and labouring we clambered over rocks and up cliff like inclines to reach the summit.

But on the way up we were regularly overtaken by overleaden porters with 50kg+ sacks of goods on their backs.

More amazing than the fact that they would do two trips in a day was the manner in which they carried their load.

There were no straps around their waist, nor backpack like shoulder straps. All that connected these people to their huge sacks was a strap that wrapped around their heads.

They would lean forward at an angle that belied gravity and then pace their way up, overtaking hiking booted silvernomads and hungover students with equal nonchalance.

An infant Osteo student at that stage I was amazed at the strength of the porters necks and their complete lack of backpacks with waiststraps.

It’s one of those memories that leaps out a few times a year, with the unanswered question of: “But why…“ and broader than that, why is that backpacks are so common place and the old head strap limited to the cliffs of Borneo?

And so strap yourself in, we’re going for a brief literary jaunt through the ergonomic history of Bags.


First Sightings?

We’ve been carrying things for a long time. And we’ve been losing coins and small valuable items for an equally long time. Egyptian hieroglyphs are our first historical sighting of the Bag. And they’ve been floating around ever since.

Which makes sense given Pockets weren’t invented until the 17th century.

******* Brief moment to refelect on the inadequacies of modern fashion. Did you know that the overdressed women of the 17-18th Century would have pockets sewn into their elaborate dresses. Clever idea, probably one we could do with now, so handbags wouldn’t be so necessary*******
It was during the unhygienic and rather odorous period of the Renaissance that bags gained their glamour.

Prior to that, in the 15th and 16th centuries, embroidered bags were a sign of a woman’s worth and would often be worn as a status symbol, and a sign of her skills in life.

These bags would often carry herbs and scents to cover their smell. Men would wear them on their waist and women on their wrists.

But women would also have pockets in their oversized gaudy gowns.

And then, as so often occurs in these tales, the French Revolution occurred. And fashion changed. The big dresses were turfed out for being too ostentatiously wealthy. Smaller slimmer dresses became de rigeur and pockets were no longer possible. Handbags were about to make a great leap forward.


The Railway and Handbags

In 1843 the railroad was invented. People couldn’t lug their worldly possessions around in dainty and beautiful small satchels and so hand held luggage was a required invention. And thus the hand bag was created, small enough to carry on one’s arm and yet large enough to carry several small items.

And exaggerated and altered and, as always, made fancier and more expensively in periods of economic prosperity. The roaring 1920’s and the post world war 1950’s saw massive improvements in the accessibility and fashionability of handbags.


But what about Backpacks I hear you cry???

Ancient Roman Legionaries would use the cloak and stick approach. Wrapping their belongings in their cloak and the tying it up to a stick that was slung across their soldiers. This and stacking pack animals with your gear seemed to be the approach for the next 2000 years.

It was trekkers and mountain climbers that first began designing bags that could carry their tents and accoutrements that first got the bag ball rolling in the early 1900’s but that wouldn’t carry into the mainstream until the 1950’s.

Until then kids would be getting a belt strapping it around their books and walking to school. Or using satchels and briefcase type leather bags.


So How Should I Wear My Backpack or Handbag???

A key concept to understand here is that the body doesn’t like being lopsided for too long.

A heavy handbag (more than 10% of your body weight) on your right shoulder will, over time, drag your shoulder down, placing load on the muscles of the right neck, pulling your spine to the right and causing your left hip/low back muscles to contract to stop you leaning excessively to the right.

So, make sure the bag is light, empty it out regularly, or better yet have certain bags for certain events, a gym bag, a work bag, a going out bag, and leave the necessary things in each.

Or better yet get a back pack. And there’s no excuses these days, the catwalks of Milan have been full of stylish backpacks recently.

Backpacks are a bit easier on the body than handbags.

Make sure they are not too low, keep them up and above your hips. Use both straps. If you have to carry a lot of things and you have a waist strap, use it.

Waist straps are especially useful for trekkers and it is recommended that up to 90% of the bags weight should be through the waist.

So when trekking hike your bag up, or get someone to help you do it, and tighten the waist strap as tight as it will go, make sure it’s above your hips as this is where it should rest.


But What About Neck Straps For Loads Over 50kg+?

When we made the top we had climbed 2000m in altitude over 20km of hiking, my trekking partner put his head on the table of the chalet bar and promptly fell asleep at 4pm.

I sat and watched the porters hike up, drop their load, spark cigarettes, have a laugh and then joint their mates playing soccer volleyball.

I never got the chance, or the breath, to ask them how their necks were.

However on first principles I don’t think the neck would really appreciate having that much compression placed on it.

Buuut, it is equally possible that those carrying the big 50kg+ bags strapped to their heads adapted to their loads and just have extraordinarily strong neck muscles.

Errol St Osteo – Overthinking Daily Objects Since 2014

Posted in : How the Body Works
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