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July 7, 2023

Lovro Marušić photography

Items designed with sufficient quality and durability do not need to be optimised. They defy every new time and change – simply, they are good enough from the start. One such thing is the L.L. Bean bag, the first tote bag (from tote – to carry). The versatile bag comes in many versions, from simple and practical canvas bags to luxurious variations of major fashion houses. The name dates to the 17th century, but the first official variation of the bag was not designed before the 1940s in Maine, USA. The iconic brand L. L. Bean, which rose to prominence by making durable outdoor products, debuted in 1944 with Bean's Ice Carrier bag. It was a large, boxy bag made of heavy canvas. It was made, as the name suggests, "for transporting ice from the car to the ice chest". Almost eighty years later, the production and composition of the L.L. Bean bag has not changed.


Since ancient times, people have used leather, canvas, and plant fibres to create numerous objects that we now call bags. Although the initial style of bag that we would call a tote is unknown, the first official bag called by that term was that of the American company L.L. Bean. The term tote evolved from a verb to a noun and came to refer to any type of large bag. Today, practically every brand that sells bags produces its version of the tote bag, typically for promotional purposes. In short, everyone carries a tote bag.


At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leon Leonwood Bean was a young man who could not hold a steady job and wandered from place to place. He would instead go hunting and fishing than work for someone else. He struggled to find durable footwear that would protect him while outside. So, he decided to purchase new shoes from a local cobbler named the Maine Hunting Shoes for the harsh conditions. They were developed into Bean boots, the most well-known wet-weather footwear today. It was 1912, and L.L. Bean quickly became the most prominent manufacturer of outdoor clothing.


The L.L. Bean signature bag was introduced in 1944 as a so-called "ice bag" made of heavy industrial canvas and intended for carrying ice. The bag was called Bean's Ice Carrier; it was cube-shaped, white with two short handles. In those days, when there were no electric refrigerators yet, ice was placed in the upper part of a wooden box called an ice chest to keep things cool. In Maine, ice cut from frozen lakes was stored in glaciers in winter and sold in smaller pieces. That's exactly why Bean designed a bag that would be used to carry ice home, extremely durable, simple, and waterproof one. In the catalogues of the time, bags were advertised not only for carrying ice, but also for carrying firewood and harvested vegetables from the garden.

The first Bean's Ice Carrier ads, 1950s
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One of the early examples of L.L. Bean bags, Mushroom Vintage

But it didn't take long for Americans to be assured of the bag's endurance, and they began utilising it for other purposes. The L.L. Bean company recognised the bag's potential and introduced the Boat and Tote bag in the mid-1960s with the same composition and nearly similar shape. The adjustments were minor; blue, red, and green handles were added. The bag also became associated with social prestige, becoming an element of the preppy look. In one of the articles, Derek Guy, a prominent menswear writer, argues that carrying an L.L. Bean bag was "the cheapest way to look rich," implying that the bag became a symbol of the more affluent sector of America connected with the Ivy League. The opportunity to add free monogramming to the bags added to that image; people began adding their initials, which has long been a statement of luxury, even if it was "cheap." Today, L.L. Bean produces half a million Boats and Totes annually.

Boat and Tote advertising during the 1980s

L.L.Bean bag worn by stylist Katsuhiko Kitamura for 30 years,

Ku:nel magazine, 2008

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An ad for the Boat and Tote bag

Twenty years after introducing the ice-carrier, in 1967, L.L. Bean passed away, and the Wall Street Journal named him one of the ten best entrepreneurs of the 20th century. Competitors tried to copy his bag, but none came close to the simplicity that Bean created. Even today, it is a sought-after vintage piece, even though identical bags of the same quality can be bought more favourably in stores. L.L. Bean Boat and Tote is another in a series of accessories whose quality does not weaken. L.L. Bean has created a simple design and durable construction that is impossible to improve.

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