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25 September 2010
The backpack as cultural artifact

It’s September, school is in session almost everywhere, and 4-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and 24-year-olds are trundling off each day with their trusty backpack, or one of the ever-expanding permutations and variations devised by ingenious manufacturers. Indeed, the U.S. Travel Goods Association confirms what a cursory glance in at least one culture maker’s closet suggests: “Americans continued to realize the benefit of using travel goods as part of their everyday lives, leading to yet another record year for sales in 2007.” Ah, what would we do without the kind people of the U.S. Travel Goods Association? Their ever-observant president, Michele Marini Pittenger, notes, “Consumers today want to carry more with them wherever they go.”

So, with backpack unit sales up by 9.2% last year, how exactly is this proliferation of packs shaping our culture? What does the backpack make possible and impossible? Pitch in below.

1. What does the backpack assume about the way the world is?

Backpacks assume material possessions.  Possessions that must be transported from place to place.  This seems to be trans-cultural, as indigenous peoples often carry water, children, food, fuel, etc on their backs or heads with some type of pole or strap attached to a bag/basket.
But it is very postmodern to have to have the coolest technology to do our transporting.  Hey, is “having the latest backpack” on http://www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com ?  I’ll have to go check…

—Laura Kirk

For schoolkids, it assumes that not all they do at school will be left there. Any concern about the (likely) excessive weight of their books is outweighed by the value of continuing school at home.

They can be trusted with a textbook, and also expected to use it on their own. And we can afford to have a textbook for all students to work simultaneously from their own.

There will be time at home for homework. The demands of survival have been met in other ways.

—James Paternoster

It assumes we should be mobile, and that mobility is one of our highest values. It assumes not only possessions, as Laura mentioned above, but also individualistic ownership (I’ve never seen a “group” backpack.)

john fox
2. What does the backpack assume about the way the world should be?

Self-reliance. Backpacks assume we’ll have to rely on ourselves when we arrive at our destinations.
-Work/school: we won’t be sharing work materials, and won’t be fed by someone else.
-Travel: We won’t be given clothes by our hosts.
-Outdoors: we’re headed away, and we won’t be borrowing fire/sharing shelter and food with people we meet along the way.

Paul Grant

I had an interesting and surprising conversation this summer with a new(er) friend in Russia.  She saw me carrying a purse and expressed surprise - she thought Americans all carried backpacks everywhere and didn’t have purses, “like us”.  Now, Russians themselves are carrying backpacks more and more, and I think my Russian friend was also sheltered in her experience with Americans, but it did make me think about how the backpack correlated with other aspects of American culture.  Like, for example, our sense of independence and self-reliance - or our need to carry everything with us in case of any contingency.  It might be a stretch, but perhaps it reflects to a degree what my husband tends to identify as a primary characteristic of Americans - the desire and expectation that we can control our environment.  Taking more “stuff” with us lets us to that more effectively.

—Lucy Wynard
3. What does the backpack make possible?

Hands free.  There’s nothing like being able to swing your arms when you walk.

Jessica

Multitasking! 
And bicycle-commuting to work.

—Laura Kirk

It makes it possible for people to “have church” in the outdoors - for good or ill.  You can pack an iPod with sermon videos from your favorite preacher, and also pack your favorite commentary, a study bible, and a journal that’s bigger than the size of your palm.  Not only will you have more than prayer available for your Sabbath in the woods, but you’ll also have your favorite Bath and Body Works lotion at hand (in a biodegradable bottle, of course).

Sarcasm aside, this may fulfill a real need for the faithful who may not be able to make it to a house of prayer for some reason.

Omari
4. What does the backpack make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Backpacks assume there is nothing more important to occupy that space on your back. Like a baby: http://recoveringsociopath.blogspot.com/2007/01/test.html

Sherri King Edman

By which I mean to say that committing to the backpack means committing to not being available to one’s child in that particular way.

Sherri King Edman

I love it, Sherri! And actually it occurs to me, having seen women in several different “traditional” societies cleverly wrap cloth into a sling to carry their babies, that the backpack may indeed be a kind of descendant of those original baby-carrying devices.

Andy Crouch

A backpack makes it impossible to project a sense of reverence or respect for highly important events in our lives. It is so obvious it almost goes unsaid that it is impossible to wear a backpack with formal or highly-tailored clothes.  For example, not one of us women wore a backpack while we were walking down the aisle.

—Laura Childs

A pain-free back.

The ability to see that fresh tattoo on Parker’s Back.

The excuse that you weren’t prepared (“why didn’t you just bring a backpack?”)

john fox

Laura, I’m pretty sure that until you said it, it *had* gone unsaid that women don’t wear backpacks for weddings:)

—James Paternoster
5. What new culture is created in response?

It’s ancient history, of course, but the 1980s’ backpack-carried-on-one-shoulder thing was a hip shrugging off of being “owned” by school. In that sense, the backpack was a fetish of responsibility.

Paul Grant

The 1980s ancient history? Say it isn’t so. :) But what is really interesting, to the extent your observation is true (and I think it is), is what this says about the generation that started carrying backpacks on two shoulders again in the mid-1990s (if I recall correctly). Was that a matter of embracing (caressing? nurturing?) the fetish, or was it a response to (perhaps inflated) fears of back trouble from one-shoulder-bag-carrying, which might of course come to the same thing?

Andy Crouch

Interesting thought. I never thought of backpacks - one or two shoulders - as culture making. I started college in 1992 and even though everyone was still doing the “backpack on one shoulder thing” I decided that I had to go the two shoulder route. It was just too heavy and I had too far to walk across campus - and, I was a little rebellious, I guess. The reason for wearing it on one shoulder seemed silly to me, so I stopped. Plus, it hurt. I do remember feeling a little self-conscious about it, though, because it was such a break with the tradition of the time. Funny, now that I look back on it. By the time that I finished college in 1996, everyone was doing it, so I used to joke that I was a part of the cultural vanguard of two shoulder backpack wearers!

Alan Cross

backpacks (and their cousins, messenger bags) have fed a road warrior culture.

—john holland

Portable hard drives, where backpacks are no longer needed.

Tim McGhee

Let’s go back to universally acknowledged ancient history: the 1970’s.  Backpacks, daypacks, and knapsacks could only be purchased in camping stores at that time. Imagine the choice.  But they were so perfectly functional for the gypsy class – known otherwise as students – that they gained acceptance through the years.  The one shoulder thing was an expression of status. (“I’m a student; don’t confuse me with a plebeian.”) But as backpacks have populated our lives, this tool has not changed culture as much as it is an expression of our desire to find comfort.  Our culture is perfectly suited to making us twitchy.  Not enough time, not enough security, not enough money.  Too much noise, too much to do, too many conflicts.  We look for tools to assist us and attach status to having the right tool.

—Laura Childs