Object MattersA material history of the tote bag.

Object MattersA material history of the tote bag.

Issue 48

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Arts & Culture, Design

  • Words Ed Cumming
  • Photograph Elena Khrupina

The downstream consequences of new laws can be difficult to predict. Legislation around the world to limit plastic shopping bag use has been triumphant in its stated aim. In Britain, which introduced a charge on plastic bags in 2015, there has been a 97% reduction in their use. But there has been another, less predictable consequence of these new laws: the Great Tote Bag Explosion. 

These are canvas or cotton bags, stronger than plastic and ripe for re-use. The history is somewhat murky. While bags made from natural fibers have been in use since medieval times, the tote got its name in the US in the 1940s, after L.L. Bean released a range of “Boat” and “Tote” bags, with the latter in the now-familiar boxy shape. 

Spotting the opportunity for a cheap bit of reusable marketing, ...

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