Durable, practical, world-ready.
The duffel bag has a pedigree that speaks to its durability, practicality and as a product made for world travel. Throw your gear in a duffel bag, toss it over your shoulder and you're off to explore the world.
And it's a surprisingly noble and interesting history, too.
First of all, the world travel where duffel bags first served their owners wasn't particularly pleasant. Duffel bags were hauled ashore on D-Day and into battle in Vietnam, as you'll see below.
But nevertheless, the canvas duffel bag is a symbol of worldwide adventure, portability and get up and go. It's a trusty friend.
This is the history of the duffel bag. (And apparently even Elvis was issued one.)
Where Does the Word Duffel Come From?
Duffel is a small town in Belgium near Antwerp, where a particular type of fabric was woven. The fabric is very rough, coarse and woolen that's not particularly pleasant to the touch, but is very durable. It was used for coats made of duffel and bags of the same material. In the U.K., for example, a duffel can just as easily refer to the coat as to the duffel bag.
History of the Duffel Bag
Duffel cloth was used to make seabags or ditty bags for sailors, whose trademark was a formless shape that could be crumpled up into a small space but also fit many items for a long voyage at sea. Typically, they were closed with a rope or a string, much like a laundry bag. No zipper. Why? The zipper was only invented in early 1900s and didn't even appear on pants until 1937; zippered duffel bags were not the norm. More likely: the Royal Canadian Air Force duffel pictured below is a canvas ditty bag with rope draw string. Duffel bags were designed primarily to fit as many personal items as possible, even providing stretch to cram just a few more items inside; extra socks, photos of a girlfriend from back home or other contraband.
During the Second World War, the duffel bag emerged from the ditty bag. They were issued to soldiers, sailors and airmen in various armies, including the U.S., British and Commonwealth but also to the Axis powers, of various sizes and uses. Most of them were not the barrel-style duffel bag we see today.
The First Duffel Bag Issued in World War II
The first duffel bag issued to U.S. soldiers was the "Bag, Barrack M-1929" which was made with denim woven in the U.S. and blue in color. By the end of the war, these bags were made with olive drab material—a sort of army green.
This member of the Greatest Generation is pictured here hauling ashore his duffel bag and his weapon on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The bags had the soldier's name and serial number stenciled with whatever stencils were available or simply a felt marker. Many of the duffel bags could be locked with a padlock for securing one's valuables, through a grommet.
In 1943, an improvement was made: instead of a potato sack-style barrack bag, the duffel bag itself was introduced with a circular bottom and cylinder shape, along with a carrying handle. The top of the bag had a flap—still no zippers—and many millions have been issued. Indeed, this bag was typically kept by soldiers on their discharge to haul their personal belongings. This bag, like all military bags, was simply named "Bag, Duffel".
Other bags were issued for different purposes. For example, in a second example of a Second World War-era duffel bag, U.S. aircrew in the Army Air Force (the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) were issued a bag called AN-6505-1, which is boxier and not cylindrical. It was used to carry the flight crew's gear and navigation aids.
It's pictured in the image above, with a closeup below of a different version, this time in olive drab. You'll see that the straps are made with tightly woven webbing—that webbing is still used today as it can lift tons of weight before failure. In addition, you'll note that the bag itself is made with canvas, which is still used to this day because it is extremely durable, lightweight and made with natural cotton fibers.
Enter the 1970s and 1980s: The Duffel Bag Gets Colors and Synthetic Fibers
After World War II, the military duffel bags didn't change very much in design or color-army green was the norm- except that smaller versions entered the mainstream, and zippers were added to the cylinder. (Recall that the military versions were open at the top. This created the barrel-style duffel bag which your parents will feel is pretty retro. They came with webbing, cheap nylon materials and were generally inexpensive (read: cheap).
The barrel or cylinder duffel bag emerged in the 1970s as a simple and easy design for everyday carry, and especially with synthetic materials.
My dad had this exact Adidas gym duffel bag in the early 1980s, made primarily of pleather. I think it did the trick for him—he was in great shape. The bag had a plastic insert on the inside to keep its form, and little plastic feet which were totally unnecessary.
How do you spell Duffle or Duffel Bag?
The correct spelling of the duffel bag is "duffel" but "duffle" is frequently seen. It is simply a grammatical error that has persisted over time.
My First Duffel Bag
My first duffel bag was issued to me as an officer cadet in the army. I had just turned 18—a man in number but not in maturity— and I went off to boot camp. I used that army green, three-foot long duffel to carry all of my gear and as a pillow upon which to lay my head and shed quiet, pathetic boot camp tears.
That duffel served me well. It was at once durable, indestructible and it had my name stitched on it (and Lt. Gosling, the previous owner, had his name stenciled on the duffel and for reasons unknown returned it to the Army supply store.) As good as it was, the duffel bag was impractical for anything other than schlepping one's gear from base to base. Like every soldier before me, I kept it when I left the military, but it's long gone now, inadvertently left behind at the home of an ex-girlfriend along with other keepsakes like CDs. (Now I'm just somebody she used to know.)
Today, duffel bags are made from a variety of materials, including cotton canvas, waxed cotton canvas, polyester, vinyl, leather and Cordura nylon.
Duffel bags are still issued to soldiers, sailors and airmen around the world. They are used extensively by gym bros, commuters, Wall Street types, beach goers, soccer players, weekend warriors, all of whom are traveling the journey of life. Pack as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and be off to travel the world.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC.