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  • Writer's pictureIan Davis

The messenger bag (and things i learnt about them while living in SF)

The objective of this blog is to open up conversations and have objective and casual discussions about things floating around in my head. Hopefully, this comes across more like a genuine conversation over a cup of tea. If i missed something or got something wrong, please let me know- i'm here to learn!

I was once told that what we now think of as the modern bike messenger (courier) sling bag started life back in the ‘50s when the De Martini Globe Canvas Company designed a bag to be used by phone company workers. The bags were made to accommodate all the tools they needed to work with, so the bags were spacious and functional, with a large flap closure and a thick strap to be carried over one shoulder and across the body. In the 60's NYC bike messengers started to use these bags to deliver packages. By the late ‘70s the big NYC courier companies would order custom De Martini bags for all of their riders. In these pre-internet (and pre ECMC/CMWC/NACC) years it took a while for the De Martini bags to start showing up in other US cities, mainly brought by traveling bike couriers.

One of these bags fell into the hands of San Francisco courier Erik Zo. Most SF couriers would ride cruiser style bikes with baskets to carry their packages. The De Martini bag would allow couriers to ride lighter road (and later track) bikes, and carry the packages on their backs. These bags shared a similar pattern to the modern messenger bag, but they were made from heavy sail cloth canvas, and were not waterproof. They would also wear out quickly with year ‘round daily use of courier work. Erik knew he could do better, and in 1983 the Zo bag was born, made from quality Cordura fabric and lined with (waterproof) PVC truck tarp. Erik is still making bags in small numbers to this day, but getting your hands on one is difficult, and (rightly) expensive.

The messesnger/bag maker responsible for the most design advancements since Eric is Pat McGibbon from Toronto. Pat started PAC Designs in the early '90s and was the first person to apply these features to the sling style messenger bag

  • 'three ply' with floating liners (more water resistant and harder wearing),

  • 'suspension' straps (comfortably carry large loads),

  • stabilizer strap (stops bag sliding around),

  • X-strap (spread the load over both shoulders), '

  • split' strap (a separable buckle on the main strap)

Pat is still making bags, and is still the go to for most working messengers.

Shortly after Eric had started to produce his bags to be sold in bike shops around SF and messenger cities around the US another startup called Timbuk2 popped up selling similar bags from a cart on Union square. The popularity of these brands during the bike messenger boom of the '90s cemented SF as a hub for bag companies. After (first dot com) delivery company Kozmo ordered thousands of bags for their riders from Colorado company Chrome industries they relocated to SF to concentrate on messenger bags. You still see these orange PVC sling bags on the streets of SF today. In later years original stakeholder in Chrome and Timbuk2 set up Mission Workshop and Rickshaw, all of these companies are still headquartered in SF. Hundreds of other companies have made messenger style sling bags since Eric, including many of these companies selling bags all over the world.

There are many small manufacturers out there owned and operated by (retired) bike messengers. In SF (now closed) Freight baggage, R.E Load bags out of Philadelphia, Trash bags from Minneapolis, Mer bags from Brooklyn, Skin Grows Back, in OZ, Bagaboo from Hungary, and many more.

The sling bag was always my go to for my years as a courier, I worked with bags from Chrome, Timbuk2, R.E.load, Freight baggage, and bags made by myself (187SF). I always found the real Beauty of the design was that the bag is incredibly comfortable and unobtrusive while empty, but has the capacity to carry large and heavy loads safely. These bags would also last a working messenger years.

As a bag maker I am always working to honor the history of the messenger sling bag, and I really enjoy combining features and aesthetics of all the bags that I love. When I make these bags it is a love letter to a job, community, life, and culture that I feel incredibly honored to have experienced.

Further reading-

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