What Is a Messenger Bag?
In the most basic terms, a messenger bag is an over-the-shoulder bag made of durable and weather-proofed material. Many are designed with bicycle messengers specifically in mind, hence the name.
The style is actually fairly easy to trace: in 1984, John Peters revamped the De Martini Glove Canvas Company’s work bag for utility linesmen, adding cordura nylon lining and edging for weatherproofing and plastic buckles for adjustable fit. The result was the first modern messenger bag, and the design fundamentals haven’t changed since:
- Single large pouch (originally sized for documents, nowadays for laptop/tablet computers)
- Smaller outside pockets for personal items
- Over-the-shoulder strap with adjustable buckle
- Smaller straps to prevent bouncing (optional)
- Weatherproofed interior with lined seams
- Canvas or nylon exterior
The size and shape of the bag varies. Some look like briefcases on elongated straps, with hard rectangular sides, while others have a soft-sided, formless shape that stretches to fit the contents.
In general, though, you should expect a messenger bag to hold a large-sized laptop or several textbooks, along with a few folders of papers and a handful of small items like pens or snacks.
What’s It For?
The original messenger bags were for messengers – urban bicycle messengers, specifically, though the one-shoulder-strap satchel style of bag goes back much further to Pony Express and mounted postal messengers, to name just a few.
Good messenger bags should still be useful for that intended purpose. If you can’t sling it over your back, tighten the strap up, and hop on your bike and go, it’s not a great bag.
But non-messengers can still get a lot of use out of the bag, largely because the over-the-shoulder style gives easier access (and more casual style) than a two-strap backpack. As a result, messenger bags have become a go-to bag for students and young urban professionals for whom a briefcase would be too formal.
Why You Should Own a Messenger Bag
A messenger bag fills the gap between a backpack (which shouldn’t be worn once you’re out of school) and a briefcase (which looks silly with anything less than a blazer and collared shirt).
They’re extremely useful for anyone who likes to carry a laptop, tablet, or just a couple of books around. On the go they hike up on your back for easy carrying; when you want something in one you sling it down to your hip for easy access.
In short, the messenger bag achieves what the ill-fated “man purse” variants failed to do. It’s a goes-anywhere, goes-with-anything bag for men. In the right color it’s also an attractive accent. Having a bag over one shoulder looks active and frankly kind of sexy – it says you’re going places and doing things, even if you’re really just walking down to the coffee shop for the free wireless.
One thing the messenger bag is not for that’s worth emphasizing: it’s not a business-appropriate item. Don’t show up to interviews or meetings with one, unless you’re working for an aggressively counter-culture company.
How to Buy a Quality Messenger Bag
The Blue Claw Co. McCarren Messenger Bag is a great example of a top-quality messenger bag. It packs all the details that you really want in a messenger bag:
- Material: Messenger bags are intended for all-weather service. A durable outside material is vital; the McCarren uses a 15 oz. waxed canvas that’s both thick and waterproof.
- Lining: Interior pocket lining with finished seams. The Blue Claw Co. bag also adds an interior sleeve for a tablet – not necessary, but nice, and increasingly useful as more and more people get them.
- Strap: A single, broad strap with adjustable buckles at both ends. Uncomplicated, sturdy, and easy to adjust on the go.
- Buckles: The tougher the better; in the case of the McCarren it’s solid brass with an oversized zipper. Avoid anything with tiny, plastic zipper teeth or pull-tabs – they won’t hold up over time.
- Dimensions: Big enough to hold a laptop or a couple textbooks; small enough to fit flat against your back without too much overhang. Blue Claw Co.’s model measures 16” x 12” x 4.5”
- Color: Anything goes, according to your own taste, but a neutral color is easier to match to all your outfits. Gray, tan, and navy blue are all flexible choices, as are other earth tones. If you’re actually using it as a bicycle bag, brighter colors or reflective striping help cars see you from further away.
As far as price goes, you can expect to pay anywhere upwards of $50 for a new bag. High-quality ones are usually in the $100-$300 range, but you can always get lucky with a good sale or a lightly-used bag.
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