Vintage Military-Style Bags and Backpacks

Vintage Military-Style Bags and Backpacks

May 27 2020 army bags canvas Military rothco

ANZAC day came around this year while we were all in lock down. I had just boiled the kettle for the first hot beverage of the day, when I heard what sounded like a trumpet. After a quick stir, I took my mug outside to investigate. It was shortly after 6am and I waved to a few people on the road, who had come out for the same reason. An older gentleman had climbed the walking track to the top of the hill behind our house with his bugle, and for the next few minutes we stood in somber silence listening to his powerful rendition of 'The Last Post' drift over our neighbourhood.

The significance was somewhat overshadowed this year by this crazy pandemic, but ANZAC day offers us a unique opportunity to remember and respect those who played a huge part in our history. It brings people all around the country together through the kinship of our our nation. I was inspired by this experience to learn more about the history of this period, and also how this history relates to us and our products here at Simply Jute.

We recently introduced a new collection to our catalogue, the Military-Style collection! Much inspired by wartime soldiers’ equipment packs, this collection is rich with history. My intrigue led me to a lot of interesting information about the origins of these bags, and for many, the origins can be traced back to the same place.

A brief history of military bags

We start in the 1600’s, where through a myriad of wars in human history, nations were coming to understand the importance of logistics in warfare. The need for food, water, and clothing on an individual scale was vital to the well-being and morale of a soldier – and in fact the entire army. Enter, the Haversack. The word is an adaptation from the German Hafersack, which translates to ‘oat sack’, and as suggested originally referred to the small cloth bag which was filled with oats for use as horse fodder. The term was adopted by the English and French Cavalry in the 17th century. Over the next few hundred years the Haversack evolved from a simple oat sack, to a small satchel capable of carrying most essential items that soldiers needed.

Some of the most famous historical evidence we have of the use of the haversack comes from memoirs from the American Civil War – (1861 – 1865), where “in addition to the supplies transported by boat, the men were to carry forty rounds of ammunition in cartridge-boxes and four days’ rations in haversacks.” These were small bags, with a single shoulder strap, made from a muslin type material (loosely woven cotton), which were tarred on the outside in an attempt to keep moisture out. These civil war haversacks are some of the earliest developments of the modern infantry kits we see today. Left: An example of a tarred haversack, used widely during the American Civil War

In 1910 the U.S. Army adopted the M1910 haversack as the standard infantry pack. This was essentially a sheet of canvas that folds around the soldier’s personal items and is held together by straps and loops. It featured extra added straps for a bedroll, entrenching tool, ammunition, etc. The M1910 was used widely by the U.S. Army throughout their involvement in WW1, and was further developed before the 1920's, and again in the 1930s as a fully enclosed canvas pack, with quick release buckles and made from much lighter materials. Right: A further development of the M1910 kit, this one made post 1916 in Khaki Canvas

The British Army, at this time, was using leather for their belts and pouches, and canvas for their packs. It was soon discovered that the newly emerging leather-working processes were not nearly refined enough to produce hardy leather equipment in bulk. The British were the first European army to replace this leather equipment with a strong material made from woven cotton. They also developed the “Pattern Webbing” equipment, which formed a single piece when fully assembled, and could be put on or taken off like a jacket. This equipment included a large cargo pack and small haversack, attached to straps at the back, as well as a soldier’s rations, ammunition, and tools, weighing up to and sometimes above 40kgs.
Left: A 1908 'Pattern Webbing' kit, which contains a large cargo pack, as well as a small Musette and multiple supply pouches.

The development of a soldier’s equipment branched out massively up to and during WW2 and the economic expansion that followed. The haversack was developed in many different directions to tackle the huge range of conditions faced by soldiers, and has evolved into the different styles of tactical bags that we see today.

How do we fit in?

Our Military-Style utility collection captures the most important aspects of this stage of development, and reflects on the history of this era, while also incorporating modern manufacturing to create high-quality and durable bags. We are approved Rothco suppliers - the foremost provider of military, tactical, survival and outdoor products.

The Musette bag, is a small leather or canvas bag with a shoulder strap, used to carry personal belongings. This is probably the most significant development from the early haversacks. This bag usually features a flap closure, shoulder strap, and straps for tightening. The shoulder strap was later replaced with backpack straps, which made carrying around equipment that much easier. The Musette was an essential piece of kit and became standard issue in most armies.

See our Musette bag here, in Olive or Black: Jumbo Musette

 The Messenger bag is another big adaptation. These bags (also called courier bags) tend to be larger than the Musette bags. Messenger bags have a large shoulder strap, and a flap closure for easy access to the contents. They have been in use for many years around the world by various couriers/messengers, and many postal services still use these to this day for the convenience. Many ladies’ handbags to this day show features from the early Messenger bags, through either the buckles, or the long shoulder straps.

Our Messenger bag is a fantastic representation of the early wartime courier models: Vintage Canvas Outback Messenger


The Long Journey and Extended Weekender travel bags take inspiration from the larger ‘cargo pack’ which contained a small tent or half tent, pins, a blanket, and possibly a raincoat. Many soldiers decided it not practical to haul all this around, and instead brought only a raincoat. As these larger bags were developed further, they featured more pockets and spaces for equipment, as well as tougher handles and buckles. Our large travel bags, often referred to as holdalls, are the modern development, and are made from durable canvas with high quality brass buckles.

Make a cargo pack of your own! These also make a great all in one carrier bag. Long Journey Travel Bag 

The MA-1 Bomber Backpack is a twist on the iconic MA-1 Bomber Jacket of the 50’s. With the onset of major air combat in WW2, pilots needed flight wear which was functional at cold high-altitudes, but streamlined enough to stay out of the way of aircraft operation. The A-2 Jacket was the first solution to this problem, made from horsehide, with snap button closure and two flap pockets on the front. Aircraft development was happening quickly at this time, and to cater to newer, faster, higher altitude aircraft, the B-15 Jacket was created. This featured a fur collar, cotton outer, and leather straps on the chest to hold oxygen masks. The big switch to the MA-1 Jacket happened between 1949 and 1950, where a few changes were made to the B-15 style. The fur collar was replaced with a knit collar (primarily because the fur collar got in the way of the parachute harness), and the body of the jacket was replaced with nylon due to its ability to remain dry. The inner lining was changed to a vibrant orange colour to promote visibility in the event of a crash. These were originally a ‘midnight blue’ colour, but were changed to the ‘sage green’ that we recognize today during the Vietnam War era to more effectively camouflage soldiers.

Our MA-1 Backpack is a great historical lightweight alternative to a regular backpack, but offers all the same usability. Bomber Backpack

Thanks for reading! It proved more difficult than I thought to compress over 100 years of history into a few paragraphs. If you have any further queries about the bags shown, feel free to contact us. Also you can see our full Military-Style collection here: Rothco Military Collection

By Jamie Salisbury

Simply Jute Ltd