An Exploration of the Duffel Bag and How It Came to Be

Duffel bags have a rather storied history, and it's fun to look into it.

Ditty bags or seabags for sailors used to be made with duffel cloth. It was essentially a formless shape that could fit into cramped spaces while still holding many things for a long sea voyage. Durable as the material was, it could get rather heavy once wet. This led to the bags getting soaked at sea.

Given access to cotton and the passage of time, the bags started to get made with cotton fabric. Aside from being more convenient to handle, it was also more affordable, less scratchy and more lightweight. 

Rope For Initial Closure

To close the bag, a rope or string was typically used to tie it shut. Zippers were not invented until the early 1900s; pants didn't get them until 1937. Even the Royal Canadian Air Force used the, even though it wasn't very secure at the time. The convenience more than made up for that particular shortcoming.

The duffel bag first emerged from the ditty bag used by the military during the Second World War. Axis powers even used some versions. It was issued to various armed forces (sailors, airmen, soldiers) including the British, U.S. and Commonwealth. The duffel bags issued to soldiers weren't exactly like the barrel-style bags most commonly used in today's modern times.

Duffel bags were designed to carry as much personal gear as possible, even if it meant cramming extra clothing and photos of a girlfriend from back home into them. There was also a lot of contraband smuggled through them.

World War II

The "Bag, Barrack M-1929" was the first duffel bag ever issued to U.S. soldiers. It was made of denim, dyed blue and woven in the U.S. Another type of bag, the "Barrack Box," was aluminium. The closest thing to a modern equivalent to that would be a high-end suitcase. These boxes were tough to carry around, but had high durability.

By war's end, olive drab material was used for Army-issue duffel bags. It was close to the standard army green and came into play because blue was a pricey dye. Additionally, there was generally no blue let alone anything close to denim in camouflage. That's how olive green quickly became the norm, allowing the bags to blend in with the uniforms.

Someone's duffel bag usually had his or her name and serial number stencilled on it. It was either written in marker or with whatever ink was available.

Barrel-Style in 1943

Things changed for the better in 1943: a bag with a circular bottom and cylinder shape. The top of this bag, unlike the older sack bag, had a flap that zippered shut and contained three pockets. This is the bag soldiers carried with them after they were discharged from military service to carry their belongings. As all of these bags were simply called "Bag, Duffel", it was referred to as such.


The duffel bag dates back to the days of pirates, initially closed off with rope. Over time, it became relied on more and more, especially during World War II. In 1943, the design improved, and the name "Bag, Duffel" emerged.

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