A poet once described a phase in life as being a “whining schoolboy, with his satchel.” But before you freak out and worry about who remembers you from high school and grow concerned about possible photographic proof, rest easy, this was Shakespeare. The year was 1599 and the play was called “As You Like It”.
Today we are all about the briefcase and the satchel was its distant predecessor back in the day. And that’s not even where our journey starts. Before you got your first job and brought it to work empty everyday, the briefcase had already enjoyed over a thousand years of carrying stuff.
History of the Briefcase
It started in the 100-300 CE with the Roman loculus. Named after the Latin word for “little place”, the loculus was a satchel carried by Roman soldiers as part of their sarcina or luggage.
They were believed to be made from a single goat or calf hide and measured around 18″ x 12″. Loculuses were reinforced by diagonal straps and featured a bronze ring with a stud in the front center to keep the front flap closed, and two bronze rings at the top corners to easily fit on to a shoulder pole. The loculus would have held a soldier’s rations or personal items.
Fast forward to the fourteenth century, and while the Roman Empire is long gone, the satchel is still going hard and found its way into daily life but basically for the same purpose as before, for carrying money and other valuables.
By the fifteenth century, as made clear by Shakespeare earlier, the satchel was everywhere and being used by everyone, even school kids. This may help explain why there was an emphasis on using satchels for carrying documents, letters, books, and bibles during this time, even religious artifacts were tucked away.
As time went on the satchel began to evolve and diversify with some incorporating drawstrings, metal clasps, and even woven fabrics or precious metals as embellishment.
Now up to this point, clothing didn’t have pockets. Then the turn of the seventeenth century hit and BOOM! Pockets. The bag market definitely took a hit after this, especially with men and bags became less of a catch all for all your stuff and either more for fashion-y or more specialized, like doctors bags for example. And to prove that fashion or maybe just humanity is cyclical, bags once again gained popularity in one of history’s greatest pastimes: War!
During the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers used haversacks which were basically briefcases with backup straps. This style would be seen again in the Civil War and marked the briefcase’s permanent place in soldier’s kits.
It was also around this time, in 1860, that Number 10 Downing Street started holding the British budget papers in a red briefcase annually on Budget day, a tradition that would endure for the next 150 years, making the briefcase synonymous with the economy and business.
The briefcase was the functional solution that sent the right message to associates, clients, and basically anyone else you’d interact with. And that message was ‘he has a briefcase, he must be reliable’ because it wasn’t like you could go into any store and buy a briefcase. So this was around the 50s and 60s, and even into the 70s.
Big brands started to notice that having a briefcase vs. not having one was no longer a status symbol in itself and there was an opening to get more snobby with it. So brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, and Prada dropped their bags into the ring and made people question whether they wanted to drop those dirty court documents and leaky pens into their brand new designer bag so once again, it drifted away from function and became more of a fashion statement.
Which brings us to the modern day. Although designer briefcases are still sort of a thing, the revival in the briefcases has once again become a statement in itself as most people have moved on to a backpack or messenger bag. The only thing you need to ask of a briefcase nowadays is whether it can hold your laptop which is all you’re using it for anyways.
Defining the Briefcase
So now that the history of the briefcase has been perfectly ironed out without any details missing, lets get some things straight.
Briefcases and suitcases are not the same thing. Suitcases are luggage where as briefcases are for work. You would put your pajamas in a suitcase but your “work papers”, whatever those are, in a briefcase. The term briefcase somewhat started as a nickname as lawyers often used them to bring briefs to present in court. A case to carry and secure your briefs, case closed.
Different Types of Briefcases
If you want to graduate from this briefcase crash course, it’s important to understand the different types of briefcases out there.
First you have your portfolio which is usually a handleless case for casual carrying. It was originally just meant for loose papers but you can get away with a small laptop or tablet in the more intricate ones. They have a few slits to secure papers and other thin items as previously mentioned. Its meant to be a thin and cost effective choice for quick on the go use.
Next you have the padfolio which is basically a stripped down version of the portfolio featuring a writing pad, credit card pockets, and possibly a little calculator. It will have some space to hold loose papers but probably not your electronic devices.
Now for the main event, the attaché. When you think of a briefcase, chances are you are thinking of an attaché. It’s a hard rectangular box with a top handle that opens with hinges into two separate compartments where you can stuff anything that will fit. Attaché, which were diplomatic officers attached to embassies or consulates, usually carried these briefcases, hence their name.
Then there is the travel briefcase which is basically the all in one bag for your hybrid business needs. There is a room for everything you might need from laptop tablets, and papers to clothing. It can double as the bag you bring to the meeting and the one you check in with at the hotel. Often has external pockets for toiletries, chargers, earphones and anything else on the smaller scale. Also comes with a shoulder strap to help manage the weight easily.
And as you can imagine, as the different types of bags have become more nuanced, so have their actually composition. You can find briefcase in many materials nowadays most notably leather, nylon, canvas, and even metal, if you want to give off that ‘I have nuclear codes or a deadly vile of poison at the ready’ vibes. Even the closure systems for briefcases greatly vary. Although zippers are king nowadays, metal clasps, leather straps with buckles, lock and key, and even combination systems are all fair game and still widely used.
What’s out there today?
So if you’re starting to question the reliability of your extra large zip-lock bag that is starting to develop some concerning punctures, don’t worry, there a plenty of options out there.
The Tanker 2Way Nylon Briefcase from Porter-Yoshida & Co. is not your dad’s briefcase. Although serving as a great functional bag for documents and your laptop, its look is completely unique. Inspired by the MA-1 bomber jacket, this briefcase is made in Japan and features triple layered nylon on the interior as well as exterior of the bag.
Available for $600 at Mr. Porter.
Filson 256 Original Briefcase
If you were looking for something more heritage inspired and timeless, The Filson Original Briefcase might be more your speed. Made from 22oz. cotton oil finish rugged twill, this water resistant bag will only get better with age. It features all the pockets you’ll ever need from a briefcase, has room for your laptop or probably some pelts (we won’t judge), and extra weather precautions like a storm flap and rust proof zippers.
Available for $325 at Stag Provisions.
Globe-Trotter Centenary Attaché
The Centenary Attaché is the classic briefcase with some modern day refinement. Featuring premium leather and trim and a push lock closure, this briefcase oozes business elegance and apparently comes with a complimentary MBA degree or seat in parliament while supplies last.
Available for $1,600 at Globe-Trotter.