Who remembers brief cases, carried by dads everywhere? Eight-pound, spit-shined, Mahogany-colored leather cases, they sometimes had gold plated combination locks and even “feet” so they could stand up on their own. Some expanded, accordion style, to accommodate extra papers from the office.
Brief cases served an important social function. They were instant status. They told the world the men had jobs–they were “businessmen” who went to the office every day. (“Corporate executive” hadn’t been invented yet.) Their dads had worn hats and hid behind newspapers on commuter trains for the same reason.
Why were brief cases replaced by messenger bags? One reason, of course, was that people were now carrying laptops. But the bigger reason was people were now carrying cell phones. As soon as cell phones debuted, no one wanted to waste a perfectly good dialing or texting hand holding a brief case. Almost overnight, the only person still using a hand to hold a handbag was the Queen of England.
(Note: the real messengers who gave the name to messenger bags–the “bike messengers”–vanished with email because documents no longer needed to be biked across town.)
Of course, there were other reasons people wanted their hands free and unencumbered by brief cases–swipe cards to get in the garage or on transit, water bottles and ubiquitous Starbucks drinks.
The flight bag reprieve
Occasionally, when “businessmen” flew, they were freed from carrying brief cases and could carry flight bags, which were the messenger bag’s ancestors. Flight bags gave businessmen a reprieve from “purse stigma” which was so acute back then that cartoons would mock how men would refuse to hold their wives’ purses while their wives tried on dresses in department store fitting rooms. (Who remembers dresses and department stores?) Men of that era would also not push baby strollers and some would not be present in the wives’ delivery rooms.
Flight bags did not just signal that strict gender codes were disappearing. They were also the first sign that the faux granite plastic-molded luggage of the day would go soft. Bulky, heavy and not on wheels yet, hard luggage often rode on the top of the family car, telling the world you were going On Vacation. Hard luggage had only three benefits. It was waterproof, crushproof and it kept Red Caps in train stations and Sky Caps in airports employed.
What did “hippies” carry?
Like young people today, hippies carried backpacks but it was not to leave their hands free for smart phones and swipe cards. It was to free their hands for cigarette smoking and bics. Asking for a light was the preferred way to meet romantic interests who would usually stay and talk for the duration of the smoke.
In those days everyone smoked and the Camel Filters Man was something of an icon. Though not a hippie, the Camel Filters Man was a Mark Spitz lookalike, always climbing mountains in Nepal or panning for gold with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike and not seeming to hold a day job. At rock concerts, hippies didn’t hold up their smart phones, they held up their Bics.
But there was another reason hippies needed their hands free. Hitchhiking. Wherever they were and wherever they wanted to go there was an immediate ride thanks to hitchhiking–and everyone was cool. Hitchhiking was a hippie-era version of Uber except that it was free. Free was good in hippie days because there was no such thing as credit cards, debit cards or ATMs.
Other things hippies carried (besides drugs) could include a transistor radio (no boom boxes, Walkmans, CD players or smart phones yet), a custom pool cue and a can opener called a “church key” since pop tops on canned drinks read beer hadn’t been invented yet. Of course the coolest thing that could be carried was a guitar case. Even if it was empty, even if the instrument belonged to someone else, even if the carrier only knew one chord, carrying a guitar conferred instant prestige. An old Mad magazine cartoon showed a child asking a guitar carrier what was in the case and the carrier replied “status.”
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.