What Is A Tote Bag & Could You Benefit From One?

What Is A Tote Bag & Could You Benefit From One?

Even if you think you don’t know what a tote bag is, you probably do. Considering their ubiquity, there’s a good chance one or two (or three or four) have even crossed your path already whether you used one for grocery shopping or one was given to you as part of a promotional giveaway. 

The fact is, once you start looking for them, you’ll see that tote bags are everywhere, from store racks and fashion ads to a shoulder near you. 

But what makes a tote a tote, and what is a tote bag used for?

If you’re curious about the origins of this world-famous accessory, its many, many uses, and how it can simplify and up-style your life, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for your complete guide to all things tote. 

What Is a Tote Bag?

What are totes? A tote bag is a simple shoulder bag designed for carrying objects. They’re sturdy, durable, and perfect for a variety of uses, from your everyday carry-all to your reusable shopping bag.

The primary characteristics of a tote bag are:

  • Large in size – Although tote bags come in a variety of sizes, they tend to run a bit larger than your average shoulder bag, like purses.
  • Open top – In most cases, tote bags feature an open top design, meaning there are no closure devices like zippers, buttons, buckles, or clasps.
  • Dual straps – Tote bags feature two long straps that are attached to both sides of the top or open part of the bag. Each shoulder strap loops over the shoulder for carrying. The width of the straps will vary in thickness depending on the style of the tote. 
  • Sturdy material – The first incarnations of the modern tote bag were made of canvas, which remains a popular option. Other materials prized for their durability are also used, such as jute.

  • shop BEIS bags

    Where Do Tote Bags Come From?

    In a very basic sense, tote bags have been around for centuries. Carrying, transporting, and even storing items in large fabric bags and satchels has long been a part of human behavior. The design of tote bags is very simple and utilitarian, so it's easy to imagine that very similar versions have always been in use.

    That said, the tote bag as we know it today is a relatively modern invention.  

    In 1944, the American retail company L.L. Bean introduced a new product to its collection of clothing and equipment for outdoor enthusiasts.1 Somewhat unimaginatively called “the ice bag,” it was a simple bag designed for one simple use: carrying ice from the car to the freezer. 

    But its design would draw the blueprint for every tote bag that followed.

    L.L. Bean’s original ice bags were:

    • Large
    • Square or boxy
    • Made from heavy canvas fabric

    The ice bag was a hit, and by the 1960s, the tote bag had evolved from a strictly utilitarian bag to a fashion accessory. Capitalizing on the unexpected popularity, L.L. Bean gussied up its basic design by producing bags with straps and bottoms in a variety of bright colors. 

    Around the same time, the fashion brand Coach tapped designer Bonnie Cashin to design an even more fashionable version of the tote bag. The result was the Cashin Carry. Made from fine leather and available in a variety of sophisticated colors, this leather bag helped to establish the tote bag style as an essential fashion item. 

    Over the following decades, other brands and businesses followed the lead of L.L. Bean and Coach, producing tote bags for use beyond toting ice.1 Notable examples include:

    • The Birkin Bag – One of the most famous examples of the tote bag is the Birkin Bag. Inspired by French film actress Jane Birkin, this luxury tote quickly became an iconic bag. 
    • Promotional tote bags – In the 1980s and 1990s, tote bags took on yet another incarnation as promotional material. Legendary bookstore The Strand first introduced tote bags with its logo printed on them in the 1980s. 

    By the end of the 20th century, the tote bag had become one of the most recognizable bag styles in the world, a staple offering of diverse retailers from world-famous fashion houses to small-scale merchants. 

    What Can You Use a Tote Bag For?

    tote bag with content spilling out

    As its origin story makes clear, tote bags are extremely versatile and suitable for a variety of uses. It’s the bag’s blend of functionality and fashion that makes it such a popular choice for so many people—and for so many different occasions. 

    The possible uses of tote bags are only as limited as your imagination, but some of the most popular uses include:

  • Shopping – Tote bags make incredible reusable shopping bags, no matter where your spree takes you. Whether you’re grocery shopping, shopping for home goods, or picking up the latest must-read novel at your local bookstore, you can take your tote bag with you. 
  • Work – The right size tote bag can accommodate your work laptop or tablet, charging cables, cell phone, day planner, and a midday snack—in short, everything you need to get through the work day.
  • School – Tote bags are as popular in classrooms and on college campuses as they are in grocery store aisles. They’re great for transporting textbooks, notebooks, and anything else you need for learning.
  • Home storage – Among the many things you can store in tote bags are out-of-season clothes, shoes, your children’s toys, cleaning supplies, and even other tote bags.
  • Travel – When you’re on vacation, carry-on totes are a roomier option than your purse or fanny pack for day-long excursions, afternoon sightseeing, or flying on a plane.
  • Gym – Tired of lugging your duffle bag or backpack to the gym? Even if you know how to pack a backpack properly, switch things up and opt for a tote bag to transport your gym clothes and other work gear. 
  • Everyday use – If you’re looking for an alternative to the purse or backpack you use every day, a tote bag like The East To West Tote or North to South Tote can be the way to go. From casual canvas tote bags to more sophisticated versions that use luxurious materials and beautiful colors and prints, like plaid or crocodile embossed vegan leather.

  • What Are the Benefits of Using a Tote Bag?

    Not to belabor the point, but it’s worth repeating: the biggest benefit of carrying a tote bag is its versatility. After all, how long did it take you to get through the list of uses we just gave you?

    But versatility isn’t the only thing tote bags have going for them.2 They’re so beloved because they’re so: 

  • Durable – Sturdiness has been one of the tote bag’s hallmark traits—ice is pretty heavy, after all! Unlike a plastic bag, for example, you don’t have to worry about a tote bag splitting, tearing, or ripping open under the weight of your groceries.
  • Reusable – A big perk of that durability is that tote bags can be used again and again. If you are interested in learning how to clean a backpack or a tote, periodic washing and spot cleaning to tackle spills and stains is about all it takes to keep your reusable totes—and all your other bags for that matter—in good condition. 
  • Eco-friendly – While it isn’t always the case, many tote bags are sustainably sourced, manufactured in an environmentally conscious way, or use natural or vegan-friendly materials such as recycled polyester. Plus, if you’re using them instead of plastic or paper shopping bags, you’re lessening your environmental impact.3
  • Cost-effective – A tote bag can save you money in a few ways. First, their durability and longevity mean you’ll spend less money on new bags. Second, using them for shopping saves you from the extra fees many stores charge for their bags. And third, it’s not hard to find expensive totes. 
  • Widely available – You don’t have to search far to find the perfect tote. From promotional totes advertising your favorite indie bookstore to top-of-the-line styles from your favorite brand, tote bags are always within reach. 
  • Style variety – The general shape of totes stays pretty consistent across styles. But with such a wide variety of materials, colors, prints, patterns, and logos, this simple bag can still make a super individual statement.

  • taking groceries out of canvas tote bag

    Stylish Totes That Go Where You’re Going 

    Now that you know more about the subject than you ever thought you would, it’s time to discover the ease, convenience, and reliability of a tote bag for yourself.

    For the ultimate tote experience, treat yourself to BÉIS luxury totes bags for work, play, and beyond. 

    Our work totes combine chic color options with luxe, vegan-friendly leathers for bags that are spacious enough to transport your work gear from home to the office and stylish enough for cocktail hour after you clock out.

    On the go? Our travel totes come fully equipped with features that cater to all your travel needs. With trolley pass-throughs that secure your tote to the rest of your luggage, built-in inflatable pillows for poolside relaxation, and removable laptop sleeves for when your jet setting is part work, part pleasure, they’re the perfect tote for touring the world.

    Convinced yet? We thought so. Shop our Fall Recycle Collection to find the sustainable tote, perfect for you. 


    1.  "Fashion archives: a look at the history of the tote bag." Startup Fashion. 15 July, 2017. https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-the-tote-bag/ 
    2. Sharma, Vansh. "General Benefits Of Using Tote Bags." Viebly. 27 June, 2022. https://viebly.com/benefits-of-using-tote-bags/ 
    3. Sinead. "Top benefits of using a canvas tote bag for your shopping." Best in AUhttps://bestinau.com.au/benefits-of-using-a-canvas-tote-bag-for-your-shopping 

    Related Products and Articles

    1 of 4