How a Rain-Soaked Seattle Bookstore Helped Invent the School Backpack

Cori Mothersbaugh remembers how she used to get her books from one class to another. Starting in grade school in the 1960s and through her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 1972, textbooks would be wrapped in a heavy brown paper bag and piled up in her arms. “My generation, we didn’t put books in anything,” the 66-year-old tells Mental Floss. “We just carried them.”

By the time that finally changed, Mothersbaugh would be close to graduation. But she could take a little solace in the fact that, as an employee at the University’s campus bookstore, she was an eyewitness to a meeting between an outdoor equipment salesman and a store manager that would forever influence how kids toted their school supplies.

A woman wears a white JanSport backpack
JanSport

A leather belt. That’s what kids in the early 1900s often used to cart their school books around, securing the strap around the pile and using the slack as a handle. Sometimes the strap would be made specifically for the purpose. Other times, kids would just use a waist belt, cinching it to create a bottom-heavy contraption that was probably used by more than one child as a bludgeon.

Around the same time, some enterprising outdoor equipment suppliers were making upgrades to the totes and satchels favored by their outdoor enthusiast customers. Taking a cue from the Inuit designs he saw in his Alaskan travels, entrepreneur Lloyd Nelson patented a pack in 1922 that could be worn across the upper back with a frame for added support. In 1938, Gerry Outdoors improved on the concept by adding zippered compartments that made it easier to fetch supplies while rock climbing. In 1967, the Gerry Teardrop Backpack innovated again by using nylon, a far more durable and weather-resistant material than canvas.

None of these products were created with students in mind. Their target audience was the outdoorsman, the roaming amateur explorers who enjoyed hiking, camping, and climbing. The growth of that industry paved the way for JanSport, co-founded by Skip Yowell and Murray and Jan Pletz in 1967. (Jan had the company named after her because she agreed to help sew some of their early products.)

Operating out of a Seattle transmission shop owned by Yowell’s uncle, JanSport quickly gained traction as a supplier that paid attention to the finer details. When Yowell heard that customers wanted a loop to hang an ice axe from, he added one. When they asked for a day pack made especially for dogs, he made them. His dialogue with customers allowed JanSport to react quickly to the needs of the market.

“Skip had this incredible personality,” Winnie Yowell, Skip’s widow, tells Mental Floss. “He made you feel like you were his best friend, that you had known him forever.”

That comradery was on display in 1972, when Yowell paid a visit to the University of Washington’s campus bookstore and spoke with manager Ed Bergan. With the bookstore connected to an athletics shop that sold skiing and other outdoor equipment, Bergan noticed that students would go pick up their textbooks and then head for the JanSport day pack display almost immediately.

“It was like a turnstile,” says Mothersbaugh, who worked for Bergan. “Kids would buy books and then look for something to carry them in.” Unlike some of the sunnier campuses on the west coast, books needed protection from the ever-present Seattle rain; a large number of students also biked around campus and needed a place to store their books so they could keep their hands on the handlebar.

Bergan mentioned this untapped market to Yowell and suggested a key addition: Since the packs were being used for heavy books, having some added support on the bottom would be beneficial. The reinforced bottom could carry the weight and resist water if it was put down on wet pavement.

Yowell, who had made a practice of listening to customers, agreed. He returned to JanSport and began producing day packs that had vinyl (and later leather) bottoms and jam-proof zippers. He sent them along to Bergan, who reported that they were practically flying off the shelves.

“It was a new way to carry things,” Mothersbaugh says. “I think kids would see other kids with one and it caught on. I know we sold a lot of them.”

Bergan was so impressed by the response that he began telling his colleagues at other campus bookstores in the Pacific Northwest about JanSport and its virtually indestructible backpacks, which Yowell would later dub the SuperBreak. A revolution was taking place—but it would be a few more years before it became a national phenomenon.

A 1984 L.L. Bean catalog page featuring the Book Pack
Courtesy of Andy Gilchrist

At the time JanSport’s book pack exploded, the company had a regional footprint. Students on the East Coast in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t yet aware of the alternative use for the bags, and it was often left up to enterprising parents to improvise school sacks for their children. In 1980, syndicated arts and crafts columnists Ed and Stevie Baldwin offered instructions for a DIY backpack by mail order. The bags were made from jeans and recycled waistbands. For anyone willing to take up the task for themselves, the Baldwins sold the pattern for $3.95.

Of course, college students were less likely to have their parents sewing backpacks for them. That’s probably one reason why a Harvard law school enrollee wrote to Ned Kitchel in 1981. Kitchel, who was the head of product development for L.L. Bean's outdoor equipment category from 1976 to 1991, remembers the correspondence well. “The guy had ordered the first nylon day pack we had introduced to the line,” Kitchel tells Mental Floss. “It was intended for hiking. He said he liked it but that his law books poked a hole in the bottom and could we please make one to hold them.”

Kitchel thought that made sense. Not long after, he ran into a seamstress named Marcia Briggs at a Las Vegas trade show. Briggs was co-owner of Caribou Mountaineering and had already toyed with the idea of adopting a day pack for school use. “I asked if they [Caribou] could do anything and she pulled one right off the shelf,” Kitchel says. “With a few alterations, that became the L.L. Bean Book Pack.”

At the time, there was a crucial difference in reach between JanSport and L.L. Bean. JanSport acted as a wholesaler, dealing with retailers. Bean was a catalog business, selling directly to the consumer. (Without the middle man, their packs sold for $25 compared to JanSport’s $30 to $40 models.) They didn’t need to convince store owners a student-oriented pack was a good idea—they just added it to their pages. “The first year [1982], we sold maybe 10,000 of them,” Kitchel says. “The next year, 50,000. Then 100,000. The numbers were astonishing.”

The Bean Book Pack made some crucial additions to the student book-toting experience. Briggs designed a seamless bottom using a continuous piece of fabric, making it much more resistant to having sharp book corners poking at the sides. Compartments were added so supplies like pencils and rulers could be easily retrieved. Later, Kitchel would add reflective stripes to the exterior so kids would be visible in low light. That feature appealed to parents, who browsed the catalog and then ordered Book Packs for their children.

By 1984, newspapers were taking note of the trend spreading everywhere from kindergarten to universities. Across the country, students were lugging packs made specifically for their needs. Packs from JanSport, L.L. Bean, and a handful of other brands like Eastpak and Trager came in an assortment of colors, including pink and camouflage. Licensed packs featuring ALF, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie grew popular with younger backpackers. Promotional giveaways used them as a way to grab attention. (Send in two Chips Ahoy! proof of purchase seals along with $6.95 for a Chips Ahoy! backpack.) If you were carrying books by hand, you were missing a sea change in education. Backpacks had arrived.

A child with a backpack walks down a flight of stairs
woodleywonderworks, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In terms of brand recognition, not a whole lot has changed since backpacks became a staple of school lockers in the ‘80s. Kids, fiercely loyal to brands, still favor JanSport and L.L. Bean, along with other packs made by VF, the parent company currently behind JanSport.

“At least on the east coast, you can’t walk on a campus and not see L.L. Bean backpacks everywhere,” Kitchel says. Of Yowell, who conquered the other coast, Kitchel echoes the sentiments of most everyone who met him prior to his death in 2012. “He’s one of the classiest guys I ever knew.”

Kitchel estimates that L.L. Bean sold $500 million in packs since 1982. JanSport had tallied 25 million SuperBreak packs between 1979 and 2007.

With digital learning tools on the rise, some outlets are predicting a dip in backpack sales as more classes are moving coursework online. Yet 2014 was a record high for backpack sales, with 174 million sold. Students may no longer be weighed down with 30 pounds of paper, but there’s still a need to pad and protect tablets, headphones, and other learning accessories. There’s also the matter of aesthetics: A student’s choice of color, shape, and features in a backpack can help broadcast their personality to a campus full of strangers. That's not likely to go out of style anytime soon.

“I think Skip realized where the future was going to be,” Winnie Yowell says. “The goal was always to be cool and fun, and that was Skip’s thing.”

Additional Sources: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen.

10 Delicious Facts About McDonald's Shamrock Shake

McDonald's
McDonald's

Many people overdo it with the drinking on St. Patrick's Day, but it's not always Guinness or Jameson that gets them into trouble. Sometimes it's the Shamrock Shake, McDonald's uniquely green and often elusive seasonal treat. Here’s the skinny on the 660-calorie indulgence.

1. The Shamrock Shake wasn't originally known as The Shamrock Shake.

The original name of the cult classic milkshake was slightly less alliterative. It was called the St. Patrick’s Day Green Milkshake. Catchy, no?

2. The Shamrock Shake is a charitable endeavor.

What does the Shamrock Shake have to do with the Ronald McDonald House and the Philadelphia Eagles? Everything, according to the fast food giant. When Eagles tight end Fred Hill’s daughter was being treated for leukemia in 1974, Fred and his wife spent a lot of time in waiting rooms and noticed many other emotionally depleted families doing the same. He thought it would be healthier for families if they had a place to call home while their children were being treated, so he used his football connections to get in touch with a local advertising agency that did work for Mickey D’s. They agreed to give profits from the Shamrock Shake toward a home near the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, which ended up becoming the first-ever Ronald McDonald House.

3. Uncle O'Grimacey used to be the Shamrock Shake's ambassador.

Back in the early ‘80s, a fairly offensive character named Uncle O’Grimacey was used to promote the seasonal shake.

4. No McDonald's restaurant is required to offer the Shamrock Shake.

In 2012, it was announced that, for the first time, the Shamrock Shake would be available in all McDonald's nationwide—but not all restaurants have to carry them. Regional managers decide whether their stores will carry the shakes each year.

5. Jimmy Fallon once depleted a New York City restaurant's entire Shamrock Shake supply.

If you’re a New Yorker and you didn’t get a much-craved Shamrock Shake in 2011, it’s probably Jimmy Fallon’s fault. When he caught wind that a Union Square Mickey D's had the elusive dessert, he totally cleaned them out—purchasing more than 100 shakes for his audience. New Yorkers were not pleased with Fallon.

6. The Shamrock Shake got an ice cream offshoot (that didn't fare so well).

Despite the smashing success of the shake, the Shamrock Sundae was a dismal failure. Introduced in 1980, it was discontinued after just a year. Apparently people prefer their unnaturally green desserts in shake form as opposed to scoop form. Though this year, they're trying again: in honor of the Shamrock Shake's 50th anniversary, McDonald's is also introducing an Oreo Shamrock McFlurry.

7. There have been many super-sized versions of the Shamrock Shake.

For a few years, a giant shake was poured into the Chicago River to help contribute to the green hue it’s dyed every year. A donation was also made to the Ronald McDonald House.

8. The McDonald's app will help you track down a Shamrock Shake.

Are you one of those unfortunate souls who has to hunt the shake down every year? McDonald's official app can help. In 2020, for the first time in three years, the Shamrock Shake will be offered at all McDonald's locations. If you're not sure of the nearest one near you, the McDonald's app has a full directory to help.

9. You can make your own Shamrock Shake at home.

If you still can’t find a shake, you have one other option: make your own.

10. In 2017, McDonald's engineered a special Shamrock Shake straw.

In 2017, McDonald's unveiled an amazing innovation for Shamrock Shake lovers: the STRAW. Short for Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal, the STRAW was designed by real engineers at the aerospace and robotics engineering firms JACE and NK Labs—specifically with the Shamrock Shake in mind. What sets the device apart from conventional straws is the sharp bend in its shape and the three, eye-shaped holes in addition to the opening at the bottom end. The extra holes are positioned in a way that allows drinkers to take a sip of a new layered version of the frosty treat that’s equal parts top mint layer and bottom chocolate layer.

Why Are CVS Receipts So Incredibly Long?

cyano66/iStock via Getty Images
cyano66/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve ever conducted business at one of the nearly 10,000 CVS Pharmacy locations in the United States and count yourself among one of the estimated 62 million members of the store's ExtraCare discount incentive program, you’ve probably been handed a receipt that is more scroll than slip. These transactional documents, which have been known to literally be several feet of thermal paper long and full of merchandise coupons, are often wadded or folded up like a bath towel and handed off to the consumer.

Is this an environmentally mindful practice? And do these coupons really keep people coming back for more?

CVS has stated that the lengthy receipts are intended to demonstrate the value of being an ExtraCare member by offering ExtraCare Rewards, typically a dollar or percentage amount off of a single item or purchase. Some of the receipt's oversized real estate is also taken up by a solicitation to participate in a satisfaction survey. (Though it’s not likely that one of the questions is about the length of the receipt.)

A woman is pictured holding up a CVS receipt
stephen boisvert, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Simply put, the chain wants to vividly illustrate the benefits of being an ExtraCare member, which also helps the company by allowing them to track your purchase history. The idea is that the Russian novel-length receipt will excite consumers who feel as though a surplus of savings are being delivered right into their hands.

The problem is that the coupons are often quick to expire or can sometimes exclude sale items, registering disappointment when a returning customer presents a slip for $2 off a bar of soap.

You can, of course, opt out of receiving a paper receipt through your ExtraCare account online or via the app, though the process requires a few steps to complete. The coupons will then be sent digitally via your smartphone. Since introducing that paperless option in 2016, the company claims it has saved 3 billion inches of paper that would otherwise have been squeezed into a ball and stuffed into your glove compartment.

Alternately, you can always use it to replace a broken window blind.

Which brings us to the other and possibly most important motivation for those long receipts: Social media engagement. The more people express dismay at those long receipts, the more exposure CVS receives. Considering their 2018 merger with health insurance giant Aetna cost more than $70 billion, some free publicity could come in handy.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER