The history of the German Schulranzen

The precursor to the schulranzen (a type of satchel used as a schoolbag by German schoolchildren) was the tornister, a German military backpack which originated in the 17th century and was made by stretching a canvas or calf leather cover over a rectangular wood or plastic frame. A schulranzen is still frequently known as tornister in Germany today. By the start of the 20th century, tornisters were still being made in the traditional way, with great differences in quality: solid leather, synthetic leather or expensive sealskin models were available. Those who could not or chose not to invest money in a schulranzen (satchel-style schoolbag) would fashion their own out of wood and cloth or animal hide. Fir wood was commonly used to make the frame of a home-made satchel. Hide or cloth was stretched across a wooden frame, which made the satchel especially compact and stable. In the 1960s, heavy leather satchels came into fashion, with the market moving away from the use of wood frames and animal skins and toward a more practical design. One of the great advantages of a leather schoolbag was that it was particularly robust and hard-wearing. However, on the down side, it made for a heavier bag with relatively less storage space. At that time, satchels were often gender-specific. Boys’ schoolbags typically featured a long flap that was closed shut with straps. Girls’ bags, on the other hand, had shorter flaps, with crisscrossed straps on the flap itself. Although leather school satchels are almost completely obsolete, some models are still commercially available.

The forerunner of today's schoolbags

These satchels were designed above all else to be hard-wearing, with little value placed on carrying comfort or ergonomics. The bag’s main role was to allow the safe transport of school supplies such as books, notebooks, pencils and other equipment – valuable commodities in those days. Even back then, schoolchildren were forced to carry relatively large quantities of books and writing materials over long distances, with little regard to the load on their backs. Many kids began to suffer from back problems due to poor weight distribution and the non-ergonomic design of satchels. Nevertheless, these satchels kept school supplies safe. Cloth bags were one alternative, but they did a poor job at keeping books and other items from sliding around and getting crumpled, and they weren’t much lighter, either.

Little comfort, plenty of storage space

The traditional school satchel as it is known in Germany today was invented in 1975 and replaced the old leather bag. Today’s tornister (known generally as a schulranzen) has the same square shape but features much bolder colors. It also comes equipped with safety reflectors and is made of light plastic. In the 1980s, guidelines were drawn up for testing this new generation of satchels to ensure, among other things, that the bags were stable and water-resistant. A strap width of at least four centimeters was also recommended to make the load – which at the time rested entirely on the shoulders – easier to carry. Another attempt at easing the burden was made by keeping the weight of the satchel down to a minimum. Increased vehicle traffic on roads traversed daily by schoolchildren also led to a greater emphasis on the use of reflectors on satchels. Even today, conventional satchels are still better known for how well they protect school supplies rather than children's backs. Previously common gender-specific features, like flap length or strap design, are no more. Instead, today’s colorful satchels feature themes and patterns typically favored by boys or girls. As in the past, boys’ bags often bear dinosaur, car or wild animal motifs, with muted shades such as blue, green or yellow. Girls’ satchels, on the other hand, give preference to princesses, horses or elves and come in livelier colors such as pink, purple or red. Neutral models are also available for a less gender-defining look.

The tornister revolution

2010 marked the next stage in the evolution of schoolbags with the rising popularity of ergonomic backpacks. The focus was now less on protecting the books inside and more on taking some of the load off young backs. These modern satchels are based on the concept of hiking backpacks, which are designed to shift the weight off of the shoulders and onto the hips. More and more parents of school-aged children are now choosing ergonomic backpacks which feature wide waist belts and grow along with their kids. Child safety continues to play a major role: reflective and fluorescent materials are incorporated into the backpacks for increased visibility in traffic. These bags have entered a new age in terms of design as well: switchable themes let primary schoolers display their changing preferences on their bags. No longer are they stuck with the same design, meaning the bag won’t get ditched a year from now when the child’s tastes mature. After all, how can a five-year-old know what he or she will like three years from now? Ethical consumerism is another growing trend in our society. Sustainable materials and components are becoming increasingly important for families shopping for school supplies. These criteria were previously of little relevance in satchel testing. ergobag, the ergonomic backpack that grows along with your child and is made of recycled PET bottles, marks the next stage in the evolution of the schoolbag market. lederranzen The picture shows a classic leather satchel that Sven and Flo, the founders of ergobag, received as a gift from friends on the company’s one-year anniversary. It is on display as a “relic” in the ergobag showroom alongside all the ergonomic school backpacks.