Leather business tote bag in Spanish soft hide shiny black, handmade by Mackenzie Leather Edinburgh.

History of: The Tote

The Leather Tote Bag

The iconic name of this essential bag seems familiar to most. But what exactly is a ‘tote’ and how did it become a well known design for handbags? This month we continue our History of Blog Series with an everyday classic: The Tote Bag.

The Tote one of the most versatile bag designs in history, and is most likely present in your own home. Your current choice of handbag might be a structured leather version, or perhaps your favourite companion on a trip to the supermarket is a slightly worn, canvas piece that came free with a previous purchase.

Whatever your preference, it’s highly likely you have some day-to-day encounter with the classic concept. But what’s a Tote? And how did it become such a staple of everyday life?

MacKenzie Kasia by Julien Borghino scaled History of: The Tote

Since the dawn of time we humans have utilised leather, cloth and other natural fibres as material used to carry belongings in the form of slings, satchels, pouches and pockets. We only have to travel back to the 17th Century for the first mention of the Tote – to tote – simply meaning to carry. Toting around originally meant carrying around your goods in some sort of bag or sack. Although it is unlikely that the visual concept resembled the modern bag we all know today, it is widely believed to be the forerunner of its design.

It took a couple of century’s for the word to transition from a verb to the modern day noun. In 1944, the American outdoors store L.L.Bean thought up a new concept for an ice bag. The recognisably large, boxy bag was made out of hardwearing canvas, designed to carry ice between your car and your freezer. It didn’t take long before people started to reap the rewards of such a durable piece, making use of the versatility and resilient nature to carry more than just frozen goods.

Beans Ice Carrier History of: The Tote

Beans Shopping Bag History of: The Tote

Boat and Tote Bag History of: The Tote

Image: The evolution of the L.L. Bean Tote into the trademarked Boat and Tote


During the 50’s, the tote became a staple of utility. The bag of choice outshone its predecessors for grocery shopping, household tasks and everyday transportation. Step into the 1960’s and the Tote begins to really stand out as a contender in the fashion world, a mere 20 years after its first introduction as a practical piece. The design potential was evident, using the popularity of the recognisable ice bag to subtly transform classic lines with more feminine shapes, adding customisable choice of trim colour and a catchy title ‘Boat and Tote’. Totes are often bigger than other handbag alternatives, as well as inherently stronger in design, so manufacturers and fashion brands alike could provide women with practicality and style in one convenient package.

Fast-forward to the latter end of the 20th Century and we find the contemporary meaning for the word Tote as more of an umbrella term for a bag that not only functions like one of the original ice bags, but also bears a visual resemblance to the classic.

Our own range of Tote bags – the original Tote, or the Business Tote  have been designed to adopt the practical benefits associated with any classic tote, but reinvented and upgraded in a style unique to a Mackenzie piece. The shapes are cut from our own blocks, designed especially to provide a sturdy everyday bag thats large enough to be practical, but still crafted by hand from our finest leather hide.

A Mackenzie Tote bag is also available in a variety of colours, but unlike the canvas original, our bags are always crafted out of soft Italian leather hide and complemented with a suede velour lining. Our design features a top press stud closure and can be made in five different sizes, from tiny to large. The hide leather of our totes gain character from wear, slowly giving your bag a beautiful and distinctive worn charm.

So, just like the concept of the L.L Bean Ice bag, our Tote designs stand the test of time, not just through style, but in their bespoke and handcrafted manufacture. 

Discover what’s inside our Mackenzie Tote range with our exclusive video:

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