Look around. See a tote bag? The canvas kind with some sort of graphic on either side? Maybe a dozen or so are taking up space in one of your drawers. Maybe you lugged one to and from work the other day. Thank L.L. Bean.
"Introduced as Bean’s ice carrier way back in 1944, the Boat and Tote was billed as a bag made of builders’ canvas for hauling ice 'from car to ice chest," the Leon Leonwood Bean-founded brand writes in the bag's bio. "Tested to hold up to 500 pounds, it’ll carry more than you can carry. We promise."
500 pounds? That's quite the pack. Chances are you aren't hauling your bodyweight in farmer's bounty, but there's still reason for extra room — especially in a city, where the likelihood you can dump a day's worth of stuff into the back of a sedan is incredibly slim. Having a tough-wearing bag capable of carrying it all is a necessity, and L.L. Bean's Boat and Tote is up for any task. At the same time, as utilitarian as it is, there are assumptions to be made about someone you spot carrying one — or at least there were.
Die, Workwear!'s Derek Guy writes that initially, "with a nearly free monogram service, it was the cheapest way to look rich." He's right. In fact, the service still exists and only costs an additional $8. Personalization has long captivated consumers by offering both a way into "the club" and a way to stand out. (Customized L.L. Bean bags are all the rage on TikTok right now, too. An account called @ironicboatandtote documents user-submitted monograms aplenty.)
"But like much of prep, the bag was also fashionable because it suggested something about the carrier: East Coast, born-into-wealth, well-educated, stoic, and wry," Guy continues. "It’s a symbol of a particular cross-section of America that overlaps Yankee, Ivy League, and WASP."
Nowadays the tote is more universal — as abundant as trucker jackets and OK pizza. Print shops crank out custom ones for all sorts of events. Stores overseas — namely in Japan and Korea — resell American-made ones for 200-plus-percent market value. Retailers of varying sizes stock them at the checkout counter. Magazines pitch theirs as a perk to subscribing. (The New Yorker's tote is only available to subscribers, but there are bootlegs all over Etsy.) Above all else, they signal a bare minimum amount of mindfulness about the environment. They have to be better than plastic bags, right? (See: The Atlantic's stab at answering this question.)
Having an assortment of unused ones that stamp your patronage at particular places isn't much of an improvement on our collective consumerism problem. We'd argue it's better to invest in one bag — and one bag that'll last. Why not choose one like the Boat and Tote, which has been beloved for more than 75 years? Plus, it counts millions as loyal customers — from designers and dock workers to parents and luxury-leaning celebrities. We spoke to some of them to understand why.
Quotes on Totes
"The L.L. Bean Boat and Tote is the most classic and democratic way to haul your stuff. It's customizable, hard-wearing, and discreet. A holdall for anyone and everyone!" — Chris Black, partner of Public Announcement, co-host of How Long Gone podcast
"The Boat and Tote strikes the right balance between easygoing style and intense practicality. It’s like a good military watch or a Duralex glass. Like all bags of quality they do not tip over. They are at home on the arm of anybody who has somewhere worth going to. I have a rare blue on blue one that I found on eBay which gives me a fleeting sense of pleasure when I see certain menswear aficionados eye it jealously. Has not been improved upon because it cannot be." —David Coggins, author of The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life (He had the luxury of making custom Boat and Totes for his book launch, by the way.)
"I have a small one that is a Subaru branded one. It’s great! I use it to hold all my bike tools and love how sturdy and strong it is. I beat the crap out of it and it never fails." — Kyle Kivijarvi, freelance creative consultant, founder of Gramparents, a seniors-only style spotting page
"The Boat and Tote is such a classic piece of Americana. When I was designing my collaboration with L.L.Bean last year, I was lucky enough to get access to their archives and see some of the original designs. One thing I learned through that research was the origin of the style. It was first created for practical reasons — to move ice and goods on and off of boats (hence, the name). The size, design and durability proved popular and now, over 100 years later, we’re still using it." — Todd Snyder, designer
"New Yorkers usually have oddly personal relationships with tote bags, as we generally don't have cars (or boats!), so durable bags become essential for lugging around our stuff in style. Here are two of my favorites, one that is well worn, repaired and loved. And one that is brand new, a gift from a friend for our new baby girl. Maybe it will look like the old one in 10 years." — Randy Goldberg, co-founder of Bombas
"I’d describe the L.L. Bean totes as timeless and versatile. They last forever, and that’s ok, because they fit in any era and any location from the farmer’s market to the beach. My wife and I have used these bags in so many ways, as laundry hampers, as welcome kits in our guest rooms, we even have one at the front door for package deliveries." — Marcus Ford, Prepford Studio
"Value is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the L.L. Bean Boat and Tote. For 30 or 40 bucks you get a virtually indestructible, made-in-USA tote that you can use every day for years on end. The best part, they get better with age! As someone who has spent years dealing in some of the best vintage on earth, I can tell you that Boat and Totes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are still going strong today and are no worse for the wear. In fact, the older and more character they develop, the more valuable they are on the vintage market. I literally use mine everyday — for post office runs, farmer’s market hauls, and trips to the flea market. There are a few in my car at all times, just in case I need one for something." — Brian Davis, founder of Wooden Sleepers
"My L.L. Bean Boat and Tote was my first 'I think I’m gonna be alright' piece of luggage. I went nuts with a zip top and didn’t look back. I have since traveled with it all over the world, and every time I look down at it I’m reminded of how much joy it brings me — which is a massive stress relief when you’re waiting in lines or stuck at whatever spot you’re at. Go big or go home and play a game of how much stuff you can put it in it. It’s been a diaper bag, portable podcast studio and grocery carrier all in less than 24 hours. Utility will forever be my vibe. P.S. there is only one color you should own…" — Jeremy Kirkland, host of Blamo! Podcast