Book Bags: A Cultural Shift

With the start of the school year The Curmudgeon again sees young people walking along early in the morning and in the middle of the afternoon carrying book bags. Lots of kids carry book bags. Even high-schoolers carry book bags these days – only, since they carry them on their backs, they call them back packs – or worse, backpacks.

We shall refer to them as book bags.

Hard as it may be to believe, it hasn’t always been this way. From 1970 to 1975, when The Curmudgeon was in high school, anyone who carried a book bag might as well have been wearing a sign on his back that said “Kick my ass.”


He has no idea why it was that way, but from practically the first day of high school it was obvious.

Come to school like this in 1973 and you were just begging for a punch in the nose.

Come to school like this in 1973 and you were just begging for a punch in the nose.

Very obvious. And The Curmudgeon was especially vulnerable: at the time he started high school he was only five feet tall, so it’s not as if anyone who might be considering kicking his ass had to stop and decide whether he might end up on the wrong end of the ass-kicking. Even most of the girls were bigger than he was.

In Philadelphia, moreover, there was no yellow school bus service for high school picking you up and dropping you off very close to your home: you took the same public transportation as people who were going to work in offices and factories. For many students that public transportation wasn’t very convenient, either. In The Curmudgeon’s case, the 88 bus was a solid 15-minute walk from his house, which meant that you had to carry your books a long way under your arm. It wasn’t easy. Worse, without an umbrella, you could be sure to get an occasional soaking. (Umbrellas, too, were an invitation to assault with intent to do bodily injury.)

And what about the books?

In The Curmudgeon’s case, he found a good solution: a clear plastic book bag made of more or less the same material they use in plastic slipcovers. (By the way: plenty of those plastic slipcovers in The Curmudgeon’s childhood home.) He learned that as uncomfortable as rain could be to those without umbrellas or hats or book bags, it offered enough of a distraction that no potential ass-kickers (like those Getty brothers) ever even noticed the hard-to-spot book bag.

So once again we see how kids today have it sooooooooo easy. They can carry book bags without fear of being assaulted.

You can find signs of progress in the strangest of places.

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