The Things Kids Carried

A photo essay offers a glimpse of student backpacks from around the world.

A group of girls in Berlin on tiptoe peeking into a shop on their way home from school, 1948.  (Hulton-Deutsch / Corbis via Getty)

Not that long ago, carrying school supplies on one’s back seemed like a crazy concept. Until the 1980s, backpacks were used mostly for hiking and outdoor activities. Students used entirely different (and much less convenient) modes of transportation for their school supplies: Until the 1930s, many students used leather straps to hold together the books they carried. Later, students used mini briefcases or one-strap bags. In 1969, the company JanSport created a daypack for skiing and hiking; they happened to be selling them at a store connected to the University of Washington bookstore, and students started using these bags to keep their books dry in rainy Seattle.

Today, backpacks have become a staple of student life. Kids see backpacks as a symbol of identity, and choosing a backpack is often a careful and deliberate process. Backpacks can be indicative of everything from a kid’s favorite cartoon to her country of nationality to her socioeconomic status. They’re tiny windows of insight into what students care about and the kinds of worlds they are inhabiting. These photos peek at what kids around the globe have been carrying on their backs.

Liz de la Caridad Guedez checks out her new backpack in a mirror prior to leaving home for her first day back to school in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 3, 2012. (Franklin Reyes / AP)
A girls walks with her satchel as she arrives for the first day of school following the summer holidays on September 3, 2013 in Lyon. (Jeff Pachoud / AFP / Getty Images)
A student wears a backpack decorated with an "estelada," or Catalan pro-independence flag, in Barcelona, Spain. (Emilio Morenatti / AP)
A student in southwest China's Chongqing municipality. After school, a group of children strap on lifejackets under their backpacks before embarking on a flat-bottomed boat. Their principal rows them to and from school every day.  (Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images)
Alicja Pietrucha prepares for Jozefow primary school on June 14, 2013 in Kuligow, Poland. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty Images)
An Afghan schoolgirl carries her backpack on the way to school in Old Kabul on August 25, 2010. (Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images)
Prince George on his first day at the Westacre Montessori nursery school near Sandringham in Norfolk. (ALP / MediaPunch / AP)
Students hold hands as they walk with their new book bags in Miami in August 2015. They received the free bags as part of an annual back-to-school event also offering free health screenings, and free food distribution. (Lynne Sladky / AP)
Syrian girls, carrying school bags provided by UNICEF, walk past the rubble of destroyed buildings on their way home from school on March 7, 2015 in al-Shaar neighbourhood, in the rebel-held side of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Zein Al-Rifai / AFP / Getty Images)
A student carrying a backpack bearing the image of national independence hero Simon Bolivar walks as they leave the school in Ciudad Caribia outside Caracas on September 19, 2013. (Jorge Silva / Reuters)
A child is accompanied to his elementary school on September 2, 2014 in Marseille at the start of the new school year. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images)
Girls hug each other outside the European school of Strasbourg in Strasbourg, eastern France, on September 1, 2015, the first day of the new school year. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP / Getty Images)