Duffel bags (also called duffle bags) are named after the town where their thick cloth was originally made. The town of Duffel is in Belgium, near Antwerp, and its production of the bag’s coarse, woolen cloth dates back to the mid-17th century. Historically, the term duffel bag referred to one specific type of bag: large, cylindrical, and closed at the top with a drawstring or zipper. Over time, however, the term duffel (or duffle) bag has grown to include any large “holdall” bag made of thick fabric.
The application of the duffel bag itself has its roots in the military, and its first mention was found in letters written in WWI. At that time, the bags were shorter and looked similar to a knapsack. When fully packed, they were difficult to handle, and many soldiers left them in the trenches. WWII brought few changes to the design or usability of the bags, but in the early 1940’s, duffel bags saw great improvements in both sturdiness and function. Longer and wider, with sturdy straps for carrying heavier loads, duffel bags finally resembled the bags we still love today.
The popularity of duffel bags spread widely outside of military applications after WWII, presumably due in part to the aforementioned functional improvements, but also because they could finally be picked up by anyone who wanted one, whether handed down from a soldier or sailor, or found in Army and Navy surplus stores all over Europe and the United States.
Over time, the duffel bag has continued to evolve, becoming ever more stylish and functional, while maintaining its iconic rugged versatility.