Duffel bag. Yeah, not duffle. The first English recorded use of the phrase comes by way of the poet E.E. Cummings. He was working as an ambulance driver in France in WWI. In one of his letters, Cummings mentions he “had a duffel bag, chuck full.” Now just what old E.E. Cummings had his bag full of, we don’t know. We’d like to know, huh? But whatever it was, his bag was able to handle it “chuck full.”
Duffel is the name of the town in Belgium that supplied a coarse, sturdy fabric that sailors used to patch their sails. We’re talking the 1600s here. Gradually, over time, sailors began using the tough fabric to sew bags to protect their personal gear from sea spray. Those bags continued to evolve over time really hitting their stride in the 1940s with the military taking advantage of their bomb-proof construction and ease of storage (no hard edges). When most of us think of duffel bags, we see those huge army green tubes of fabric, often with somebody’s name or number printed on them. Bottom line on those things – they were functional. If you can find one at a surplus store, buy it, it’ll outlast the apocalypse.
But as is so often the case, we took something purely functional and made it extremely fashionable. These days there are duffel bags on the market that wouldn’t last an hour in a fox hole much less be able to withstand an afternoon’s worth of sea spray. The epitome of this is a $2,500 duffel bag from Louis Vitton. Betcha e e cummings could write a hell of a poem about that kind of nonsense.
It’s true, most of us don’t spend extended periods of time in a fox hole or bracing ourselves against the surf off the Cape. Some days our epic battle looks like getting through security at the airport when we’re running late already and we just happen to pick the line operated by Mr. Handsy. It’s best just to throw the duffel on the belt and let the poor guy unzip that single, simple, brilliant zipper and sniff around. Maybe he’ll get a whiff of another life, give his two weeks notice, buy himself a duffel, and take off on an adventure as an ambulance driver. Or a poet. Or maybe both.