Everyman's bag: The Haversack

By Dan Lambert
Originally published in the GA CoHT newsletter July 2003

It's time for the second installment of our series of articles about the bags used to carry one's needs and possessions in the 18th century. Last month our article covered the snapsack, which was a widely used method of carrying one's possessions.

This month we'll look at a bag that has what is arguably the longest Genesis of any bag ever conceived: The Haversack. Some versions of the haversack are still in use today. The haversack used during the 18th century shows it's state of development in one short period of time, not it's total history.

The haversack probably originated as a simple open topped bag with a simple cloth strap that was slung over one shoulder and worn across the chest. The modification to having a flap closure, and later a buttoned closure came along at some point in time, but I have found no firm record of when these changes occurred. The Celts, Germans, French, and many other Europeans knew the haversack, showing that it was commonly used from ancient times. This type of bag is often found in wall art in Egyptian, Roman, Babylonian, and Assyrian vintage, so it is obvious that it predates any use that falls into the time periods we portray.

These following examples and primary reference sources are from Chuck Casada's web site at http://www.colonialmarket.com/casada/haversacks.html and are used with Chuck's permission.

British Style Haversack, F&I Version

This was the shoulder slung bag that carried rations for His Majesty's Troops. A cloth strap is standard. Finished size is 17" high, 16-1/2" wide.

"Where the men march they are to put their provisions in Haversacks and roll them up in blankets like the Rangers" - R.E. Mulligan 1758.

Among the equipment issued to the regular British Soldier- "(a) Cloak, Knapsack, & Haversack." Pg. 90 With Wolfe to Quebec.

French Style Haversack

This big haversack comes with a standard leather strap and brass buckle. Webb ties are standard. The finished size is about 18" X 24" closed.

Converted Haversack / Knapsack

This pack started out as a haversack and has cloth sewn straps to wear the pack centered on the back. Another style has a leather cradle on the outside bottom and on the inside flap, fully adjustable leather straps also. Finished size is 15" X 15".

"We immediately laid down our packs and prepared for battle." Pg. 84, Rogers Journals.

As you can see by what was written by participants of the times, the haversack or one of its variants was a very popular and practical method of carrying needed items. As noted, though, the haversack was usually used in addition to another larger bag to carry an individual's gear. There is a reason for this.

The haversack was a person's food and utensil storage bag. Considering the technology of the time, any piece of salt pork, ham, boiled beef, or cheese was wrapped in a piece of cloth and stuffed into the haversack. Everyone knows what happens when you put a piece of meat or cheese in a bag when it's warm. Everything it comes in contact with has grease all over it. Thus it was with the haversack.

Meat and cheese weren't the only things carried in the haversack, though. Poke sacks (cloth bags with a pull string closure) would be filled with corn meal, rice, barley, oats, or anything else the traveler could find to eat, and stuffed in along with the meat and some bread. It wasn't uncommon for the traveler to carry a spoon and/or a fork, his bowl or trencher, and a noggin or cup in the bag as well.

As you can see, the load could be very large for a longer trip, or very small for a short day hunt. Whatever was carried in the haversack would be supplemented with fresh game or fish, if the traveler were lucky. Any seasonal wild berries, nuts, and fruits would be added to the meals. All of this considered, it's easy to see that there probably wasn't a standard size for the haversack unless you were in the military, and then you returned the haversack to the quartermaster when you left the establishment.

Civilian haversacks were made from whatever material was available, and whatever size the owner preferred. The construction was universally simple, with the most common "upgrade" being the lining of the haversack with either muslin or ticking. Typical dimensions were approximately 14" to 18" on a side, either width or height, and example haversacks of the period appear to be more often made in a rectangular pattern rather than square, and most often higher than wide. The strap was typically made of the same material that the body of the bag was, but leather straps, with or without a buckle, and woven straps were not unheard of.

The typical pattern was a simple rectangular piece of material, folded lengthwise to provide a bag and a flap closure, all from the one piece of material. If a lining was desired, a second piece of material the same size as the bag would simply be laid out on top of the body material, and then be folded and sewn at the same time as the body of the bag was sewn.

This is a photo of the haversack that I carry. It is made of walnut dyed canvas, and is lined with pillow ticking.

It is hand sewn using waxed linen thread, and has three buttons made of the cross section of a deer antler.

The buttonholes are finished using the same waxed linen thread as the rest of the bag.

The mottled color is caused by letting the bag sit unstirred in the walnut dye, and because there was too much material in the dye bath at one time. When it was initially removed from the dye bath, I considered re-dying it, but after looking at it a bit, I decided that I liked the effect, so I fixed it in the mordant and left it as is.

The strap is a piece of woven hemp that was dyed when I purchased it from Susan Wallace, of the Silver Shuttle.

The body of the bag can be made from whatever one has handy, whether it"s cotton canvas (appropriate for the southern colonies), linen canvas, hemp canvas, or even lighter materials like muslin or cotton ticking. It is not unknown for the bag to be made of leather, although it is definitely not a commonplace thing.

The stitching can likewise be done with a variety of different types of thread, although my best results have been when using linen thread (also available from Susan Wallace) that has been waxed with a cake of bee"s wax. This photograph shows the inside of the bag, and you can see how it was constructed.

The canvas and a piece of ticking were cut to the same size, and laid one on the other.

The material was folded (with the ticking to the outside) to the appropriate dimension for the bag I wanted to make, with enough material left to create the flap. The material was pinned to hold the positioning, and then the seam inside the mouth of the bag was sewn first, with the canvas folded upon itself to finish the mouth, and the ticking simply tucked into the overlap.

Once this hem is completed, it's simply a matter of sewing the two sides closed, starting at the bottom fold of the bag and sewing to the hem line at the mouth. Both pieces of fabric are sewn into the same hem, and a blanket stitch is used to stitch the seam and seal it from raveling at the same time.

The flap is then hemmed to finish it, starting at the mouth hem on one side and working around to the other side at the mouth hem.

In this photograph, you can see the finished flap from the inside, as well as the buttonholes that have been finished in it. Buttonholes are best done by first sewing the buttons on, and then cutting the holes to match the position of the buttons. This is, at least, how I did it. A real seamstress may do it differently, but I've never claimed to be able to sew.

The use of three buttons is most common, although there is nothing restricting you to three. I have seen a lot of bags with four buttons on them. There is also no standard type of button used. They can be of wood, bone, brass or whatever would fit your timeframe and locale best.

As can be observed from these two photographs, a mouse viciously attacked and mutilated my poor haversack, and I therefore had to render a patch befitting the time frame. I used a piece of the same dyed canvas for the outside patch, and a piece of muslin for the inside. At least in my opinion, it works rather well.

Lastly, I'll include this photograph of the back of the finished bag so you can see how the strap is attached. The ends of the strap material have been doubled to form a relatively square section of material, which is then sewn to the back of the bag. I've stitched around the four sides of the square, and then sewn an X across the middle to strengthen the attachment.

Sewing it in this manner fully reinforces the connection between bag and strap, and it also seals the end of the woven strap to prevent it's unraveling.

Keep in mind that the haversack shouldn't hang too low, or it becomes more of an obstacle than a help. It should be worn just low enough so that the elbow can hold the bag firmly against the side. If worn any lower, the bag can bounce around if you have to run, and it is easy to get branches and other unwanted objects through the strap and between you and the bag. Briars caught in this manner will teach you why one doesn't want to wear the bag too low, as will being clotheslined by your haversack strap caught on a limb.

This is a great first project for someone just starting in the hobby, and is something that can be used by anyone, during any period of time that we portray. Just make it fit your station in life. A Dandy would probably not carry a haversack unless he were dressed down for a trip in the wilderness, and a townie would probably carry a bit more refined bag than a frontiersman or longhunter. People with easy access to merchants and traders might have pewter or brass buttons on their bag, where someone on the frontier might use a relatively crude wooden button or antler buttons.