A geologist working in the field needs a container for rocks specimens:

The collecting-bag may be in the form of a pouch to carry at the side, a knapsack, or a rucksack. If one is working afoot the former, when loaded with specimens, soon tires one's shoulder. A knapsack may be so arranged with straps and buckles that it may be readily converted into a bag to carry at the side - if one objects walking through town with a bag on his back.1

The United States Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879, some twenty years before the above statement, so I assume that the geologist was a known and not unusual profession.

Maybe carrying a knapsack would have been associated to illegal behaviors like the ones of burglar or tramp?

1JOHANNSEN, Albert. Manual of petrographic methods. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Incorporated, 1918. Available at archives.org

  • 4
    the image is that of a hobo
    – MCW
    Jul 20, 2021 at 17:57
  • 3
    Most likely belonging to a lower classes, that had to support themselves with manual labor, therefore sometimes going around with heavy load on the back. Gentleman would not need to carry such heavy load, therefore hand held bag would suffice, perhaps with walking stick in other hand.
    – rs.29
    Jul 20, 2021 at 18:40
  • 3
    Rambo had similar trouble much later than 1900... :-)
    – Luiz
    Jul 20, 2021 at 22:42

1 Answer 1


The difference appears to be in the respective "messages" conveyed.

"Carrying a bag on the side" was seen as carrying a bag "temporarily." That was consistent with "white collar" work such as "geology," (which then required and still requires a college degree). Another example is that of a physician.

"Carrying a bag on your back" in the early 1900s signified "carrying ALL your possessions. (This was no longer true beginning in the 1960s.) A person who carried "all his possessions" on his back was seen to be a poor "tramp" (homeless walker) or "hobo" (what we would now call a "migrant" farm worker).

  • 1
    A good answer, except that a hobo would stereotypically be seen as someone unable to find work, or perhaps actively avoiding it. Migrant farm workers tend to go between known jobs, as crops ripen in different areas.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 7, 2021 at 22:29
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    @jamesqf: Actually, the meaning of "hobo" changed over time. It's original, (post Civil War) meaning was "hoe boy," itinerant farm worker who carried hoes (and their possessions on a bag around the hoe, or on their backs. Later, it took on the connotation of "slacker," or even "bum."
    – Tom Au
    Sep 8, 2021 at 1:28

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