During the upheavals of the American Civil War (1861-5) and the Reconstruction period (1865-77) that followed, the carpetbag became the symbol of a nation on the move. This cheap, hardwearing and capacious bag could be easily packed and carried, and was a ubiquitous sight at stagecoach halts, railway stations, and steamboat jetties as people fled the ravages of war or wandered in search of new opportunities.
Its appearance was a sure sign of a stranger in town, and during the Reconstruction the derogatory term ‘carpetbagger’ was used to describe a profiteer from the North who came to exploit the prostrate, post-bellum South.
As the name implies, carpetbags were constructed from odd bits used carpet stretched across a metal frame. Often made by saddlers, they could be sold for around a dollar. A commentator in the 1880s described the bag thus: ‘The old-fashioned carpetbag is still unsurpassed by any, where rough wear is the principal thing to be studies. Such a bag, if constructed of good Brussels carpeting and unquestionable workmanship, will last a lifetime, provided always that a substantial frame is used.’
Some of the more rough-and-ready carpetbags served a double purpose: unlatched and unfolded, they became a travel blanket, perfect for a long, cold night in a draughty railway carriage.
The bag of the opportunist though it may historically be, the carpetbag endures to this day. No longer made from carpet, it still retains the rich Oriental patterning of its forebear and is valued as a strong and stylish travel bag.