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  • The Story of the Gladstone Bag
  • Post author
    Abner Holroyd

The Story of the Gladstone Bag

The Story of the Gladstone Bag
The Gladstone bad has become one of the most iconic bag designs of the last two hundred years and in Victorian times it was the most common bag used when travelling. Nowadays, it’s a piece that's synonymous with doctors and physicians, it’s seen as their bag of choice, but how did it come to be this way?
Today, we take a look at the history of the Gladstone bag to see where it all began, and how it became a symbol of the medical profession.

The First Gladstone Bag

Gladstone bags have been around since the 1800’s. In fact, the first ever bag of this variety was invented right at the end of the century. The creator was J G Beard, a leather designer with a shop in Westminster. Many people speculate that the G in his name stands for Gladstone, which is how the bag was named.

 Contrary to this, he actually named the bag after William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), a British statesman of the Liberal Party. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served for twelve years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894. A typical Victorian he loved his tea and is attributed with the quote:

 If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; If you are depressed, it will cheer you; If you are excited, it will calm you.

 The main idea of the design was to create something strong and sturdy, which could be split into two different compartments. Back then, it was made entirely out of leather, which remains the most popular material to this day. As time progressed, different types of Gladstone bag were created in many other fabrics and its design eventually led to the development of the suitcase.

Early Gladstone Bag

An early Gladstone Bag made from Ox Leather (Photo Courtesy of puuikibeach)

Gladstone Bag

A modern version of the Gladstone Bag - The overall design remains true to the original and has become a classic British design icon. 

The Original Purpose of the Gladstone Bag

It may surprise you to know that the Gladstone bag was never intended to be used by doctors or other medical professionals. Instead, it was designed for travel. This comes from the prime minister it was named after, he was known for travelling around the world a lot, and J G Beard took inspiration from this when naming his invention. He originally intended it to be used as a carry case for important documents and travel items.

For many years, people would travel around the world with a Gladstone bag as their only piece of luggage. Due to the rigid frame, it provided far better protection than any other bags that were currently out there. It closed at the top too, which stopped items from falling out. Soon, people realised they needed more space than they could get from a Gladstone bag, and so suitcases slowly took over as the bag of choice when travelling. A trend which rapidly took off when air travel became more common.

Nevertheless, this bag soon became something of a fashion icon around the world. This was in part due to multiple references in literature and film. The famous Oscar Wilde referenced it in the film The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it was even written about in Sherlock Holmes novels. Slowly but surely, this bag gained lots of coverage and was marketed as a bag of style you could carry many different valuable items in.

The Gladstone Bag and Doctors

So, how did this bag go from being a fashionable travel accessory to a highly practical tool for doctors? In essence, it all came from the bag's design. As mentioned, it was made entirely out of leather, was designed to be strong and durable, and came with a clip at the top to fully seal off the bag. Not only that, but there were two separate compartments, providing ample storage for multiple things. Many doctors liked to store patient notes in one compartment, and then medication and other things in another. So, if something spilt in the compartment with all your tools and medication, then it wouldn’t ruin any of the notes.

Another feature of this bag that made it great for doctors was the fact it could stand up on its own and remain opened due to its internal metal frame. You could unclip the bag, and easily reach in and out to get what you needed, without it falling over or crumpling in a heap or having to open and close it every time.

Gladstone Bag

Overall, it was the perfect solution for any doctor’s needs. Now, there was a bag to put lots of different pieces of medical equipment in and protect them as you carried them around. Also, throughout the early 20th century and late 19th century, it was rare that people would go and see a doctor. More often than not, the doctor would come and see you. This made the need for a carry bag of sorts even more important.

Gladstone Bag locking clip

These days, Gladstone bags are still widely used by doctors and physicians, though the design has been altered slightly. You can get some that are specifically made for the trade, and include additional compartments inside to separate different tools, etc.

Different Styles of Gladstone Bags

The original Gladstone bag has definitely changed a bit over the years. Nowadays, you can get them in different sizes, with more pouches and compartments, and wider openings, etc. There are even some that seem to be designed more as document holders than traditional bags, and others that are essentially large holdalls, but the overall design remains true to the original and has become a classic British design icon.

When it comes to the materials used in modern design, leather is still the most sought after. One of the key features of a Gladstone bag is its leather look. It creates a timeless quality, while also providing a more professional look for doctor’s keen to keep up appearances. You can find these bags in different shades of leather, with the most popular being brown, black, burgundy, and red.

As for the other fabrics, there are plenty of canvas Gladstone bags on the market today. These are more widely used by travelers, or to carry around non-important things in. Likewise, you can get polyester and cotton Gladstone bags as well, which are often used for the same reasons.

For a doctor, it’s hard to look past leather as it just provides that extra protection and sturdiness. It helps the bag keep its shape, stopping it from falling over and causing all your tools and notes to get jumbled up.

Giotto Gladstone Bag


Now you know the history of one of the world’s most iconic bags. It started off as a fashionable travel accessory, and then grew to become a highly practical bag for people in many professions. Soon, doctors started using them more and more, to the point where they are often referred to as ‘doctors bags’. They’re a symbol of the profession and are still highly popular to this very day. A good quality leather Gladstone bag will become a hard-working partner and lifelong companion.


Abner x

  • Post author
    Abner Holroyd

Comments on this post (1)

  • Sep 02, 2018

    I wonder if you are able to say if there’s any truth in the notion that the first doctor to use the Gladstone Bag as a doctor’s bag was one Dr Abernethy, in conjunction with a chemist friend, Peter MacFarlane, in the 1870’s? It’s sometimes called an Abertheny bag, isn’t it?

    — Beatrice

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