Anyone who reads Off The Cuff regularly knows that I am always thinking about bags in one way or another because men today need them more than ever. And for those of us who commute by bus or rail, like me, we need good bags.
This led to the idea of the Commuter and Dad Bag Test. Unlike some other tests out there, I did not concoct some elaborate rating scale with minute technical benchmarks. I am simply looking at the bag’s suitability for use in the real world. Is it something I will actually want to carry around all day? Is it user friendly and well designed? Can it carry a laptop and a baby bottle without making me nervous?
I have already tested several bags, which entails real life day-to-day usage. I’m using them for work, running errands and carrying stuff around. They are being dropped, stuffed, rained and occasionally stepped on. My scoring system is fairly simple: I’ll tell you what I think why I think it and give you an overview of each bag’s performance, pros and cons. I am happy to now present the first review.
The J. Peterman Counterfeit Mailbag
(US$398.00 / www.jpeterman.com)
This is the only leather bag in the test and also the only messenger bag style bag. It is modeled after the old mail carrier bags that lugged generations of correspondence across the United States. Like the original, it is designed to hang off your shoulder or be carried by the sturdy handle (a modern concession).
Its manufacturer, The J. Peterman Company, is a remarkable company in its own right. Based in Lexington, Kentucky, its founder and namesake, John Peterman, is something of a cult figure in the premium catalog world. For more than 20 years, his iconic “owner’s manuals” have made their way to one expectant mailbox after another. With impressionistic watercolor images and pithy short stories instead of bland product specs, each one is a treat for the eye.
The company may also sound familiar to fans of the TV show “Seinfeld,” which turned John Peterman into a pompous blowhard played with aplomb by actor John O’Hurley (ironically, a part owner of the company). He did such a wonderful job of creating a larger than life character that most viewers did not even realize it was based on a real person and an actual company.
Those familiar with J. Peterman are ardent fans who appreciate its unique offerings and worldly (and wordy) marketing approach. The Counterfeit Mailbag is an original J. Peterman product and one I have long admired – a personal note of thanks goes out to John Peterman for providing the bag for this test.
The day after it arrived, I loaded up and headed off to the office. I quickly lost track of the number of compliments I received by the time I headed home. It certainly has impact on people. Perhaps it is the obvious functionality in its DNA or the classic, simple styling of the thick yet supple leather, but something in this bag makes people like it.
Overall, I have to admit that this is not the ultimate commuter bag. It is not really designed for such a purpose, and actually that’s fine. This bag has so much personality and practical style that it’s almost unapologetic about its limitations. So, while I would recommend it as a great general purpose bag, using it in a commuter-specific role is not what it’s cut out for.
There is one giant open compartment which makes up 90% of the bag and a large exterior zippered pocket in front. This is all covered by an enormous leather flap. The large open pocket has a simple yet ingenious leather tab that buttons on to a brass stud used to keep the pocket pulled closed.
Design-wise, the large main compartment provides no organizational features; it’s just a big space that allows things to move around and get lost. Also, because of the bag’s design – it has a wide structured bottom and a flexible opening that is pulled closed via the tab – stuff naturally gets pushed out of place. For example, although my laptop had plenty of room in the bag, it also quickly shifted around and caused files and notebooks to slide to the bottom. With no additional interior pockets, my cell phone and Blackberry were quickly lost form view.
The zippered front pocket is quite large and slightly gusseted to allow for expansion. The zipper, as with all of the bag’s hardware, is top notch and sturdy. There are no pen loops or extra interior pockets so your smaller items will get jumbled a bit as well.
The sturdy leather shoulder strap is just that, a shoulder strap. Like the original, this bag is designed to be slung over one shoulder, not cross body. There is also a substantial padded leather handle, so it can be carried in business case fashion as well. Usually a perfunctory appendage on shoulder bags, this handle is wholly functional and well designed. Positioned at the center rear of the bag, it distributes weight fairly evenly, so it can be comfortably carried for long periods of time.
The Counterfeit Mailbag is perhaps my favorite overall bag. Neither a briefcase nor a messenger bag, it is actually the closest thing to man bag that I’ve come across. It is absolutely masculine and works quite well with a suit; just make sure to carry it by the handle so as to not mess up your jacket. At the same time the almost total lack of modern luggage engineering gives it a rugged, timeless appeal that works with a leather bomber and fedora. In fact, you are duly instructed to beat the heck out of it to help accelerate the aging process.
This is the kind of bag you want to carry around; it has unmistakable personality and a real sense of history and purpose to it. Just accept its organizational limitations and enjoy.