Man's Art: Bags for Messengers
New York Times, August 4, 1985
A street hatch opens onto a steep well of crooked stairs. Below, large
spools of colored canvas lean against old tables and sewing machines,
while fluorescent lights vie for ceiling space with huge pipes.
Scissors and awls lie about and pictures of schooners line the walls.
This is the underground shop of Frank Martini, the 76-year-old owner
and sole employee of the Globe Canvas Company at 177 Mott Street. A
sail maker by trade, he began making bicycle messenger bags 20 years
ago. He has sold them wholesale to the more than 50 bike messenger
services in New York ever since. No one else makes messenger bags,
although some have tried.
"Everybody gets them from him," said Glen Janus, a spokesman for
Streetwise, a messenger service that has used the bags throughout its
10 years of business. "He's a legend
While Mr. Martini labors below ground, .his work hugs the backs of
speeding cyclists above who appreciate how the bag conforms to odd-size
parcels, adjusts to unevenly weighted loads and endures heavy rains.
Wearing his bag over his shoulder, Giovanni Headley, a veteran
messenger, said. 'If you take good care of it, it will take good care
Bag making, which began with a request from one of the first bicycle
messenger services 20 years ago, has taken the place of sails and boat
work as Mr. Martini's regular business. Though he has received orders
from Airborne Air Freight, the people who past subway advertisements
and Columbia Pictures, the bags are almost the exclusive domain of
"These kids need bags." Mr. Martini says. "Without a bag these kids
can't go to work."
Many messenger companies either buy the bags in bulk or have their
messengers buy them from Mr. Martini. Some companies will hire only
messengers who have their own bags.
"If I sell them to stores, they'll charge them $30 or $40." Mr. Martini
says. "That's highway robbery." Bags bought from him cost $20, a price
that reflects the sympathy he frequently shows his young clientele.
"Most of their work goes toward tuition money," he says. "I like that."
Bag making is a study in fluid and frenzied craftsmanship. Mr. Martini,
slicing and sewing, can whip through several bags in about 20 minutes,
stopping only to curse ancient sewing machines that cannot keep up with
The canvas is cut into sides. Then tossing rulers out of his way and
shoving a large L-shaped table against one of several sewing machines.
Mr. Martini attaches a Velcro strip, the first seal, and, as a second
seal, two buckles with straps. In short order, he fastens inner pocket,
flap and shoulder strap. Every stitch is reinforced, often as many as
"There isn't much handwork done anymore," he says, looking at the
finished bags. "Everything's done by machines. I don't need them."
With all his success, Mr. Martini's bag making will always be a distant
second in his heart to sail making, a skill he acquired as a young
apprentice. New York's sail-making industry became increasingly
mechanized after World War II. Mr. Martini tried to run his own
company, but business was too slow and, after a few years, he was
forced to move to his present location "down in the hole," where he
misses his windows and the space to lay out sails.
Mr. Martini was born in 1909 in Jersey City, where he now lives. He
grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Hoboken. "I lived right across
from where Sinatra lived at Fourth and Monroe," he says, adding that
they frequented the same pool hall, Turk's Palace, until the singer's
"I used to pal around with a guy who worked over at the Brooklyn Navy
Yard," he says. In 1940, Mr. Martini applied for work there.
He was thrown a ring, a rope and five pounds of canvas without being
told what to do. "I'm no dummy," he says, recalling how he set to
making holes and sewing in the rope to make the sail. "I did it for two
days," he said, "and nobody paid attention to me.''
He got a job on the layout floor, where the "City Islanders clique," as
he calls them, would sit on their drawings to keep him from learning
design. One night he began examining the pipe work on his water bailer.
Carefully he measured it, cut out matching triangular shapes on paper
and glued them together. The model was exact. "That's when I figured
out triangulation," he says, recalling his foolproof system of
measurement crucial to sail making.
Mr. Martini has seen many canvas products and their industries come and
go like the truck covers he used to make and rope spun sails of
Egyptian cotton. Years ago, he made tents for the now defunct Palisades
Amusement Park. He is still a member of the National Showmen's
Association. Now, In addition to bags, he makes tents for the San
Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and sukkahs for synagogues in the
fall. But messenger bags, in demand years round, account for the brunt
of his business.
Mr. Martini does not discuss the future of his bag business, His wife
Margie, died seven years ago and though he has three grown children
none want to continue the business. So, how much longer will he make
his famous bags?
"I don't know, until I decide to quit I guess," he says. "If I stayed
home and watched TV, I'd go nuts."
More information on messenger
bag history from the IFBMA