My Old Portmanteau

This morning, as we drove along the back road that leads into town, we saw three children waiting for the school bus. One of them was sitting down reading a book. I thought at first he was sitting on his school bag, but he wasn’t. He was sitting on a rock.

“I don’t suppose modern school bags are much good for sitting on,” I remarked to the girls. “They’re not like my old port.”


“When I was a girl living in Queensland, all the school kids had small suitcases called ports.”

Yes, ports were great for sitting on: portable seats. We could stand on them too. We could even carry things in them. 

Inside my port was my yellow plastic (slightly mouldy) raincoat which glued itself to my body every time I wore it in the muggy tropical rain. 

My port also held my plastic drink bottle with a screw-on lid and matching cup. My mother would fill this bottle with cordial and pop it into the freezer overnight. Even on the hottest of Queensland days, I always had a cold drink for my lunch.

I also had a wooden pencil case with a top that slid to one side, along grooves. 

Yes, ports were good for carrying everything… except books. Books were far too heavy. Ports stuffed with books made our arms drop off. Unless the handles dropped off first.

Ports went out of fashion a long time ago: banned, a health risk for children. Who wants to end up with only one arm, or one arm longer than the other? Ports are no longer found in schools. Instead they can be found on display in museums. There’s one in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, though it’s not described as a port. It’s been labelled a suitcase. Could port be a Queensland word? No, apparently not. I’ve just heard a New South Wales friend owned a port as well.

I always find it disconcerting when I see items I’ve used as a child in a museum.

“Look, girls! I had one of those as a child.”

“You did?” The girls look at me with new eyes. Museums are full of old stuff.  Suddenly I feel old too.

PS: Where does the word port come from? I found this on Wikipedia:

A portmanteau is a piece of luggage, usually made of leather and opening into two equal parts. Some were large, upright, and hinged at the back and enabled hanging up clothes in one half,[1] while others are much smaller bags (such as Gladstone bags) with two equally sized compartments.[2] The word comes from the French word portemanteau (from porter meaning “to carry” and manteau meaning “coat”),[3][4] which nowadays means a coat rack but was in the past also used to refer to a traveling case or bag for clothes.

Port… portmanteau… A piece of luggage intended to carry my raincoat. Now I know. And so do you!

I wonder if you remember what kind of school bag you had as a child. Perhaps you had a portmanteau too!

The Angels of Abbey Creek

Look what Gemma-Rose found in the port: My children’s novel, The Angels of Abbey Creek!

You can also find me on my Stories of an Unschooling Family Facebook page!


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  1. Reply

    I just slipped into a time capsule…

    When I was a child, "grownups" had suitcases that enabled hanging up clothes in one half – the other half was for folded items. I always thought that rather magical and amazing, and never got to use one. I never traveled further than to Grandma's farm 30 miles away.

    Now I'm beginning to think that I ought to BE in a museum.

    This is the first time I've ever heard the word port (for a suitcase). I carried "book satchels" in my early days of school here in the USA; normally those were fabric (usually plaid), trimmed in leather. The Sisters who taught us called them satchels long after we'd "advanced" to more modern words – like bookbags. Then we refused to carry them, and preferred to have our books and supplies dropping all over. Because we were "cool," that's why.

    Thank you for such an enjoyable post!

    1. Reply


      Oh I always wanted a satchel! Sometimes I see leather stachels at the markets and my heart yearns for one, but they are expensive. They are crafted beautifully from wonderfully smelling leather, and are now works of art, rather than everyday school book carriers.

      Being cool is rather inconvenient at times! How much easier it would have been to carry everything in a proper bag. I've seen teenagers in movies, carrying piles of books held together by a strap. Is that an American idea?

      I remember when you wrote a post about old jewellery or rather, jewellery of days gone by (when we were younger!) Visiting the time capsule is a lot of fun, isn't it? We shall have to do this again some time!

    • Chris
    • November 25, 2014

    Just beautiful…the port and the story!

    My old schoolbag was a red plaid-ish bookbag that as part plastic and part flannel I know there's a pic of me somewhere on my first day of first grade at Our Lady of Lourdes in Queens, NY wearing my navy and grey plaid uniform! No idea where the bag is though!
    Love that you say it's disconcerting to find a childhood item in a museum! What a hoot! I imagine I'd feel the same…never saw any of my stuff there….but I guess I will stumble on one someday…. Now I do have a Barbie thermos! I't's one of those waaaaay old ones with the cup that screws back in place as the thermos lid??. I brought that back and forth to school forever. I STILL have it in my own kitchen! I'll bet that's on display somewhere….at the very least a Barbie-Ken museum!!

    Great post, my friend….. I'll be in touch!!

    1. Reply


      You must be much younger than me if you've never seen any of your childhood items in the museum! I don't have a Barbie thermos but I have some of my old Barbies and their clothes. The girls played with them, though I think they preferred the newer fancier ones! You should hang on to your thermos. It might be valuable one day. You could donate it to a museum!

      It's lovely to catch up with you Chris. I enjoyed your recent book review of Lisa Hendey's book. (I put it on my wish list.) I can't remember why I didn't stop to tell you. I probably clicked straight to the book and didn't come back! Anyway, it was a great review.

  2. Reply

    The daddy had a suitcase that looked like your port. I thought it was so cool. In 5th grade, I had the cutest plastic plaid satchel to carry my books and homework to and from school. I finally gave in and threw it away this summer. Now, I have no idea where I put the report cards and other school memories that were in the bag.

    Manual typewriters in exhibits are what crack me up. I don't think my fingers are strong enough to strike on the keys.

    1. Reply


      Another plaid satchel! You kept it for a long time. I'm like that: reluctant to throw memories away. I hope you find your report cards and other stuff.

      Manual typewriters… I remember being very excited when we bought a secondhand typewriter. The kids loved typing their stories on it. This was in the days before we had a computer.

      Yesterday, someone told me about an iPad app developed by Tom Hanks, that mimics a typewriter.

      " …Hanx Writer: For iPad users who are nostalgic for the clickety-clack of keystrokes and "ding!" of the carriage return, Hanx Writer will type and print documents just like an old manual typewriter. The design of the app, which Hanks created with the developer Hitcents, was based on typewriters from Hanks' own collection."

      Susie, the perfect app for you! Nice and gentle on your fingers but it sounds like a typewriter! Of course, you need to have an iPad. (I don't have one.)

    2. Reply


      Oh white-out! A marvelous invention. I can't remember what we did before it was invented!

    3. Reply

      Thanks for the link, Sue. I don't have an iPad, but it does make me want to take out the portable typewriter I had as a teenager to hear it ding at the end. I definitely liked the invention of white-out and those white strips that you clicked on to magically make your errors disappear.

    • Vicky
    • November 25, 2014

    I don't remember calling them ports, Sue, but I do remember seeing girls sitting on them at bus stops. My school bag was a backpack version. It wasn't very good for sitting on. When we went to England, I remember being surprised that the girls carried their books in shopping bags and that a lot of schools didn't have a school uniform.

    My favourite school bag was a worn, leather satchel. I've seen aged versions in Typo so I guess they're back in fashion. I was almost tempted to buy myself one 🙂

    1. Reply


      A backpack version is a much better idea, even though they are not so good for sitting on! I'd forgotten about the shopping bag school bags.

      Another satchel! I just had a look at the Typo website. (I hadn't heard of it before.) Yes! They have satchels. They're not that expensive either. i think I'd be tempted to buy one too. Perhaps we could put one on our Christmas or birthday wish lists!

  3. Reply

    When I was little, I think we just carried the books, and we had metal lunchboxes with the little thermos with the lid that turned into a cup. Around middle school we used backpacks,

    My only context for portmanteau was portmanteau words: two words smooshed into a new word (like smoke + fog=smog)! I had heard it was a type of furniture or luggage, and had somehow pictured a wardrobe (terribly awkward on the way to school!).

    And now another fairly ignorant question: what, exactly, is cordial? I thought it contained alcohol, like a liqueur, but it seems unlikely your mother would send you to school with that… 😀

    1. Reply


      My cordial container also had a lid that turned into a cup. I couldn't describe it properly when I was writing the post, but your description of your thermos is perfect!

      No, my mother didn't send me to school with an alcoholic drink! Cordial is a fruit flavoured drink. It comes as a concentrated liquid. Cordial is added to a glass and then topped up with water. Some cordials are more sugar than fruit and not very healthy. (I bet some don't even contain real fruit.) Cordial is cheap and goes a long way so I guess that's why it's popular. I guess most fruit juices have too much sugar in them as well. Water is definitely a better option but I don't remember kids drinking much water when I was a child. Times change!

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