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The Story Of The Top Frame Briefcase

The doctor's bag, the surgeon’s bag, the top frame briefcase, the Dulles bag.

These are some of the names used to describe a very traditional English bag that uses a hinged metal frame at the top, which opens wide to accept large items.


top frame briefcase
The Doctor's bag, still made today by Alfred Dunhill in London

Historically, this bag has been very popular in the medical industry due to it's durable practicality.

Perfect then, if you are a traveling doctor making house calls, where you wish to have a smart looking bag that also makes short work of retrieving all your medical apparatus and medicines.


surgeon's bag, doctor's bag, leather kit bag
Doctors making house calls carrying the top frame bag
leather doctors bag

But far from being designed for the medical industry alone, the top frame briefcase was based on the carpet bag of the early 1800’s.

carpet bag making
Antique top frame carpet bag courtesy of the MET museum

Women would commonly embroider the fabric themselves, then take the bag to a saddler who would add the leather handles and the metal frame to complete the bag.


A natural evolution progressed with the dawn of travel, when makers of saddlery began to see the opportunity to transfer their skills to bag, case and luggage making. Thus evolving the carpet bag concept into the luxurious all leather top frame bag we know and love today.


antique leather briefcase
A wealthy traveller and her top frame handbag (bottom of picture)

John Foster Dulles, the former US Secretary of State was a frequent user of the top frame case. Upon visiting Japan in the 50’s, the term ‘Dulles bag’ was coined by the Japanese after seeing him carry one.

I presume his outspoken opposition of the use of nuclear bombs on Japan made a good impression with them, especially as he supervised the re-independence of Japan after the war.

The style has since gone on to be quite popular with the craftsmen over there.

Dulles bag
John Foster Dulles arriving in Japan with his famous bag

The design is still made today all over the world from a number of leathers, but most commonly English bridle leather.

With the right leathers of suitable stiffness, no reinforcement is needed with the exception of very large or specialist versions using exotic skins.


It can be made with or without dividers depending on it's use, and it is still seen today carrying important documents.


post handle, dulles handle, D handle, leather handle
A 'post' handle. Commonly associated with the top frame. Image from the video course 'The Making Of A Post Handle'

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