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What is a Briefcase?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A briefcase is a portable case designed to carry documents, books, files, and other printed material, along with flat objects of a relatively small size. Briefcases have historically been used by lawyers to carry briefs on their way to court, explaining the name, although they are also carried by business people. Many businesspeople remember their first briefcases fondly, in fact, since the briefcase is such an important emblem in the business world.

The original briefcase was the satchel, a type of soft carry-all bag. In the 1800s, satchels began to evolve, with bag makers creating iron or wooden frames, turning satchels into cases. Cases can more effectively protect the documents inside, ensuring that nothing in the briefcase is rumpled or bent, and they can be more easy to secure against theft, as well. Essentially, a briefcase is a very shallow box which includes a handle to make it easy to carry.

Briefcases come in a wide range of styles and designs, and they are usually produced in muted colors so that they do not clash with the garments of the wearer. Many companies continue to produce leather briefcases, but it is also possible to find briefcases made from plastic and various metals. Metal briefcases are often designed to be extremely secure, ensuring that their contents cannot be stolen or damaged, and they are sometimes padded so that they can be used to protect electronic components in transit.

The handle on a briefcase is typically small, designed to be held in the hand, although some briefcases do have shoulder straps. In some cases, the handle may retract into the briefcase for aesthetic or practical reasons; a briefcase which lacks a handle is known as a portfolio. Portfolios tend to be larger, and they are designed to be carried tucked under the arm. They can be useful for transporting large format items like works of art.

Many office supply stores sell briefcases, with luxury versions being produced by companies which make luggage and other fine household goods. When picking out a briefcase, it's a good idea to think about the size of the documents which it will be used with, and considerations like style and weight might also be considered. If, for example, the owner of the briefcase wears a lot of silver jewelry, a briefcase with gold or copper-toned fittings might not be suitable.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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