Speaking of Antiquing – July 2016

If you were to travel in the 18th century, you would most likely go by sea, for months at a time. You would pack your belongings in a very large trunk. Trunks were very heavy, made of wood, metal and leather, with a domed or flat top. The wood inside was adorned with fabric or floral paper. Women’s clothing had metal hoops and bone “structures,” so much of the room in the trunk was taken up with just two or three dresses and some shoes.

Trunks also contained a lidded box made of a light wood or heavy paper that would fit into the top, held in place by a wooden rail. This box was for small items that you would want to find quickly, such as poetry books, handkerchiefs, stockings, shawls, and jewelry. Large trunks became cumbersome as rail travel, as well as ship travel, became more common in the 19th century. The rich wanted to travel in-style and Louis Vuitton made a name for himself building custom cargo cases for the upper crust in Europe. Vuitton saw his opportunity and opened his store in Paris in 1854, introducing the first stackable, flat-topped trunk covered with his signature gray canvas. The trunks were lightweight and airtight. A status symbol was created. Later, after Louis’ death, his son Georges introduced the lighter canvas with the LV pattern that remains to this day.

“Packers” or steamer trunks were redesigned to stand vertically. They held locking drawers and compartments on one side and open space with wooden hangers for clothing on the other side. These cases were luxuriously made and were small enough to fit under the bed of a stateroom.

Hermes began making smaller wooden framed cases covered in fine leathers such as alligator, crocodile, sealskin, ostrich, calf, and walrus. He popularized the small hand-carry bags for railroad travel. Prada and Gucci followed suit in the 1920s and made even smaller bags that we know today as handbags.

During the Depression, Sol Koffler started American Luggage Works in Rhode Island. He produced lightweight, simple wooden framed cases that sold for $1. He named his case the “American Tourister.” They were quite popular and by WWII he sold four styles, eight sizes in four colors. They featured fabric linings and zippered pockets.

The Shwayder Company of Colorado also made sturdy travel cases. They advertised with five large men standing on a case that they named Samson. The weight was nearly 1000 pounds and this ad caused a sensation. They later changed their company name to reflect the success of that ad. Becoming known as the “Samsonite Company,” they continued to produce quality suitcases in mid-century America that are sought-after by collectors and decorators.

With the popularity of automobile and air travel, space restrictions required travel cases to become smaller and lighter. The country was on the move, and so was luggage. In the 1970’s, wheels and pull straps were added to suitcases for convenience of pulling rather than carrying. This was slow to take hold, but now it is most rare to see someone carrying a suitcase. But if you do, hopefully it’s a vintage piece that will garner many compliments.