The History of Luggage

Turns out there’s some really neat historical tidbits that can be gleaned from cutting hundreds of circles into boxes made from the last 120 years! We plan on adding historical information whenever we find worthwhile material – here’s so far…

suit·case

noun \ˈsüt-ˌkās\

: a large case that you use to carry your clothing and belongings when you are traveling

baggage

/ˈbæɡɪdʒ/

noun

  1. suitcases, bags, etc, packed for a journey; luggage
  2. (mainly US & Canadian) ( as modifier): baggage car

A suitcase is a general term for a distinguishable form of luggage. It is often a somewhat flat, rectangular-shaped bag with rounded/square corners, either metal, hard plastic or made of cloth, vinyl or leather that more or less retains its shape. It has a carrying handle on one side and is used mainly for transporting clothes and other possessions during trips. It opens on hinges like a door. Suitcases lock with keys or a combination.

  • Portable, carry-around suitcases with hinges and latches have only existed since the early 1800’s and have been in popular use since the mid-19th century.  They have evolved with manufacturing methods and materials as much as changes in purpose and use.

 

  • Historically the wealthy had servants to handle their massive travel trunks, steamers and travelling wardrobes called “suit cases” – which is the origin of the word we now use.  Whole wardrobes including cosmetics, numerous changes of clothes and personal items went in cabin-grade trunks while less day-to-day items were stored in large trunks below deck  – and all of it was handled by “the help”.

 

  • If you were relocating to the new world or across a continent you would pack the family goods and valuables in big rugged hand-made boxes with sturdy side handles, and let someone else do the heavy lifting.  For common folk the reality was when you “packed your bags” it was with little more than what you could put in saddle bags, carry on your person or what little you could afford to move in trunks. It seems this was the origin of the phrase “you can’t take it with you”.

 

  • Travel in these times was generally for more serious reasons than holidaying.  Families were fleeing oppression or making huge life decisions as they tried to find greener pastures.  Since the 1950s, the main use of luggage is to bring your “stuff”, as George Carlin called it, to your holiday destination.

 

  • Regardless of size, most trunks that have survived from between the mid-1800s and the early 1920s when they were last popular are of very heavy construction. The locks were real, the structure solid and the sides are thick. It was fairly common to use tin & iron sheathing to cover the bottom…or the entire case.

  • The first hand-carried personal cases were wood boxes with protective coverings and corner-guards. When train and ship travel became the common long-haul methods of travel, a need for personal bags that one person could carry arose and craftsmen started building moderate-sized boxes with hinged openings and covered exteriors of stretched hides or woven wool.  They developed locks, hinges, straps and latches…a handle on top and the suitcase was born.

  • Very early bags such as the ‘gladstone’ (common ‘doctor’s bag) were soft-sided with thick leather or layers of material — opening at the top.  It is fairly standard with later versions to have one side supported with thin wood as one of the material layers.

 

  • Louis Vuitton followed by son George Vuitton and subsequent generations – famous upscale Parisien fashion house founded a storefront in France in the 1880s selling luggage’ since the 1850s. Louis came to prominence after being the travel packer for Josephine, of Napolean III infamy, and having built her a set of luggage using canvas for an exterior.  He/They are also responsible for changing the shape of trunks to a flat top for stacking, as cross-ocean and rail travel was becoming more common with the emergence of the middle class. The brand exists today and for six consecutive recent years (2006–2012), Louis Vuitton has been named the world’s most valuable luxury brand.

 

  • Round-lid trunks preceded flat-top trunks and unless they are replicated, generally date up to 1860s. The round lids were intended to make water run off as trunks in these days were more exposed to the elements when travelling.

 

  • While many original cases had leather or hide stretched to protect the exterior, other materials came into use with time and invention. Materials such as wool carpet were used in the luxurious “carpet bags” used by Yankee profiteers travelling to the south in the exploitation years following the Civil War (1860-80s).  Another version of the carpetbag was in use by poorer travellers who would carry their possessions during the day and use the bag as a blanket at night.

  • Medium sized trunks (less than 1′ high, 3′ across and 2′ deep) are somewhat common in the mid-west U.S. And Canadian prairies. The oldest ones typically date late 1800s and were used by migrant farm workers from Europe and Easteners taking the trek West to new lands and opportunity. In the dirty thirties a man would pack everything he needed in the world, or everything he had anyway, and keep moving around looking for work.

 

  • Samsonite is the most well-known of suitcase makers and traditionally one of the most innovative. It was founded in Denver in 1910 by a devout suitcase salesman named Jesse Shwayder who named one of his initial cases Samson after the Biblical strongman, and began using the trademark Samsonite in 1941. The company changed its name to Samsonite in 1966, just a few years after they brought Lego blocks to the U.S. Market. The Shwayders sold to Beatrice Foods in 1973 and it’s changed hands a number of times since.

 

  • While the exteriors were always covered for protection, only since the about the 1920s did suitcases have ‘layers’ of materials for interiors. There’s nothing like cutting a hole in one to give us a perspective on age and materials and how it fit into manufacturing history. Development of the exterior protective wrap has origins of leather or metal-sheeting.  Then some mixed use of wool or other woven early textiles appeared – eventually lending itself to myriad plastics, rubbers and chemical combinations used in today’s processes.  Light weight and to some extent durability is what drives the exterior construction material.

 

 

  • Accurately dating a suitcase or trunk is a matter of recognizing the materials used for the exterior sheath or the interior layers. The materials, the hardware, even the stitching is a testimony to the manufacturing technology of the time.  Some of the world’s greatest manufacturing innovations arose during WWI & II and each had a period of vast growth and R&D that followed.  A good example of this is that we have a luggage set made by Good Year in the late 40s as they looked for new uses for their rubber supply and manufacturing facilities after supplying to the western militia for years.

 

  • The earliest cases we’ve come across with finished cloth interior are late 20s early 1930s.  Surely higher-end makers did it before that period – it just wasn’t in the common-man’s box.  Cabin trunks were probably the first to have cloth pockets and soft material interiors as premier products were very elaborate and well-appointed. Before the cloth interiors the cases were often lined with what looks like wallpaper — ugly stuff like your great-aunty’s kitchen walls.

 

  • The wood constructed suitcases end somewhere in the late 1950s, very early 60s, giving way to metal frames and plastic/composite shells. We’ll often find newsprint instead of cardboard glued to the wood as the first interior layer in cases starting in the 1930s with this practice ending in the’50s. After 1955 the soft layer was usually some plastic/rubber/foam mix in sheets. The glues and adhesives changed at that point in time, too, making the layers impossible to separate.

  • “Soft-sided” cases became popular in the 80s with the added strength composites found in modern textiles and now make up over 90% of available luggage. Sucks for speakers and protecting your stuff from taking a kicking by the luggage handlers.

  • Although early trunks sometimes had bottom-mounted wheels/casters, it did not appear on hand-carried luggage – or at least as a patent, anyway – until the 1970s. We have the long haul in bigger and bigger airports to thank for that.

  • The size and shape of luggage has followed transportation methods more than any other indicator. Heavily-constructed, massive trunks eventually turned into the lightweight, rollaround checked and carry-on bags  as the purpose changed and we progressed from horse-drawn vehicles, trains, ships to aircraft travel and gym bags in mini-vans.

  • With a few exceptions, from the 1930s to the 1970s luggage was “gender specific”. Since then there’s unisex bags covering neutral colours and styles. Before the 1920s the materials were often natural browns, blues and blacks and distinction was more wealth-related – were you using a crate or a Vuitton steamer? Gender indicators will include colours, size and interior style and function. The times they are a changin’, said Bob.

  • Locks and hardware can be incredibly sophisticated and sturdy – especially on the early trunks and steamers. This sturdiness then seems to wane at the advent of automobile travel, perhaps as there was less of a need to lock everything tight when it was being carried from your trunk to your home or hotel room and rarely out of your sight.  The overall ruggedness returned to better construction again in the 1970’s when the airlines started to handle more luggage. If you think about it, most pre-1970 luggage has never seen air travel.

  • For the most part, the simple boxes and trunks from the early 1900s are in stark contrast to the elaborate luggage sets that came out of the 1970s and 80s when the western world was seeing economic growth like no other period. Matching cases, of various size and purpose are largely a product of this era of consumption – remember when airlines didn’t charge above regular rate for three bags and as much as you could carry on? Sets are more rare dating from the 50s and 60s and these are usually higher-calibre product.

  • Suitcases sold in Canada from 1930 to 1970 were definitively Made in Canada — Carson, Langmuir, Traveller, Samsonite and others had plants here.   Manufacturing in the eastern Canadian cities in the mid-20th century was common and Montreal was big for textiles and garment-type industry in general.  Many Canadian pieces from this period originate in la belle province. Prior to that you likely showed up with your luggage from somewhere else — although there were trunk and bag makers in the New World since the early/mid 19th century.  Langmuir Trunks/Luggage of Toronto was a notable Canadian business that existed from 1858 to 1860.