Thursday, March 7, 2024

Carpetbags and Portmanteaus by Zina Abbott

Originally, as people traveled, they carried knapsacks, bindles and other loose bags as they walked or rode horses. However, as travel and migration patterns expanded, people needed a means to pack a larger quantity of their belongings—something more portable than carrying large items in a wagon or cart.

By 1596, the Oxford English dictionary added the word “luggage.” The word meant “denoting inconveniently heavy baggage” and came from the verb “lug.” However, it was not until the 19th century that travel became prevalent enough that new means of carrying personal belongings—particularly on trains—began to make their debut.

In my most recent book, my heroine does ship some heavier things ahead using a small travel trunk instead of a shipping crate. However, she needed to be able to carry most of her belongings by herself in containers durable enough for travel, and suitable enough to protect her clothes and other items. She chose two.

1860s style carpetbag

The first item was a carpetbag—considered essential for any discerning female traveler.

 Made from carpet material, they came in a variety of colors from subdued to flamboyant. 

1850s carpetbag used by traveler from New Z

Some, made of leather, actually more closely resembled small portmanteaus.

In fact, carpetbags were widely used throughout the nineteenth century due to their relatively lighter weight, their durability, their relatively lower cost, their flexibility—which allowed its owner to stuff an unimaginable amount of clothing and personal items inside—and its ability to be locked, which provided a small measure of security from casual snoopers.


The second item she chose was a portmanteau. Similar to what many today think of as a suitcase, a portmanteau is defined as a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts. One did not lay it flat on one side and pull the top half up, as in suitcases developed at a later time. One set the bottom on a surface and pulled the two side halves open at the top—more like to today’s duffle bags.

Here is another definition from  Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State Associate Professor of American Literatures: “A portmanteau is an old-fashioned suitcase with a hinge in the middle that can hold equal amounts of luggage in its two storage compartments.”

Is a portmanteau the same as a valise? A valise is defined as “a small piece of luggage, usually made of leather, that can be carried by hand, used to hold clothing, toilet articles, etc.; suitcase; traveling bag.” Often, valises were cylindrical in shape. Although they could be carried by hand, they were originally designed to be carried behind the saddle of a horse. The operative word here is “small.” Generally, a valise was not as large as a portmanteau.

To see an example of a cylindrical valise from earlier times, please CLICK HERE


Here is an excerpt from Jocelyn’s Wedding Dilemma:

             Jocelyn jostled her carpetbag and the portmanteau outside—the portmanteau being wretchedly heavy due to her having packed her lap desk. She noticed the eastern sky already turning a faint gray. Still too dark to see clearly, she hoped her eyes adjusted enough to the dim light so she did not trip over her feet. Setting her baggage on the back stoop, she faced the house as she noiselessly eased the door closed.

            “Miss Wolcott? What are you doing out so early?”

            Upon hearing Homer’s soft voice behind her, Jocelyn jerked upright and grabbed the handrail on one side of the stoop to keep her balance. Licking her lips, she slowly turned and descended until she stood on the ground. “I was unaware you started your day this early, Mr. Cottingham.”

            “I seldom leave our apartment so soon. Mrs. Cottingham started boiling water for tea. However, she’s out of biscuits—the kind you call cookies. She sent me to the kitchen for the supper rolls left from last night plus a jar of jam to get us by until time for our breakfast.”

            “I see.” Jocelyn’s stomach rumbled. That does sound good. “Please don’t let me keep you. I’ll….um…”

            “It appears you plan to travel somewhere, Miss.” Homer studied the carpetbag and portmanteau.

            “Yes. I decided on a surprise visit to…family.” Jocelyn bit her lip. She knew her words were deceitful, yet not exactly a lie. At least, in a week or ten days, they would be truth.


Jocelyn’s Wedding Dilemma is now available for sale and at no additional cost with Kindle Unlimited. To find the book description and purchase options, please CLICK HERE






Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1876, No. 1348 Toilettes de Mme Morison, RP-P-2009-3650

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