Thursday, June 6, 2024

Trunks and Steamers by Zina Abbott

 This is a continuation of the series on early luggage. You may find my first post titled “Carpetbags and Portmanteaus” written in March, 2024, by clicking HERE

Luggage in the mid-to-late nineteenth century meant some form of travel trunk. They were most commonly used for extended periods away from home or long trips abroad. Trunks, with their more rugged construction designed to hold up during travel, are different from lighter-weight chests, which were intended for storage.

Travel trunks were large and cumbersome boxes which, even when they were empty, could weigh more than a hundred pounds. Anyone wealthy enough to travel hired servants to move and load these trunks. Porters and bellhops bore the burden of moving them while travelers were in route. 

1890s trunk converts to a dresser

In the nineteenth century, trunks were often crafted with the best materials and designed to withstand the harsh conditions of early modes of travel. Steamships and stagecoaches were the main method of transport at the earlier time, followed by railroad. Trunks had to be exceptionally sturdy and heavy to withstand their journeys. They were decorated with leather and fine upholstery, cross sections and slates of painted wood, and heavy duty metal, such as brass, hinges and clasps, and leather coverings to resemble the style of furniture at the time. They often included personal inscriptions and manufacturer’s details.

Hat Box Trunk

However, all these materials that made trunks durable also made them heavy. Many trunks were so heavy and bulky that, in many cases, those traveling by stagecoach were usually not allowed to load their trunks onto the stagecoach. Stagecoach passengers with trunks were often were required to make arrangements with a freighting company to transport the trunks and steamers separately. That was why many such travelers also carried necessary items in a carpetbag or portmanteau, which could be loaded onto a stagecoach.

Long-distance travel, especially before the days of the railroads, was usually an involved process. In instances where an individual or family emigrated across the ocean to a new country, they brought everything of value packed in their trunks.

Saratoga Trunk

Most early trunks were designed with a rounded or dome-shaped top—probably for stability and durability to withstand other heavy items being piled on top. Trunk styles including barrel-tops and Saratoga steamer trunks, often included elaborate tray systems for transporting and storing a full range of items.

There were many styles of trunks such as, Jenny Lind, Saratoga, monitor, steamer or cabin, barrel-staves, octagon or bevel-top, wardrobe, dome-top, barrel-top, wall trunks, and full dresser trunks. These differing styles often only lasted for a decade or two.

Steamers differed from other trunks in order to comply with steamship regulations. Typically, they were fourteen inches tall with flat to slightly rounded tops so they could be tightly stacked within the ship’s berth during transport.

Top quality steamer trunks designed for travel on steamships were made of wood and leather. They often had a heavy iron base to prevent the trunk from being crushed while sliding around among other heavy trunks. They were also covered in canvas, leather, patterned paper, and often tree sap to make them as waterproof as possible as a protection against leaky ships.

Cabin Trunk

Cabin trunks were smaller versions of steamer trunks. Designed with low profile tops to fit under seats, they were considered the carry-on luggage of the time. 

Cabin trunks often included several compartments to store valuables that would otherwise be kept in the main luggage hold and subject to theft or damage.

One producer of high-end luggage was Louis Vuitton of Paris, France. He made a name for himself in the mid-1850s by introducing his slat trunk, considered a pioneering design. Although he died in 1892, his trunks are considered valuable collectors’ items.

Louis Vuitton steamer trunk

His trunks were covered in canvas sheathing, held well-designed drawers and had a flat top that made stacking much easier. This was a departure from the typical travel trunks of the day, which had rounded tops.

Seward Trunk Company factory in Petersburg, Virginia

Seward Trunk Company was founded in 1878 in Petersburg, Virginia. It was once the largest manufacturer of steamers, trunks, footlockers, and other luggage in the United States. The original company has gone through a few buyouts and consolidations. The original factory was put on the National Register of Historic Places, but it burned to the ground in 2018.

The use of classic trunks for luggage was widespread through the first two decades of the twentieth century but began to fade in popularity thereafter in favor of the modern suitcase.

Footlockers were a form of trunk used by the military. I still have my father’s old footlocker from his years in the Army Air Corps/U.S. Air Force. Although lighter weight than the old heavy wooden trunks of the nineteenth century, I would not want to carry it far. It is quite a departure from the old knapsacks and haversacks carried by soldiers in the nineteenth century, which I featured last month. You may find that post by clicking HERE


I first wrote about travel trunks in Jocelyn's Wedding Dilemma, my book in The Matchmaker and the Mother-in-Law series. To find the book description and purchase options for both ebook and paperback, please CLICK HERE




My heroine in Florence's Good Deed also traveled. Although she only carried a carpetbag, her beautiful cover shows several examples of early luggage. To find the book description and purchase options for both ebook and paperback, please CLICK HERE





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