Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Suitcases and the Shwayders of Colorado by Zina Abbott

Up until the very end of the 1800s, suitcases, as we know them today, hardly existed. Before that, those who traveled for any distance lugged along heavy, bulky trunks built of wood, leather, and often a heavy iron base. The best trunks were waterproofed with canvas or tree sap, as steamships were a reigning mode of travel. Without this protection, a suitcase in the hold of a heaving, leaky ship would probably have been wet within a few hours, and crushed by sliding trunks within a few more. The closest travel case to what we know today as a suitcase was the “cabin trunk,” which was designed with a low profile to fit under a steamship berth. For more about trunks and steamers, see my previous post by CLICKING HERE

1911 United Suit Cases

Early suitcases were called “suit cases” or “suit-cases” because they were intended to hold only suits. They were lighter and more portable than trunks, but they were still bulky by today's standards. Leather, wicker or thick rubbery cloth was stretched over a rigid wood or steel frame. Corners were rounded out using brass or leather caps. Such suitcases tended to have roughly the proportions of a hardback book: flattened and easy to carry, with a handle on the long side. Until steamship travel declined during the mid-20th century, many were advertised as waterproof. Lightweight models were often marketed specifically to women.


When the suitcase finally did catch on at the end of the 19th century, it was quite literally a case for suits. A typical suitcase came equipped with an inner sleeve for storing shirts, and sometimes a little hat box on the side. But even in the early 20th century, the “dress-suit case” was only one of countless styles of container that travelers could buy, from steamer trunks to club bags to Eveready portable wardrobes. These were boom times for the baggage business.

The late 19th century became an era of transition  in the history of transportation. Except for those emigrating—either to relocate to a new country or for employment—traveling by steamship was not utilized as much. The automobile industry and resulting travel by car called for smaller forms of luggage. That was in addition to train travel, which continued to be a major form of travel. It was an age of mass tourism—people going places to for the sake of travel to see parts of the world or country that, in previous eras, were not common pursuits.

The shift was made from bulky, heavy trunks to suitcases – then called “suit-cases” or “suit cases,” because they were designed to hold suits – accelerated in the 1930s as commercial flights began to replace steamships and trains. But the early versions, clunky contraptions made of leather and wood, were a far cry from today’s suitcases.

Jesse Shwayder, born in Black Hawk, Colorado, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland, started working in his father’s furniture store since he lacked the funds to attend college.

In 1903, Jesse convinced Isaac to sell the store and open a luggage shop. Jesse was noticed by one of their suppliers and invited to come to New York City as a salesman for the Seward Luggage Company—at the time one of the largest manufacturers of trunks, steamers, and footlockers. In his first year, Jesse Shwayder earned over $4,000 in commissions – at that time, a vast sum.

On March 10, 1910, Jesse returned to Denver and opened his own luggage factory, the Shwayer Trunk Manufacturing Company. His father, Isaac, became his lead salesman. Instead of competing with low pricing, Isaac insisted that they make high quality merchandise and price it at the highest price it would bear in the luxury marketplace.

1920 Shwayder suitcase

As the whole family jumped in to help, the Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company began to grow. Shwayder, a religious man, named his first suitcases, “Samson,” after the Biblical strongman.

In 1916, the Shwayders took a picture that would become an advertising coup. Four brothers and their father stood on a plank positioned atop one of their suitcases with the caption: “Strong enough to stand on.” With five portly Shwayder men weighing more than 1,000 pounds together, the picture was striking and became their advertising and direct-mail gimmick for several years.

Unfortunately, in the same year (1916), Isaac Shwayder died suddenly of a stroke. His wife, and Jesse’s mother, Rachel Shwayder, used her husband’s life insurance money to build a new and larger factory, which opened in 1917.

Jesse Shwayder was president of the company from 1910 to 1960. Jesse Shwayder’s official corporate philosophy was the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do to you.”
All company officers and salesmen carried a Golden Marble, which they were told to take out and look at whenever they had to make an important business decision. When visiting the family’s factories in later years, Jesse Shwayder would ask to see the Golden Marble. Any employee who could show it got a one hour paid work-break.

Mark Shwayder became the head of sales.

Sol Shwayder, now a lawyer, became attorney for the firm.

Vintage Samson luggage

The original name of their luggage was Samson, intended to honor the strength of the biblical hero of the same name. Today, we know their luggage as Samsonitethe largest manufacturer of luggage in the world.


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 suitcases. To find the book description and purchase options for both ebook and paperback, please CLICK HERE





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