From Louis Vuitton to Montgomery Ward, luggage of the past is traveling first class with today’s collectors.
Strap-wrapped suitcases, overnight cases, hat cases, medium-sized trunks and even black leather satchels are all part of a new wave of old traveling luggage.
America’s world-class antique experts Ralph and Terry Kovel have noted that the zest for old luggage emerged during the ’90s decade and included “old alligator doctor bags, 20th century hard-sided suitcases, and steamer trunks.”
Much of the interest came from collectors and decorators who felt such items added both color and interest to a particular living area.
Helenka Gulshan, author of the topical book Vintage Luggage, lists the “golden era” of such luggage as ranging from 1880 to 1930. However, other experts often include the 1940s and early 1950s, as well.
The most famous maker of luggage, Louis Vuitton, began crafting trunks as early as 1854, in Paris. However, the world-famous maker did not make any serious inroads into the American market until the early 20th century when the Vuitton operatin had also been expanded to Nice on the French Riviera.
During the 1890s, one of the most popular suitcases in the United States and England was the Gladstone. This very basic traveling bag was hinged so it could be opened flat, offering two compartments of equal size.
Some accounts say the term was coined to honor popular British statesman William Gladstone, who served as prime minister in the 1880s. the Gladstone leather suitcase was widely advertised as “the most desirable of any traveling bag” during the end of the 19th century.
In 1895, the Montgomery Ward catalog boasted that the Gladstone with outside straps could “secure as much on the outside as the inside will hold.”
Their better Gladstones were lined with pigskin, had stitched outside straps and came with nickel locks. Just a bit down the scale was the Canvas Gladstone bag, made of drab canvas duck, with outside straps.
Ward contended the canvas issue would “outwear most any leather satchel.” Moreover, it was “the most convenient thing in the market; it will hold all the wearing apparel necessary for a short journey and will not crush or wrinkle.”
The Montgomery Ward catalog of that decade offered more than 20 different suitcases, satchels and bags, including the deluxe English Oxford. At $9.25, it cost nearly three times as much as the other selections.
However, customers were assured “the very best selected skins are used in this bag, entirely hand stitched around the entire frame.”
Vuitton luggage was striking in the early 1900s and sold very well in Europe, especially in England. Typically, the famed luggage came in the form of an eloquent suitcase, but there were many interesting variations.
Vuitton’s Sac Chauffeur, for example, was designed to fit inside the spare tire of an automobile. It was comprised of two circular halves about 3 feet in diameter with a watertight section in one half.
The majority of Vuitton suitcases in the 1910s were in the 2 feet to 3 foot range, but some stood as tall as 4 feet and were as narrow as 12 inches.
Likewise, there was a wide variety on the overall marketplace produced by both Americans and Europeans. Choices extended from a leather top box with brass fittings to a 3-foot wide steamer trunk with wooden slat trim and leather straps.
During the 1920s, the fashion-minded tourist could simply consult the Sears mail-order catalog for choices. The 26-inch hard fiber Savoy, for example, came with two drawbolts and two outside straps and was available in black or brown colors.
True leather was also being replaced in black enamel duck and women’s overnight cases all with so-called Fabrikold binding by Dupont. Only the handles and straps were real leather, but they still were quite smart for traveling.
The ambitious could choose the Camp Trunk, which, at 31 inches tall and 16 inches wide, was “very handy for the traveler making a week-end trip or for camping.”
Meanwhile, back at Montgomery Ward, their Trail Blazer bag was a big hit with travelers in the late 1920s. The large “vacation bag” sold for $6.95, while the basic Trail Blazer suitcase with leather straps and a cowhide covered steel frame was a standard $4.75.
Good old Gladstone suitcases were still very much the rage in the 1930s. Sears, of course, offered some of the finest selections available.
Their women’s Gladstones were billed as “the last word in luggage fashion” which included the now traditional overnight case, pullman case, fornite case, hat box and wardrobe case.
The matched ensemble came with “new” stripes and nickelplated hardware.
The world of luggage took a dramatic turn following the World War II years of the early 1940s. for one thing, production refinements allowed for lighter weight but sturdy synthetic materials.
For another, shorter “overnight” trips increased as more travelers owned their automobile, or opted for airplanes over other means of transportation. The steadfast and true old leather or fiber suitcase was swiftly replaced with lightweight “modern” luggage that would ultimately give way to carry-ons and soft garment bags.
Today, many old luggage pieces are finding great acceptance as symbols of past travels and glory. Most of the experts, including auther Gulshan, feel that old-time hotel and travel labels simply add to the appeal of a well-traveled suitcase.
Notes the author, “they tell a story.”