A Brief History of the Suitcase
With the rise of “smart luggage” pieces like Bluesmart and Trunkster, it’s easy to see how far suitcases have come from the days of your grandparent’s vinyl luggage. While their modern form dates to the 19th century, the suitcase has been around for thousands of years.
The earliest humans lived in nomadic societies, so naturally they would pack their belongings for long journeys. The famous Ötzi, the Iceman of Italy, was found possessing a kind of wooden backpack with a leather bag inside. Thousands of years later, the first luggage tag was discovered from the time of the Roman Empire, found in Chester, Britain, reading, “The Twentieth Legion, Property of Julius Candidus.” Later on, the earliest form of wheeled luggage was found in Palestine, used during the Crusades to transport weaponry and equipment for the Knights Templar. In the Middle Ages, travel was mostly reserved for aristocrats who traversed the country with wooden chests covered in canvas or leather and divided into compartments.
During the 16th century, portmanteaus became common, as well as the later Gladstone bags, constructed with two hinged leather sides fastened together with a handle and buckle. It wasn’t until 1596 when the word “luggage” first appears in the English language, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary as a derivation of lug, literally meaning “that which needs to be lugged about.” Luggage as we recognize it today was designed in the 1800s for wealthy travelers crossing oceans on steamships. These pinewood trunks were waterproofed with tree sap and had heavy iron bases to survive rough waters.
Wheeled luggage made a comeback in 1848, when a colonel of the British Raj saw the Maharani of Nadir arrive for a reception with a wheeled trunk pulled by an elephant. Unfortunately, the man’s ambitious business plan was cut short when Queen Victoria instead awarded the patent to her husband, Prince Albert. As travel became more fashionable, some companies such as La Maison Goyard and H.J. Cave & Sons began crafting high-end pieces for their aristocratic adventurers. The most famous of these designers was Louis Vuitton, whose first creation was a stackable flat-topped trunk. Prior bags had round tops to prevent water from collecting, but Louis Vuitton’s distinctive design and style was hit, and would go on to make the brand world famous and often imitated.
It was during the 20th century luggage became a booming industry. Travel was becoming attainable for more people. In the early part of the century, dapper travelers purchased “dress-suit cases” to store their wardrobe. Some of travel’s most recognized brands were born in this time period, with American Tourist and Samsonite developing cheap bags for the everyday American consumer. Travel also became a status symbol, seen in the mid-century trend of covering your suitcase with destination labels. The tradition is still practiced today, though mostly on Instagram instead of via stickers.