Friday, August 12, 2016

Antique Trunks

By Kathryn Albright
On a recent trip for a writing convention, I pulled out my tried and true burgundy suitcase to pack. The canvas luggage is a good twenty years old and any trip now the zipper will likely give way and my unmentionalbes will be spread across some landing tarmac. It seems things aren't built to last anymore--not like in the 1800s when not suitcases, but trunks and carpetbags were the main mode of  storage for travel.

A Cabin or Steamer Trunk --
half the size of a regular trunk.
I have a passion for antique trunks. I guess it has something to do with wondering about the stories they could tell of the places they've been. On a steamship crossing the Atlantic? Ellis Island? Or on a wagon train making their way across the Rockies. It intrigues me. Plus, the restored ones from the late 1800s are so very beautiful.

Even though trunks have been around since pre-medieval times, it was between 1870 and 1920 that trunk manufacturers had their heyday here in America. A trunk-maker is called a malletier. A few well-known manufacturers were C.A.Taylor, Haskell Brothers, Crouch & Fitzgerald. Two trunk makers from the 1800s that are still making trunks today are the Seward Trunk Co. and the Shwayder Trunk Co. (now known as Samsonite.)

Oak slat trunk made by Martin Maier
The wood used for the box of the trunk was most often pine and sometimes poplar. Skins in the 1700s and early 1800s and then canvas in the 1800s was then stretched over the frame. Then the staves--strengthening slats in elm, oak, or ash--were positioned. Trim and hardware came next made in brass and iron. The entire trunk was then coated with a layer of shellac for protection that would make the material virtually water-proof. All trunks had a tray inside for smaller items. On earlier trunks, the inside was lined with newspaper or hand-decorated paper. Later, material was used.  

Although flat-top trunks have been the mainstay due to their functional shape, dome-topped trunks (also called Camelback or Humpback trunks) also enjoyed a run of popularity. Some believe they came about because people didn't want their trunks buried under a stack of other trunks. Porters however, simply turned the domed trunks onto their sides to bypass that obstacle. Other styles of trunks include round, bevel-top, barrel-staves, and monitor trunks. The popularity of the various styles usually lasted only a decade or two which is a helpful bit of information when trying to date an old trunk.
Saratoga Trunk
The trunks at the start of the century were made from skins--deer, horse, cow, or seal--over a wood frame. They had little embellishment on the outside other than brass nails. They were build for practical functionality. Two hide round trunks of note can be seen at Mt. Vernon, property of George and Martha Washington.

In the late 1840s, Gold Rush Trunks (sometimes called Stagecoach Trunks) were popular. These flat-top trunks were leather-covered with iron bands and large brass studs (to symbolize the gold nuggets.)

Wardrobe Trunk
In the 1850s, the Jenny Lind trunk was the much-sought-after trunk. Jenny Lind came from Sweden to North America for a two-year singing tour arranged by P.T. Barnum. She was the most popular singer of the 1800s and along with trunks, doll furniture and even buildings and towns were named after her. A Jenny Lind trunk had a unique style. When see from the end, it resembled a loaf of bread or a key-hole.

In the 1870s, Saratoga Springs was "the" place for the elite to partake of the healing waters and to vacation. The well-to-do would take the largest, fanciest trunks made. These trunks came to be known as Saratoga trunks.

Along with the traditional traveling trunks malletiers also manufactured doll trunks, wardrobe trunks, wall trunks and steamer or Cabin trunks. Steamer trunks are half the size of a regular trunk so that it can fit beneath a berth on a ship or a train. 

I hope you have enjoyed this abbreviated post on one of my passions. If you have an old trunk and want it to keep its value--don't paint it! Find out how to restore it instead! Whenever I take my suitcase out of storage, I say a prayer of thanks that all luggage now come with wheels. I remember when it didn't. What's the old saying? "They can send a man to the moon, but they couldn't figure out to put wheels on luggage..."  I sure glad  that has now been figured out!

I'm traveling today, and so will not be able to respond to any posts, but rest assured that I will check all comments tomorrow!

Leave a comment for a chance to win on a drawing of my latest book

 Western Spring Weddings


  1. I've always loved Saratoga trunks. I love the look of them.
    What a great piece of history and information. Thank you. Now to go study some trunks in museums. I will appreciate them even more. Doris

    1. Thanks for popping in to say hello and comment! I was really surprised that the older trunks actually used hides. I don't know why that should surprise me--after all suitcases have been made of leather!

  2. I have an old trunk in storage. Hmmm....maybe it is time to get it out and find a home for it in my house. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Zina,
      Thanks for stopping by! I have an old trunk that is in desperate need of restoring. It's one of those "somedays..."

  3. I'm happy owner of several old trunks and I love each one of them. Thanks for this wonderful post, Kathryn.

    1. Hi Shanna!
      Lucky you! Would love to see pictures of them!

  4. My grandmother had a rolled top trunk just like the one in the pictures. As kids we never thought much about trunks because everyone in our family seemed to have them. Nice article.

  5. Hello Paula,
    Thank you for stopping by! I think part of my passion for trunks is that I have this "thing" about boxes and organizing on several levels. The antique trunks, when restored or in good condition, make such beautiful storage items now.

  6. I'm closing the give-away since a new post will be added in the morning. Congratulations to Paula Beem! Paula, if you will contact me at kathryn (at) kathrynalbright (dot) com I will be happy to send you a copy of my latest release ~ Western Spring Weddings!