Some time back, I wrote a piece about the “Golden Age of Travel“; the period from the third quarter of the 1800s, to the late 1930s, when for the first time in history, it was possible for ordinary people of moderate means, to travel cross-country, and around the world. Social changes and technological improvements in transport and communications meant that for the first time in history, it was really practical for the middle-class couple, single, or family, to go on a holiday!
This posting will look at the various bits and pieces of luggage which people brought with them on their whirlwind tours of the Continent, the American interior, the Dominion of Canada, the Far East, the Mediterranean, or the South Pacific. The kinds of bags and cases which would’ve been checked onto trains, steamships, taxi-cabs, and in and out of hotel-lobbies in cities ranging from Melbourne, London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Nanking, Saigon and Hong Kong. The sort of luggage which is plastered with those old steamship-tickets, hotel-room numbers, claim-tags and name-tags. The kind of luggage that went around the world and back again in a haze of smoke, steam and gasoline.
The Appeal of Vintage Luggage
There are people out there who collect vintage luggage. Some people use it when they travel, some people use them as coffee-tables, storage-spaces, decorative items or as photography-props. But what is their appeal?
Vintage luggage was made with care and attention. Back before the days of excessively widespread travel, and before the days of airplanes and jetliners, luggage was made to be pretty and attractive. Because back then, it was unlikely that somebody would throw around a 500-pound steamer-trunk.
The luggage of the Golden Age of Travel reflected very much, the types of transport available at the time, together with the fashions of the period. It’s this, being-of-its-time, its style and the “stories it could tell”, that makes vintage luggage so appealing to collectors and nicknack-snatchers. Here is a typical vintage luggage setup which you might find on someone’s bed, or strapped to the back of an old car:
These are actually my own vintage luggage-pieces. From left to right, we have an old hatbox, a gladstone bag, a typewriter-case, and a suitcase (underneath). I’ll break them down, piece by piece and look into their history and their significance, but I’ll also be discussing other pieces of luggage which aren’t shown here.
Back in the 20s and 30s, it was almost taken for granted that a man owned at least one hat. Either a Panama, a trilby, a fedora, a homburg, or a bowler. On instances where a man traveled and took more than one hat with him, the hat not worn on his noggin would be stored in the hat-box.
The boxes were made rigid and circular, so that any hats (typically felt hats) could be stored inside without fear of being crushed, misshapen or otherwise damaged during travel. If you’re looking for one, hat-boxes are very distinctly shaped, with a circular profile to hold their contents. Some hat-boxes even came with their own hat-brushes for keeping the hats stored within clean during travel.
With the rise of travel during the early 20th century came a corresponding rise in communications. Companies such as Underwood, Corona, Royal and Remington, were among the first manufacturers of typewriters to produce portable, carry-anywhere machines. Granted, they could still weigh as much as 10lbs (about 5-6kg), but they were considered a damn sight more portable than the enormous desktop typewriters of the period (weighing up to 30-50lbs).
Portable typewriters took a while in coming. While the basic form of the typewriter was pretty-much agreed-on by all the major manufacturers by ca. 1900, the portable didn’t really show up until the early 20th century.
There were a few false starts in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until after World War One that portables became truly practical. The issue was trying to shrink down all the major elements of a larger desktop typewriter into a small enough, but also practical enough, size and form so that it could be used reliably.
Starting in 1919, companies such as Underwood, Remington, Corona and Royal produced the first practical portable typewriters. They advertised that their new machines could be used ANYWHERE on earth! One Remington advertisement from the late 1920s said that their machines could even be carried up to the top of Mount Everest, where they would still function perfectly!
The public were quick to grab onto these new portables, and soon, there was fierce competition among typewriter-companies to produce better, stronger, smaller, more stylish, more feature-filled machines. Just as larger typewriters were variously called “Office”, “Standard” or “Desktop” machines, smaller typewriters were called “Juniors”, “Travel” typewriters, “portable” and even “Household” typewriters, to differentiate them from their larger cousins.
The case which you see there belongs to my 1920s Underwood Standard Portable. Here’s the case, opened, with the typewriter inside:
The humble “Gladstone” has been a fixture of luggage for over a century. It was invented by English leather-worker and bag-manufacturer J.G. Beard in the late 1800s. Beard was a strong supporter of the British Prime Minister; at the time, one William Ewart GLADSTONE (1809-1898). Gladstone was a prolific politician. He was elected to the office of P.M. not once, nor twice, but FOUR TIMES during his long life.
Mr. Gladstone was obviously a popular man, but he didn’t hang around much. He was famous for charging off all over Europe at a moment’s notice, and was one of the most-traveled politicians of his age. Putting two-and-two together, Mr. Beard named his new creation after the long-serving P.M., and his love of travel.
The Gladstone Bag, in its various permutations – Strapped, strapless, square-profiled or curved, was a constant companion to the tourist of the Golden Age of Travel. Everyone from Dorian Gray, to Sherlock Holmes, and countless actual, real-life people, carried one of these bags around with them where-ever they went!
Gladstone bags were used for everything! They were tool-bags for tradesmen, briefcases for lawyers, overnight-bags and weekend-cases for travelling salesmen, and sample-cases for company-representatives.
Undoubtedly, however, the Gladstone is most famously remembered in the 21st Century, as the kind of bag which old-time family physicians carried around with them. Back in the days when doctors still made house-calls, you could count on him to show up at your front door in a three-piece suit, homburg hat and his trusty Gladstone bag.
It’s become so common for these bags to be associated with physicians that sometimes, an eBay or Google search under “Gladstone bag” will yield nothing, whereas a search for “Doctor’s bag” will bring up everything, and then some.
Why was it that Gladstones were so popular with doctors? What was it that made them stick so firmly to this particular profession? And why, decades after most family practitioners stopped making house-calls, are they still called doctor’s bags?
The Gladstone bag is unique among bags and cases in the sense that it is both hard, and soft-sided.
A Gladstone bag is held shut by a combination of catches, hooks, straps and buckles (not all Gladstones have straps and buckles, but some do). When these fastenings are released and the bag is pulled open, the steel frame around the mouth snaps rigid, (or it should, if your bag’s in working order!).
With the mouth reinforced and held in-place with the steel frame, it would be easy for a doctor to shove his hand into the bag and grab whatever necessary and essential piece of equipment he would need in the event of an emergency. Much more easily than if he had to fumble with the soft, sagging, floppy sides of a knapsack, a backpack, a messenger-bag or other type of hold-all.
Also, because the bag closes smoothly in the center, over the top of the storage compartment, and not down one side like with a conventional briefcase, there’s no danger of the contents, which might include glass bottles and needles, spilling everywhere and smashing to pieces when the bag was carried for transport.
Don’t forget that in the early 1900s, it was still common for many operations to be carried out in the home, by your doctor. He could show up after a telegram, a telephone-call or a private message, to perform anything from stitches to dressing, to removing your appendix. And he’d do it right there on your dining-room table. Having a bag which he could easily access in an emergency was essential for his job to run smoothly.
This suitcase is not an antique. But it is representative of the style of suitcase carried by almost every traveler and tourist during the early 20th century, when steamships and railways were in their prime.
Back when men still wore suits on a regular basis, and suits were stored in suit-cases, travel-bags of this style were common around the world. Not all of them featured expandable tops and reinforcing straps such as this one, but in almost every railway-station, bus-depot and on every dockside in the world, suitcases like these could be found in abundance. Made of leather, lined in cotton and reinforced with rivets and studs as seen here, suitcases like these are highly popular today among vintage luggage collectors. They have an enduring charm and style that transcends time.
Several months back, a cousin of mine was over for a visit. He was hunting for antiques as gifts for his girlfriend. When he saw the suitcase, he was instantly attracted to it. But I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. I’ve owned it for longer than I care to admit, and don’t use it nearly as often as I might, but it is certainly a conversation-starter.
Suitcases of this style were sometimes part of an entire suite or set of luggage. Such a suite might include a set of matching suitcases, and a variety of smaller suitcases, all of the same style, which went together as one big set. Such as shown here by this beautiful set of Louis Vuitton cases:
Larger cases stored clothes such as jackets, coats and suits. Smaller cases stored shirts, shoes, collars, cuffs, scarves, gloves and undergarments. Still smaller cases might be used to store important items such as jewellery. The smallest cases were used to store toiletries and grooming-supplies, such as shoe-polish kits, brushes, combs, razors, and tooth-brushing supplies.
Oh, for the days before luggage-weight restrictions, when you could carry a whole piano onto a ship, and the only thing the load-master would say was: “That better not rock around when the ship’s underway”.
Enormous carriage trunks and steamer-trunks, similar to the one shown above, were common sights on railway platforms and steamship docks around the world during the Interwar Period of the 20s and 30s. When going from one place to another meant a long sea-voyage, you had to pack into a steamer-trunk absolutely everything that you needed when you traveled.
Did I say long?
Southampton to New York = 7 Days by steamer.
Naples to Shanghai = 8 Weeks by steamer.
Melbourne to San Francisco = 2 Weeks by steamer.
San Francisco to Chicago = 7 Days by train.
Southampton to Sydney = 9 weeks by steamer.
A round-the-world cruise (not an uncommon event back then), could take the better part of a year. On a long voyage, a steamer-trunk was an absolute must-have!
Don’t forget that you weren’t going from A-to-B directly, in most cases. On a trip from Italy to China, you might leave Naples. But then you’d dock in Cairo, drop off passengers and mail, pick up more passenger and mail, take on coal and provisions. Then you’d sail through to the Indian Ocean, drop anchor at Bombay, drop off and pick up passengers, mail, coal and provisions, then sail to Singapore. The process was repeated. Then to Hong Kong, where it was repeated again. Until you finally reached Shanghai, in China.
It would be a very long time at sea.
A portmanteau is a really rare bit of travel-kit these days. You don’t see them very often. Back in the days of steamship travel in the early 1900s, a portmanteau was used for storing shoes, coats, suits and other items which were too bulky or oddly-shaped or delicate to be just thrown into a suitcase or stuffed into a steamer-trunk. They were basically portable wardrobes, into which you could hang your clothes without fear of them being creased, crushed or otherwise damaged. In the closing scenes of the movie: “Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban“, Professor Remus Lupin is seen packing his luggage at the end of the school year. One of his travelling-trunks is a portmanteau. Portmanteaus are mentioned at least once in Bram Stoker’s novel: “Dracula”, in which there is a lot of travelling, as Dr. Van Helsing and his friends attempt to destroy the evil vampire lord, Count Dracula.
Luggage like this is either impractical or quaint today. Sometimes both! Certainly, you couldn’t get a steamer-trunk or a portmanteau onto an airplane these days! At least, not as carry-on baggage! Some people who dash around from place to place, such as pilots, still use gladstone bags as handy and compact overnight bags to store basic supplies in, when they might only be staying a night or two, in any one location.
Largely, though, luggage like this is relegated to storage, display or to film and TV sets, museum exhibits and photography-props. But there was a time, not too long ago, when they steamed off around the world on ocean-liners and steam-trains, faithfully accompanying their masters on their travels around the world.