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The history of luggage

  • luggage_pile_istock.jpg

    From the double-locking suitcases of the 1950s to the four-wheeled spinners of today, luggage provides a fascinating look at the history of human movement behind it. (iStock)

  • louisv_trunck.jpg

    In the mid 1850s, Louis Vuitton introduced his pioneering slat trunk, which was covered in canvas sheathing, held well-designed drawers and had a flat top that made stacking much easier. (Mantiques Modern)

  • luggage_RIMOWA.jpg

    Germany-based Rimowa helped spark the modern-day movement to lighter yet stronger suitcases. (Rimowa)

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    In the 80s, Northwest Airlines pilot and innovator Bob Plath created Plath’s Travelpro Rollaboard by adding just two wheels and an extending or telescoping handle, which revolutionized the travel industry. (U.S. Travel Association)

If you’re traveling this summer, chances are you’re bringing a suitcase or two. Wherever your journeys lead, take a moment to consider how far your luggage has traveled, figuratively, over the years.

From the steamer trunks of bygone eras to the sticker-covered, double-locking suitcases of the 1950s and ’60s to the four-wheeled spinners of today, luggage provides a fascinating look at the history of human movement behind it.

“The thinking was that rolling your belongings was too wimpy -- something for stewardesses, not pilots.”

- Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential

It reflects not only how we travel – by plane, train, or automobile – but what we value as travelers and as human beings: flexibility, brand loyalty and our increasing dependence on technology.

There’s a lot more packed into that suitcase than a weekend’s worth of clothes. Here is a look at how modern-day luggage has evolved.

The Early Days

Luggage in the mid-to-late 19th century was synonymous with some form of the travel trunk, a massive, cumbersome box that – even empty – could weigh more than a hundred pounds. Porters and bellhops bore the brunt of the burden, as anyone wealthy enough to travel had hired hands to make the process easier.

Steamships and stagecoaches were the main method of transport at the time, and trunks had to be exceptionally sturdy and heavy to withstand their journeys. The top quality steamer trunks, which were designed for travel on steamships, were made of wood and leather and often had a heavy iron base so they wouldn’t be crushed while sliding around among other heavy trunks. They were also covered in canvas or tree sap to offer protection against leaky ships.

Even at this early age of the luggage industry, some companies made a name for themselves with their high-end products, most notably Louis Vuitton. In the mid 1850s, the young malletier, or trunk maker, introduced his pioneering slat trunk, which was covered in canvas sheathing, held well-designed drawers and had a flat top that made stacking much easier, unlike most fashionable trunks that had rounded tops.

Vuitton died in 1892, but his antique, signature trunks – which launched one of the world’s top luxury brands – still fetch tens of thousands of dollars in auctions today.

The Turn of the Century for Travel and Luggage

The late 19th century marked a major shift in the history of transportation, as more people started traveling for leisure. Prominent luggage and leather manufacturers like Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company, which eventually changed its name to Samsonite (a nod to the biblical figure Samson, because of his strength), started making suitcases in addition to their tried-and-true trunks.

The shift 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.

Cologne, Germany-based Rimowa helped spark the modern-day movement to lighter yet stronger suitcases with the first aluminum case, which hit the market in 1950. Its iconic grooved design, which is still used today, reflected that of the Junkers JU52 airplane.

“We have one of the cases [at our North American headquarters] from 1952, and it looks almost the same as the cases we make today because we haven’t changed the overall look,” said Amy Jakubaitis, public relations and marketing manager for Rimowa North America. “It’s amazing to pick up the case from 1952 and realize that was really lightweight at the time.”

Rolling Into a New Era

In the late 1960s, more Americans were flying, especially internationally. But as they logged miles, travelers grew weary of lugging heavy suitcases. That’s when small, wheeled trolleys started popping up in travel gear shops. Travelers strapped them to their suitcases and rolled the whole contraption around.

Then, in a moment that changed the course of travel, Bernard Sadow, president of U.S. Luggage, was schlepping heavy suitcases at the airport when he noticed a worker wheeling luggage on a skid. He reportedly turned to his wife and said, “That’s what luggage needs: wheels.”

Sadow set about affixing four casters and a strap to a suitcase, and in 1972 he earned United States patent No. 3,653,474, “Rolling Luggage.” He held the patent for about two years until competitors joined forces to break the patent, opening up the market to wheeled luggage.

About a decade later, Northwest Airlines pilot and innovator Bob Plath shifted the orientation of the suitcase to upright by adding just two wheels and an extending or telescoping handle. Plath’s Travelpro Rollaboard, which he marketed initially to flight crew, revolutionized the travel industry.

But not everyone took to the rolling cases right away.

“The thinking was that rolling your belongings was too wimpy -- something for stewardesses, not pilots,” Patrick Smith, an airline expert and author of Cockpit Confidential, said in an email. “And so pilots would hand-haul their 40-odd pounds of personal luggage and flight gear through the airport, toning their tough-guy biceps and making many a chiropractor happy. That old-school mindset began to change, of course, and nowadays pretty much all pilots use roll-aboards.”

Trends from 2000 and Beyond

Marking the drastic changes in the industry, the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America, a group of manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers that was founded in the 1930s, officially changed its name to the Travel Goods Association in 2000. Luggage has continued to evolve at a rapid pace since, driven by pivotal events like 9/11 and airlines’ ever-changing restrictions on baggage weight and dimensions, plus the onset of checked-baggage fees.

According to TGA president Michele Marini Pittenger, “Possibly the most prevalent innovation across the entire market is lightweight luggage. Bags continue to get lighter every year, increasing comfort and ease while traveling.”

A significant development in that evolution came in 2000, when Rimowa introduced the first suitcase made of polycarbonate. Lighter than aluminum and highly durable, polycarbonate set the stage for the hard-shell cases that are now made by many major players in the luggage industry.

In 2004, Samsonite re-invented the wheel with a spinner-style case in its signature Silhouette line, marking the first time the U.S. market had seen a four-wheeled suitcase that could be pushed, pulled and literally spun in any direction.

Behind all that innovation is some pretty intense durability testing, says Richard Krulik, CEO of Briggs & Riley and U.S. Luggage. High-level brands employ such equipment as tumblers, which are massive, dryer-like machines that literally tumble suitcases; jerk-test machines that repeatedly yank expandable handles to test their strength; and treadmills equipped with bars that simulate the bumps a bag is subjected to, as well as how its wheels stand up to the accumulated heat from the friction of motion.

“It takes us between 15 and 18 months to design new luggage,” Krulik said. “It’s not just designing a pretty piece of luggage and sticking on a handle and wheels. Every bag needs to be durability tested to withstand all the abuse that’s out there.”

Up-and-coming trends, according to TGA, include ergonomically designed bags and backpacks, GPS-enabled technology (embedded in the luggage or sold as separate devices) and luggage that charges and protects tech gadgets. And, Pittenger noted, luggage makers have now made it possible to fit everything a traveler needs for a 10-day trip into a 22 x 14 x 9-inch case, or 45 linear inches, which is the allowable carry-on for most international flights.

As luggage has evolved, travelers also have become more discerning about what they’re buying, Krulik said.

“Consumers increasingly have very high expectations. If you buy something these days and it doesn’t work the way they expect, people are much less tolerant than they were five, 10, 15 years ago.”

And that collective mindset can serve to enhance the market as a whole. Said TGA’s Pittenger: “Today’s market is limitless – shoppers can truly find something to fit any need.”

Well, maybe not any need. We’re still waiting for that magical suitcase that packs itself.