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Charles Rennie Macintosh

The Original Traveling Storage Container
by Bob Brooke


Steamer trunks, which got their name from their storage location on a steamer ship, first appeared in the late 1870s, although most date from between 1880 and 1920. While some had flat tops, those with rounded tops were for those who wanted to try to have their trunk placed on the top of piles in the baggage compartments, so they wouldn’t be damaged. When people traveled, they did so for a longer periods because travel by train, and especially sailing ships or coastal steamers, was slow.

A trunk, also known as a travel trunk, is a large cuboid container designed to hold clothes and other personal belongings. They were most commonly used for extended periods away from home, such as for boarding school, or long trips abroad. Trunks were differentiated from chests by their more rugged construction due to their intended use as luggage, instead of the latter's pure storage.

There were many styles of trunks, including the Jenny Lind, Saratoga, monitor, steamer or Cabin, barrel-staves, octagon or bevel-top, wardrobe, dome-top, barrel-top, wall trunks, and even full dresser trunks. These differing styles often only lasted for a decade or two as well, and—along with their hardware—can be extremely helpful in dating an unmarked trunk.

History and Construction
Although trunks have been around for thousands of years in China and elsewhere, the most common styles seen and referred to today date from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, when the cheaper and lighter suitcase replace them.

Trunks generally consisted of a base trunk box made of pine covered with protective and decorative materials. Some of the earliest trunks sported studded hide or leather and looked much like the furniture of the same period since many furniture makers also produced trunks. Later coverings included paper, canvas, plain or embossed tin, with an uncounted assortment of hardwaree and hardwood slats to hold it down.

Famous Companies
There were hundreds of trunk manufacturers in the United States. A few of the larger and well known companies included Rhino Trunk & Case, C.A. Taylor, Haskell Brothers, Martin Maier, Romadka Bros., Goldsmith & Son, Crouch & Fitzgerald, M. M. Secor, Winship, Hartmann, Belber, Oshkosh, Seward, and Leatheroid. One of the largest American manufacturers of trunks was Seward Trunk Company of Petersburg, Virginia. Shwayder Trunk Company of Denver, Colorado later became Samsonite. Another was the English luxury goods manufacturer H.J. Cave trading since 1839. Some of the better known French trunk makers included Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Moynat, and Au Départ.

Dating a Trunk
The easiest way for the casual observer to date any trunk is still by examining its style, so a short description of each aforementioned major variety follows.

Jenny Lind trunks have a distinctive hour glass or keyhole shape when viewed from the side. They were named after the Swedish singer of the same name who toured America in 1850 - 1852 along with PT Barnum.

Saratoga trunks were the premium trunks of many makers actually could encompass nearly every other style of trunk manufactured before the 1880s. The most readily recognizable feature of Saratogas were their myriad and complex compartments, trays, and heavy duty hardware.

Monitor-tops, incorrectly known as water-fall trunks from the furniture, date from the late 1870s to the late 1910s. They had rounded front and rear corners which formed a lying-down "D" when viewed from the side. Earlier examples usually included labor-intensive hardwood slats while there was a revival much later with rarer, all-metal ones being used.

Steamer trunks, sometimes referred to as flat-tops, first appeared in the late 1870s, although the greater bulk of them date from the 1880s to the 1920s. Their flat or slightly curved tops, usually covered in canvas, leather or patterned paper, distinguished them from others. They stood about 14 inches tall to accommodate steamship luggage regulations. Some old catalogs referred to them as "packers," while a "steamer" trunk actually referred to one often called a cabin trunk.

Cabin trunks, sometimes called "true" steamer trunks, were the equivalent of today's carry-on luggage. They were low-profiled and small enough to fit under the berths of trains or in the cabin of a steamer, hence their name. Manufacturers made them with flat tops and an inner tray compartment to store the owner's valuables deemed too valuable to stow in the baggage car or ship's hold.

Hat trunks were square shaped trunks that were popular in the 1860s to the 1890s. Also known as "half-trunks," They were smaller and easier to carry and could hold up to six hats or bonnets. Most had flat tops, but some had elegant domed lids. Victorian women loved this trunk style, thus antique trunk labels often refer to this type as a "ladies' trunk."

Barrel-staves, made from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s and sometimes referred to as a form of dome-top trunk, generally date from a decade or more earlier and were notable for having horizontal slats instead of vertical, giving them a distinctive look.

Bevel-tops, separated into an early and a later revival period. The early ones generally date from the 1870s to the 1880s while the later ones date from 1890 to 1900. They had a distinct trapezoidal shape when viewed from the side, although the earlier ones usually had a much shorter flattened top section than the later ones.

Wardrobe trunks had to be stood on end to be opened and had drawers on one side and hangers for clothes on the other. Many of the better wardrobe lines also included buckles/tie-downs for shoes, removable suitcases/briefcases, privacy curtains, mirrors, make-up boxes, and just about anything else imaginable. These were normally very large and heavy as they were used for extended travel by ship or train.

A dome-top trunk had a high, curved top that could rise up to 25 to 30 inches. Makers employed a variety of construction methods, including curving, molded ply, barrel construction, and so on, to form the inner boxes. Included in this classification were camel-backs, which were distinguished by having a central, vertically running top slat that is higher than its fellows, hunch-backs or hump-backs which were the same but had no slat in the center of the top, and barrel-tops, not to be confused with barrel staves, which had high arching slats that were all the same height. These trunks date from the 1870s to the 1900s.

Manufacturers produced wall trunks with special hinges so that when opened they could stand flat up against a wall. Clinton and Miller both made them, and each stamped their name on the hinges.

Dresser trunks also known as pyramidal trunks, due to their shape, were a unique form of wall-trunk that generally date from 1900 to 1910. They featured a lid that opened up nearly the entire front half of the trunk, allowing it to rest on the bottom. Two prominent manufacturers of wall trunks were F. A. Stallman and Homer Young & Co.

Manufacturers built oak-slat trunks incorporating different tops, such as the dome-top, flat-top, and beveled-top, built on a wooden frame, where the malletier would fit thin oak slats vertically side-by-side, covering the entire trunk. To a Victorian, this displayed not only the complexity of the trunk and skill of the malletier, but also indicated wealth to any purchaser. Several companies, including the Excelsior Company, MM (Martin Maier) Company, Clinton Wall Trunk Manufactory, and El Paso Slat Trunk Company, produced oak-slat trunks. Some made their oak-slat trunks with alternating colors on the vertical slats.

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