History of the very humble suitcase

THE WORD luggage was supposed to have come into being in the 14th century. The word “lug” being the word for “pull”.  The first sightings of someone using luggage was during Roman times, when soldiers  carried satchels with food and personal effects when travelling. Larger cases were used to store ammunition.

The Woman in the Suitcase (1920) - 2.jpg

Baggage appeared later in the 15th century from the French word “baggage”, which means “property picked up for transport”. It was only until the late 19th century that mass tourism heralded the birth of the humble suitcase – a case which was used to put suits in without getting them creased.

When travelling was for the super rich, it involved large trunks being carried by an army of servants, hotel bellhops and railway porters. By 1900 with the growth of hotels, suitcases became the icon of travel, with many of them being carried on mass day trips and overnight stays to British beach holidays.

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Suitcases were made of leather or rubbery cloth

Despite being lighter than trunks, early suitcases were still quite heavy compared to what we have today, and were made of wicker, leather or rubbery cloth which was stretched over a frame of steel or wood. Suitcase corners were rounded using leather or brass caps to protect the corners of the suitcase, and a handle was added to make them easier to carry. Due to steamship travel during the mid-20th century, many suitcases in newspapers were advertised as waterproof. The less heavier suitcases were seen as those for women.

Louis Vuitton developed his own brand

One of the early pioneers of the suitcase was Parisian trunk maker Louis Vuitton, who worked as a box maker and developed his own brand. Vuitton is believed to have developed such a strong suitcase that  he challenged magician and escapologist Harry Houdini to break out of one of his locks in 1890. Unfortunately Houdini never rose to the challenge.

Across the ocean in the early 1900s, the Shwayder Brothers started up a company called Samsonite. During the 20th century they brought exciting innovations to the suitcase industry. These included using materials such as polypropylene  and vulcanized fiber.

Back of the car accessory

By the 1920s suitcases were in and trunks were out. Suitcases were even featured in the 1920 silent film The Woman in the Suitcase. During the Great Depression, farmers who worked away from home were referred to as the “suitcase farmers”. With the expansion of air and car travel suitcases gained more in popularity, often seen nestled in the back of a car.

They now came in two sizes – ‘check in’ and ‘carry on’

By the 1960s the leather and brass rounded edges on suitcases were replaced by plastic with synthetic materials and alloy frames replacing older features. Clasps were out and zips were in. Suitcases came with wheels and in two sizes – “check in” or “carry on”. With aviation overtaking other types of travel, by the 1970s, suitcases had to adapt to being wheeled at distance in airports, on trains and buses by travellers themselves. Bernard Sadow came up with the idea of wheels on suitcases, one which for a while was resisted by men who saw it as too effeminate. In time, they got round to the idea that it was better to wheel the suitcase than drag it through customs. By the 2000s they also had to adapt to size and weight to be functional at airports.

Suitcases become the rage

Instead of being shaped like a hardback book, suitcases were transformed to the shape of a large shoe box. These days they come in numerous colours, if they are soft, they are made of high-quality materials, hard suitcases from strong plastic. They also have tags, zips, locks which can be opened by security staff at airports. Each airline has its own restrictions on the size and weight of the suitcase, and what items can be taken onboard. In 2020 about 16 billion US dollars was spent worldwide on luggage. In the UK alone, 673,000 luggage cases ere sold in 2020.

The future of suitcases

The future of suitcases – and some already have this – will include smart technology such as Bluetooth, using devices that can track your luggage is out of range or is being opened. Some already have a USB-C port to charge up electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops, and allowing the person travelling to use the suitcase as an on-the-go workstation.  The trend toward robotics has also been seen in the travel industry, with start-ups developing autonomous suitcases that can follow their owners around in their travels. Suitcases have come a long way from when they first appeared. Let us know about your own suitcase experiences. We are always interested to hear.





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