A Guide to Vintage Traveling Trunks of Yore

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So many people love to travel these days that they even do it full time. But traveling used to be a lot less common. It was harder, it took longer, and it was a lot more expensive.

If you were to travel back in time (see what I did there?), you’d see a fantastic evolution of the suitcase. These days, we’re constantly reinventing the suitcase, but before the turn of the century, people used trunks. (No, guys, this has nothing to do with elephants, don’t worry!)

Today, we would think of a trunk as a permanent fixture—something to hold blankets in the corner and look pretty. But back then, they were highly functional. It was what you took on your journey because they were often long and arduous. You needed to bring more with you than you would right now.

The fascinating thing about luggage is that it seems to follow the history of human movement. It symbolizes every revolution in transportation since the steamship, and it’s an important piece of our heritage.

Trunk Construction

In the 19th century, suitcases, as we know them, didn’t exist. To travel properly, you needed a trunk made of wood and leather, supported by a heavy iron base. Only the best trunks used tree sap or canvas to waterproof them from the most popular mode of travel at the time – the steamship.

Without waterproofing, your trunk would be soaked in a matter of minutes. If it weren’t heavy or durable enough, it would be crushed by other, heavier trunks in a number of hours or days. You’d never make it to your destination with all of your belongings intact.

However, trunks were also useful as the railroad began to expand westward in the United States, and they were often used for this mode of travel as well.

You may often hear trunks referred to as steamer trunks, which is a name given to them because they were so commonly used for steamship travel. However, travel trunks, or simply trunks, are acceptable, too.

But I’m curious to learn about the different trunk styles, so let us have a look:

Trunk Styles

Aside from being as durable as possible, there were many different styles. What you owned was very indicative of your place in society. Plain or ornate, flat or domed lid, simply hardware or plenty of embellishments, people could easily tell whether you were poor or wealthy.

So let us take a closer look at the different trunk styles:

Flat top trunks

Image by teramakashi0 via Pixabay

Flat top travel trunks were much more affordable than anything else, but they were practical, too. They could be easily stacked in the cargo area, where lower or middle-class travelers would leave their things.

There was much less room on a ship than there would be in first class, so these were not only accessible to those who couldn’t afford something nicer, but they were necessary if you planned to travel on a ship.

There’s no flair here, only the basic construction of the trunk. They may or may not have been waterproof, but you lived within your means, even if it meant you didn’t have the best. Today, we might think of one of these as very beautiful, but they were the most basic form of trunk you could get. 

As a general rule, flat-top trunks are priced much lower than their Dome Top trunks brothers and sisters. There are some cases that are an exception, but then the case has to be incredibly special!

If the flat top trunks are something that you would like to add to your home, you can check out Etsy. 

But I have to warn you that these prices are going to be on the pricier side. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on these antique items, you could always check out auctions. They can go as little as $1.

Prices will, however, depend on your location. But keep the following in mind. These trunks are quite big, and not everyone has a lot of space in their homes to dedicate to vintage trunks. Because of this, the demand is low, and so are the prices. So you might be surprised with what you can find.

Dome top trunks

Image by malleencoin via Etsy

But let’s be honest, who needs practicality when you can afford this?

These trunks had the most flair, with dramatic lids and ornate hardware. They were waterproofed, stained, and polished to look shiny and new. When you weren’t traveling, you would use your trunk for decoration in the home, to show it off.

These were very expensive, so they were only used by the very wealthy. Often, they were purchased for a bride on her wedding day and given as a gift. They were also used to store valuable items or heirlooms.

The inside of these trunks was also more elaborate and accommodating than a flat top trunk. They included smaller compartments for handkerchiefs and trays for jewelry. Some also had additional features like wheels.

These trunks have high curved tops, with a height of 25 to 30 inches. They date back to 1870 to the early 1900s. And there are still a few shops manufacturing them to this day. Not only are they the most common form of antique trunks, but they are also the most popular.

Bevel top trunks

Image by Damian Gadal via Flickr

This type of trunk is just like it sounds. Whether it was domed or flat, it had ornate beveling on the top and perhaps on the sides. Flat designs are still practical while displaying a little bit of style.

These were used by middle-class passengers because they could afford just a tad extra.

Monitor top trunks

Image by anaterate via Pixabay

These trunks were flat on the top, but they had rounded edges. They could be plain or ornate in design, depending on who was buying them. The hardware also varied from basic to decorative.

These shapes were more exciting than the plain flat top trunk but still practical for traveling. 

Personally, this is my favorite so far because it reminds me of a treasure chest. I would definitely love to have one of these in my home!

Wall Trunks: 

Although these trunks look very similar to the rest of the trunks, there is something different about them, their hinge mechanism, and the way the trunks open and close. These trunks were ideal for small spaces because you could push them against the wall, and you could open the lid without having to save a lot of space for the top part to be opened. 

Saratoga:

These Saratoga trunks were named after Saratoga, NY, a very popular vacation spot for the wealthy in the 1800s. These trunks were definitely one of the fancier options and had a rounded top.

Jenny Lind: 

This antique trunk became popular in the 1850s, and 60’s when the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind toured the US for two years.

Steamer Trunk: 

These steamer trunks were mostly flat tops and were designed for traveling purposes and to fit in small spaces. They were square-shaped or dome-shaped and were used to put clothes and personal belongings in when people traveled.

Due to luggage regulations, steamer trunks were usually not more than 14 inches tall. What makes the situation unfortunate is that if you weren’t wealthy, you could only take one or two sets of clothes with you and anything else that could fit into this small steamer trunk.

It has been a struggle for collectors to identify steamer trunks because the trunk manufacturers either marked the trunk with a paper label that did not last very long, or they just didn’t mark the steamer trunks at all. 

This makes it difficult to see what vintage steamer trunk you have.

Buying an antique steamer trunk

So I have convinced you to purchase an antique steamer trunk, but where do you purchase them?

Here is a list of places you can buy antique steamer trunks:

  • Craigslist
  • Antique malls
  • eBay

Your Antique Steamer trunk value

You will be able to find an antique steamer trunk at any of these places mentioned above for under $100. But whether they are valuable will depend on the condition it is in.

The Actual Suitcase

Image by anaterate via Pixabay

Suitcases eventually caught on by the end of the 1800s. But the name comes from its literal purpose, which was to carry suits. Did you know this?

These suitcases contained inner sleeves for shirts, and some even had a hatbox on the side.

However, even after the popularity of the suitcase increased, it wasn’t the only baggage style available. Trunks were still more popular for traveling long distances because they could hold more things and were much more durable.

This is when club bags and portable wardrobes also gained in popularity. A club bag was an early form of a duffel bag with soft sides and a zipper closure. They were more practical and much less heavy than a trunk.

As men began to travel farther distances for work or families intended to travel by car rather than steamship or railroad, they wanted something that was easier to bring along their journey, and these suitcases fit this description. 

The Evolution

Bringing us back to today, the evolution of luggage came from necessity. While it used to be that baggage was handled by porters, bustling terminals have made this baggage handling much more difficult.

Long handles, wheels, and security features were developed from the increasing popularity and ease of travel. Given the size of most modern airports, you wouldn’t want to be stuck dragging something as large or heavy as a trunk.

Traveling trunks may only be useful as accessories now, but they hold even more allure than they did when they were new. Vintage travel trunks are highly collectible and are amazingly functional pieces of furniture.

The purpose of vintage trunks today

Okay, well, I’m sure you are not going to use the vintage trunks to travel because they will definitely not fit the airport guidelines. And you will be tired before you even reach your destination.

But there are many other options that you can use these vintage trunks for today. So, let me tell you all about them, and maybe you can incorporate some of these ideas in your home too!

Coffee and console tables

Trust me; it looks stunning! It is perfect as a coffee table because it looks chique and will definitely steal the show when you have people over! But what if it doesn’t fit my interior? You can always paint it or add some extra detail to it.

Bedside tables or footboard benches

Now we are talking! Turn these gorgeous vintage trunks into your stylish bedside table and add some chic bedside lamps to match the aesthetic. You can also use it as a footboard bench for your bed. Not only can you use it for the aesthetic, but you can store some items in it too; maybe your shoes have found a new home.

A home bar

Okay, maybe this is one you didn’t even think about, but you are going to now. You can decorate and design it as you please and maybe even add some legs or layer it with other trunks. You then have the option of either having the bottles on the top of the trunk or placing them inside of it.

A place for storing your comfy blankets

I don’t know about you guys, but being snuggled up in my soft, comfy blanket while watching a movie is the best feeling in the world. And displaying my blankets in these vintage trunks is not only convenient, but it gives my home a cozy vintage look and feel.

Okay, so the antique trunks that were once used for traveling are now being used as furniture in your home, but have you ever wondered whether those trunks are the real deal? And how can you determine it? 

Well, I want to share with you how you can determine if your trunk is antique and the things you need to pay attention to. So let us dive right in.

  1. For the trunk to be considered as antique, it needs to be over 100 years old, and it cannot have been restored because this affects the value of the trunk.
  2. When you are buying online and not in person, make sure that the seller of the trunk has photos that include the smaller details of the trunk, for example, the lining, the hardware, and the locks. 
  3. Make sure there are no holes or missing pieces because this makes the trunk lose its value
  4. Pay attention to detail; the more expensive trunks will have features like leather and brass
  5. Make sure you always do your research 

Some interesting facts:

Did you know that your favorite brand also made trunks and still does to this day? Jip, I’m talking about Louis Vuitton. In 1858 the first Louis Vuitton trunk was introduced that featured a gray Trianon canvas. And in 1872, the gray canvas was replaced with a striped canvas.

Making the Louis Vuitton trunks is a lengthy process, actually an extremely lengthy process with 150 hours per trunk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What can you make out of an old trunk?

Answer: You can create a home bar, a bedside table, footboard benches, a coffee table, and a place to keep your blankets.

Question: Are old trunks worth anything?

Answer: Yes, when you have refinished the trunk, it can vary anything from $250 to $750.

Question: What were old trunks used for?

Answer: Old trunks were used as furniture and storage. 

Question: What is the top of an antique trunk called?

Answer: The top of the antique trunk is called a box.

Conclusion

I hope you guys enjoyed this guide to vintage traveling trunks and ways you can make your home more vintagey. Do you own a vintage trunk, or would you like to own one in the near future? If you like the vintage trunks as much as I do, you can check out these antique trunks mentioned above on Etsy or even attend an auction. And let us know which trunk is your favorite. Happy antique trunk shopping!

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About Will

Will Ames is an author and editor for the old timey. With a BA in history and a passion for vintage items and retro inspired tech, Will has a passion for researching his favorite products, collectibles and stories from days gone by.

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