In 18th-century Europe, leisure travel was only for the rich. Their servants would pack the traveler’s things in heavy wooden trunks, usually featuring domed lids to divert rain, and then other servants would load the trunks onto stagecoaches or ships. Aristocratic young men, in particular, would take these on their traditional “grand tour” of Europe to learn about Classic and Renaissance art and culture. Those who traveled for work, such as sailors and marines, would often carry simple rucksacks or duffle bags with their meager belongings.
With the emergence of a middle class, the introduction of transatlantic steamship lines, and the development of the railroad, traveling became more common for both men and women in the 19th century. The rich, of course, still wanted to set themselves apart, and Louis Vuitton was happy to oblige them. Vuitton, who got his start as a luggage packer for the upper crust, made a name for himself building custom-made cases for precious cargo belonging to Empress Eugenie, consort of Napoleon III.
Vuitton translated this success into an opportunity to open his own Paris store, Maison Louis Vuitton, in 1854. Four years later, he introduced the first modern piece of luggage, a stackable, flat-topped slat trunk covered in his signature gray “Trianon” canvas. These innovative steamer trunks were both lightweight and airtight, and they were such an immediate status symbol, other trunk makers began to knock off his design.
Because of these copycats, Vuitton switched to the beige-striped “Rayée” canvas in 1876 and the checkered “Damier” canvas in 1888, when he also starting labeling his luggage with the trademark, "marque L. Vuitton déposée." After Louis died in 1892 his son, Georges, took over the company and introduced the famous Louis Vuitton monogram pattern in 1896 featuring the iconic interlocking “LV"s, the Japanese-style flowers, and the quatrefoils.
By the turn of the century, the Louis Vuitton company was producing a wide range of baggage, from large trunks, which women needed to hold their hooped dresses, to hatboxes, shoe boxes, and vanity cases for cosmetics. In 1901, the firm introduced the soft-bodied canvas-and-leather steamer bag, to fit inside a steamer trunk, and the hard-bodied cabin trunk, a slender trunk designed to fit neatly under the bed of a transatlantic ship, the forerunner to the modern-day suitcase.
While Louis Vuitton was producing canvas trunks, other luxury-goods companies specialized in trunks of fine leathers such as crocodile, alligator, calf, sealskin, ostrich, and walrus. In particular, Hermès, which started as a maker of high-end equestrian goods in 1837, realized that modern machines would make horse gear a niche product and began making leather luggage toward the end of the century.
Small wood-framed leather cases became known as handbags and grew fashionable for day-to-day life in the 1900s, and these echoed the features of suitcases with their reinforced metal corners and intricate locking systems. As tanneries improved their technology, particularly in Germany, luggage was reproduced in a wide variety of dyed and embossed leathers. The fashion houses Prada (1913) and Gucci (1921) both got their start as luggage and leather-goods manufacturers...
In the late 1800s, thriftier travelers were happy to carry carpet bags, originally used by men. Made from carpet scrap that were rolled up and fastened the edges, these convenient bags could double as blankets. These fell out fashion in the early part of the 20th century when the trend for colored leather made it easy to produce suitcase of cheap imitation skins. As cars grew more and more common, trunks and suitcases got small enough to stuff in the trunk of a car, and light enough that an individual could carry, without the help of servants.
Around the turn of the century, well-traveled trunks and suitcases bore stamps and applied labels that told the story of the exotic locales the baggage had journeyed to. These colorful labels helped determine whether the case was destined for Prague or Moscow, Bermuda or Casablanca, and they also helped publicize the travel destination. Such Victorian labels can be valuable collectibles themselves.
Across the pond in the United States, luggage salesman Jesse Shwayder moved back to his home state of Colorado and founded his Shwayder Trunk Company in 1910, which began making high-quality suitcases. As Shwayder’s brothers joined him in his enterprise, the company issued a line of luggage they dubbed, “Samson,” after the Bible’s famous strongman. In 1916, four Shwayder brothers and their father, Isaac—all large men, accounting for a total of 1,000 pounds of weight—posed for a picture standing on a plank on one of their suitcases. For years, this image was used in direct mail and advertisements with the tagline, “strong enough to stand on.”
The Belber Trunk and Bag Company, which started as a small hand-crafted Philadelphia luggage maker in 1891, became the world’s largest manufacturer of luggage in 1919, when it absorbed the Oshkosh Trunk Company in Wisconsin. In the 1920s, Belber’s luggage—including suitcases, trunks, and collapsible cord hangers—stood for a posh travel experience that middle-class families could afford to indulge in. Belber also patented several locking devices.
But as the Great Depression took a toll on Shwayder and Belber’s businesses, a Polish immigrant named Sol Koffler stepped up to fill the void. Koffler started his American Luggage Works in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932 determined to produce the most durable suitcase in the market that would sell for only $1. In its first year in business, his company sold 5,000 suitcases.
Soon, Koffler figured out how to adjust the machines that produced plywood radio cases to make round-cornered suitcases out of two continuous pieces of plywood. These cases, which Koffler dubbed the American Tourister line, were far more durable than the rectangular cases made out of multiples pieces of plywood, and they featured fabric lining and zipper pockets. Koffler’s company became the trendsetter in luggage. Making an annual revenue of more than $100,000 by 1942, the company sold four colors, four styles, and eight sizes of American Touristers by World War II.
Despite the Depression, Shwayder continued to improve upon its more exclusive brand of products, with frames made from real wood, rayon linings, durable handles, secure locks, and a special fiber finish the company developed specifically to cover its suitcases. In 1939, Shwayder introduced the tapered “Samsonite” suitcase that was enveloped with a tough, vulcanized fabric.
After the war, air travel became more common, and so passengers sought baggage that was easy to carry, check, and stow on a plane. Weight restrictions forced luggage makers to consider all sorts of lighter material such as raffia, wicker, and metal alloys.
American Luggage Works put out streamlined molded-plywood and all-vinyl suitcases. But Koffler quickly ditched those products when he was introduced to Don Hawley’s aqueous plastic first used for pith helmets and shell casings, and Koffler perfected it for his nearly indestructible suitcases in 1954. Skyway, founded in 1910 in Seattle, became famous for its chrome-plated and vinyl-covered baggage during the same decade.
Shwayder, which was making cases for everything from electronic components to musical instruments, launched its Ultralite line of baggage, which employed injection-molded plastics instead of wood for its suitcase construction. By the 1960s, the Samsonite line was so popular that the Shwayders renamed their company after their ubiquitous suitcases.
They faced tough competition from Koffler’s American Tourister line, especially when the company put out several clever commercials in the 1970s, the most famous featuring a gorilla beating on one of its suitcases in his cage. The American Tourister brand was sold several times starting in 1973, until it was absorbed into the Samsonite company in 1995.
While Erle P. Halliburton made the first aluminum travel case for his own personal use in the 1930s, his metal suitcases weren’t introduced to the market until 1970 when the Zero Halliburton company showcased them at a luggage fair in New York City. These were offered in both silver and gold-plate.
In the 1960s and 1970s, soft-bodied suitcase lines like Bantam Travelware featured trippy floral prints in psychedelic and earthy color schemes. Samsonite also capitalized on this trend. In 1970, Bernard D. Sadow invented a suitcase on wheels, and Sadow’s U.S. Luggage subsidiary Briggs & Riley sold this “rolling luggage” starting in 1971. Skyway launched its own line in 1972.
But the wheeled suitcase never quite caught on—perhaps because it was seen as weak and unmanly to use them—until Robert Plath, a Northwest airlines pilot, invented the Rollaboard, a suitcase with two wheels and a long handle that rolled upright. In 1989, Plath launched Travelpro to sell his invention. Plath sold his products to his flight attendant and pilot friends, and the trend caught on. Soon, all luggage manufacturers were selling similar rolling suitcases.