Antiques, Vintage, Retro, Used Furniture and
Collectibles in Fayetteville, North Carolina
Call Us: (910) 488-7004 or Connect:

The History of Trunks

There is little known about antique trunk history when compared to most antiques. There were many manufactures and types of trunks being made in there heyday. Antique trunks, also called traveling chests, were originally used as luggage for extended trips by stagecoach, train, or steamship. Here is a little history of trunks through the years in the United States.

Early Storage

From the time of man people have needed to carry their belongings on there travels. The most common item to be brought with them was water. Early man cured animal bladders in order to store water for there travels. People remained trapped where they lived due to the lack of  effective transportation. The invention of the wheel would fuel the ability to move over land like never seen before in history.

Coaches & Trunks

Horse drawn wagons allowed for supplies and people to be moved with relative ease. As people have the ability to travel they need to take things with them and the United States trunk manufacturing industry is born.  The trunks of this time period (prior to 1870) were small, sometimes covered with animal hide and iron banding. There was not a lot of room for large trunks on stagecoaches and most people still did not travel more than 30 miles from their home.

Rail and Trunks

By 1870 railroads crossed the entire United States from east to west and rapid transportation was now available. The Civil War had been over for five years and the south was rebuilding. Trunk manufacturing is growing just as fast as railroads.  People are moving comfortably and rapidly in Pullman passenger cars down the rails faster than ever imagined. People now had the ability to travel in style and to take a large amounts of possessions with them.

Sail and Trunks

Steam trunks (named after their location of storage in the cabin of a steam ship, or “steamer”) which are sometimes referred to as flat-tops, first appeared in the late 1870s, although the greater bulk of them date from the 1880–1920 period. They are distinguished by either their flat or slightly curved tops and were usually covered in canvas, leather or patterned paper and about 14 inches (36 cm) tall to accommodate steamship luggage regulations. There has been much debate and discourse on what these types of trunks are actually called. In some old catalogs, these trunks were called “packers”, and the “steamer” trunk actually referred to a trunk that is often called a cabin trunk. An orthodox name for this type of trunk would be a “packer” trunk, but since it has been widely called a steamer for so long, it is now a hallmark of this style.

The Heyday Of Trunks

The Heyday of trunks was from about 1870 to 1920. There were hundreds of  trunk manufactures, if not thousands at any given time in the United  States. This time period is called the Victorian era. Architecture design grew from simple to ornate and beautiful as did trunks and most Victorian era products.

Many trunk hardware manufactures, trunk manufactures and distributors sprang up all over America during this era. No exact number of trunk manufactures is known and identifying many trunks as to there manufacturer is nearly impossible without a makers label.

Many styles and sizes of trunks would appear over this 30 year period. Some trunks were very ornately decorated and very expensive while others were basic in design and made to be cheap as possible.

The most expensive trunks were called “Saratoga trunks.”  Saratoga trunks were large in size and the best in quality. They were named after the city of Saratoga Springs, NY which was a popular vacation area for the very wealthy. The city was known for its mineral springs and high end hotels (Picture 1) and entertainment. City Hall can be seen in picture #2.

Types of Trunks

Flat Top Trunks

flat top trunkFlat top trunks are as there name implies, flat on top. It is not uncommon to see leather straps that wrap around the entire trunk. Some flat top trunks will not be completely flat on top and have a slight arch to them. Many of these trunks were also covered in a waterproofed cloth, canvas or duck cloth.

Note: Actual trunk we have had in inventory



Dome Top Trunks

Dome Top TrunkMany other names are used to describe this style of trunk including round top, humpback, camel back and barrel top trunks. This style of trunk was often covered in embossed tin, plain tin, crystallized tin and waterproofed paper .

Note: Actual trunk we have had in inventory



Slat Trunks

Slat trunks are characterized by the large amount of wooden slats used in the construction of the trunk. This is a very strong construction method and is also visually appealing to many people.

Lids and trunks

There were numerous tray and lid compartments in Victorian trunks, ranging from basic to complex. A basic tray system comprised a hat box, a shirt compartment, a coin box, and a document box. A complex tray system, however, could consist two hat boxes, several other shirt compartments, a coin box, several document boxes and even secret compartments strategically placed so that people of unwanted access would pass up if not wary. Beautiful lithographs would be placed over the lids or dome of the trunk and truly capture the Victorian aesthetic of that day. There were numerous chromolithographs that a trunk maker could use, and they could be indicative of who the trunk was intended for, such as ladies or men. A bride’s chest usually had a lot of floral pictures or lithographs of other ladies, while men’s had pictures of “village” or country scenes.

Present Day

Today, given the weight limitations on airplanes and the new, lightweight wheeled luggage available, most people use these old trunks as furniture—chests for storing things like blankets, linens, papers, and other memorabilia. Other types of trunks include Barrel Stave, Jenny Lind, Wall Trunks, Hat Trunks and Steamer Trunks. Well-known malletiers (trunk makers) include Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Moynat, Haskell Brothers, M. M. Secor, Leatheroid, Clinton, Hartmann, Oshkosh, Molloy, Truesdale, and Taylor. La Malle Bernard and Seward Trunk Company are still making trunks while Shwayder Trunk Company of Denver, Colorado, became the luggage firm Samsonite.


Antique Trunk History

Leave a Comment