A History of Trunks
People have been using trunks to transport their goods dating way back. In Europe the practice can be traced back to the Dark Ages, and in Asia I am not even sure they can figure out when the practice started it is so old. Their shapes and sizes have varied a lot over time.
Commonly, though, they have been made of pine, covered with a material, often leather, paper or canvas, and reinforced with metal bands. What, might you ask, is the difference between a trunk and a chest, though? Both are large wooden boxes used for storage. The difference comes down to it’s intended use. Trunks were luggage and meant to be transported and suffer a beating. Chests were for use in the home to hold linens, and other household items. Thus chests usually do not have metal bands for support, they often lack locks, they can be made of softer materials (some are even upholstered), and are more decorative in nature.
Not surprisingly trunks really had their heyday between the late 18th century and early 20th century. This coincides nicely with the Early Modern Period through the Industrial Revolution, a time when many people began to travel thanks to advances in transportation.
Until I began this research I had no idea that there were so many classifications of trunks. I have always loved the look of them, but now I know that how they are made distinguishes what category they fall into. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
Are known for their distinctive rounded top.
Packer or Steamer Trunks
Appeared as people began traveling on steam ships, their flat tops made them easy to stack.
Cabin or True Steamer Trunks
These appeared with Packer Trunks, and are just smaller versions that would fit under seats (think carry-on luggage).
Ladies or Hat Trunks
Like the name suggest these were designed to carry ladies hats. They were typically half the size of the typical steamer trunk and usually had a flat top as well, although fancy ones had domed tops.
These large trunks could be stood up on one end and opened to reveal a collection of drawers and empty spaces that would then serve as a portable closet.
These were the luxury trunks and contained a complex set of trays and containers inside of them to store items in.
And there are more.
There were many companies, known as malletiers, that made steamer trunks and if you are a real collector it would behoove you to learn more about them. For most of us, though, it is interesting to note that Shwayder Trunk Company of Denver, CO became Samsonite, and the notable French fashion house Louis Vuitton got it’s beginning making trunks. I never thought I would say this, but I think I might actually have some Vuitton on my wish list now, although the prices on a Vuitton trunk are more out of my range than a Vuitton purse.
Times have changed and it is no longer feasible to use trunks to transport our personal items for a trip. Can you imagine showing up at TSA lugging a steamer trunk behind you? However, trunks are still seen in the industrial world. Today you see versions made of metal or other heavy duty plastics, often stuffed with Styrofoam to protect equipment that needs to be transported, think of the cases bands use to transport their instruments and sound equipment. Even Walter White uses them, just not for his band…
The more traditional wooden versions though are simply not used for transportation any longer, they are just too heavy when compared to modern renditions.
However, this does not mean that all of those boxes have been relegated to the attic to be used only as spider nests. Trunks have made a large come back thanks to the Shabby Chic decorating style that is so prevalent. Repurposing antiques or finding unique ways to use reproductions is huge right now.
Here are a few great examples of ways that trunks have found their way into our homes as permanent fixtures instead of traveling companions.
By adding feet and sometimes a glass top they are being used as coffee tables.
Personally, I have a trunk in my son’s room. It is on the floor and always open, holding all of his stuffed animals. My mother has a lovely antique trunk sitting in her living room holding extra blankets. It had been painted black but several years ago the black paint was stripped off and revealed a lovely hand painted script with a relatives name and information on it in German. For some more inspiration check out Pinterest.
Prices on these trunks vary considerably. Reproductions are generally cheaper than restored antiques. But if you have the skills, and time, finding trunks that need a little TLC at garage sales, flea markets or even your grandparents attic will save you money.
The trunk has come a long way, from being an ancient form of luggage to being repurposed as coffee tables. Where they will end up in the future has yet to be seen, but if you find them as interesting as I do be sure to find one and add a little bit of history into your home.
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