The luggage trunk summons a lot of colourful imagery to the mind: hidden treasure chests at the bottom of the ocean, the receptacle of magical costumes and phatasmagoric items, or of European explorers at the height of 19th century imperialism. Rarely does one think simply of the luggage trunk in its original purpose, that being, to carry luggage. It’s status as the cliché prop in any pulpy adventure story derives from the fact that we no longer use the luggage trunk as a pragmatic way of carrying our stuff, whether travelling across the country or abroad. From knapsacks to purses, suitcases to tote bags—the apparel or devices we use to carry our things (be it luggage, homework, or lipstick) says a lot about our culture and time period. And so the luggage trunk evokes a world far from our own: one of aristocracy, manservants, and stream travel. The way the trunk has evolved tells an interesting story that begins with exploration and adventure and yet ends surprisingly with a retirement into the domestic realm of interior decorating. Though maybe that isn’t so shocking: most adventure stories typically end happily with their heroes returning home. Their travel chests and trunks get shoved into the attic to gather dust and be forgotten, slowly waiting to be unlocked again, and perhaps unleash something secret and magical.
Before the 19th century and the invention of steam travel, most travellers used sacks and certain pack mules (like horses or donkeys) to carry them. Luggage trunks came about due to the popularizing of steam boats and locomotives as a form of movement. Just as you wouldn’t tie a suitcase to a camel, neither would you bring a travelling sac on a steamboat. The chances of it getting wet and crushed underneath other luggage would be very high. To take things on steam boat or train, required a carrying device that was sturdy, waterproof, and could withstand jagged rough terrain. For this reason, trunks were the popular choice of travel luggage. And it didn’t matter that they were incredibly heavy and cumbersome, because the people who could afford to travel at this time, could also afford servants and bellhops to carry their luggage trunks for them.
Only in 1854 did a young malletier (or trunk-maker) in Paris, by the name of Louis Vuitton, design a form of high-end luggage trunk with a flat top and bottom to facilitate stacking. While Vuitton’s customers remained high-end, he clearly recognized the need for convenience while travelling. Ironically, it was convenience that would lead to the luggage trunks loss in popularity.
As the price of travel dropped and more people in North America and Europe began to travel for leisure, the lighter suitcase began to usurp the trunk as the luggage device of choice. This trend only continued with advancements in air travel in the early 20th century and onwards. Trunks simply took up too much real estate in the small cargo bays of airplanes. By the late 1970s, the wheeled suitcase was invented and trunks were a relic of the past.
But trunks didn’t simply disappear like other forgotten technologies. The trunk was too gorgeous, too symbolic of a lost age of adventure to be completely thrown away. Instead, the luggage trunk was repurposed. The trunk became the new coffee table, the living room chest, the center of modern interior design. It was no longer an object to be carried but to carry: coasters, coffee mugs, chinese take-away, and everything else. After years of adventure and travel, the luggage trunk finally settled down in our homes for good.