“low light photography of stacked luggage” by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Getting from here to there: the evolution of the suitcase

Epic Traveller’s Twitter and Facebook is on a spree right now with packing tips and travel hacks. Packing especially is a hot topic with debate raging as to the best way to roll up or fold up, stuff everything inside socks and so on.

Which led me to thinking about how everyone organised themselves before YouTube showed them fifty million different ways to pack their luggage. Going to university in the 60s my mother used a trunk — not even a suitcase, a trunk.

This proved to be a very fascinating rabbit hole to escape down for a few hours. Thank you, internet.

📖 It is a story of invention, savvy marketing, social class, and the age of air travel.

In the beginning… well, in the beginning, there were no holidays. And then for the longest time, holidays were only for the very rich.

When you are that rich you’re not the one doing your packing. Your entire household would be moved around you and you wouldn’t lift a finger.

🏰 Henry VIII’s legendary “progresses” around the country were a huge undertaking for everyone apart from him and the various queens.

His court comprised of up to 1500 people and they would move between royal palaces during the winter. Sometimes they left a diseased London and escaped to the country. In the summer the king would go out among the people in great tours, staying with the aristocracy.

Full time jobs were dedicated to organising his travels, let alone actually transporting him. They travelled by mule, cart and river between stately homes.

👑 The king travelled with his own clothes, kitchenware, and even bed.

Still, hosting one of these visits was a huge expense for nobles. An honour, certainly. They provided the rooms, all the other goods, the entertainment, hunting, and all activities were organised.

Holidaying remained the preserve of the rich and high-born for centuries. When that began to change it was day tripping — Thomas Cook’s first package holiday in 1841 was a day-return trip of some eleven miles by train from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting. Almost none of that sounds inviting to modern travellers. But it was just the beginning.

🚋 During the Victorian era, the rise in train travel opened up the seaside resorts.

Plus a comparative increase in income. And, weirdly, medical trends. Doctors had long prescribed sea air but it was out of bounds for anyone but the upper classes traveling by horse and carriage, with their trunks and chests packed and loaded for them.

Now the trains could transport people from the inner cities to the seaside cheaply and quickly. Much of these visits were day trips owing to a gruellingly long working week and zero holiday allowance. Overnight stays required just a small bag.

The middle classes were getting more adventurous too, travelling to the continent. Business travel too. Fancy. Still with their trunks and chests.

Trunks were huge and heavy — made of wood or leather. Chests were exactly that — chests. As travel options increased and the pace got quicker chests and trunks no longer cut it.

👔 A suitcase is called such because it started life as literally a case for suits.

More properly, a dress-suit case. They first appeared at the end of the 19th century along with the various types of trunks and, increasingly, bags.

It wasn’t long before the suitcase caught on in a big way. Again, they were heavy, leather and wood contraptions sometimes furnished with metal even. An explosion in road and air travel in the first half of the 20th century saw suitcases getting lighter and more flexible. They were trendy too, a sign of travel, culture, indulgence, and worldliness.

The World Wars finished off the domestic servants as Britain had known them for centuries. You could still call a cab to get to the station and pay a porter to handle your luggage but it was a very different experience.

From the 1960s onwards travel became much more equal. Sure there’s a difference between first class and economy — felt most keenly by those over six foot tall — but ultimately everyone is hurtling through the air in a metal tube.

🚪 Longer-haul travel was no longer door-to-door.

There was the trip from your house to the train station or airport, negotiating around the place — sometimes for miles, perhaps taking your luggage onto the train with you, then arriving at your destination before finally transferring to your hotel or similar.

While I mention trains really this was the time of air travel. Aeroplanes became the biggest factor in how suitcases were designed. The first wheeled suitcase patent was filed in 1970 but the flat, heavy, case didn’t take off too much. The Rollaboard, launched in 1987, had the instant marketing cache of being the choice of pilots — including its inventor — and cabin crew.

✈️ Airports were by now huge places that people needed to get around fast.

Increased security required less luggage rather than more, though the sight of a celebrity with a great pile of designer luggage on a trolley is still not uncommon. It can be a fine art, holidaying, practiced professionally by Colleen Rooney and 72 holidays in ten years at a cost of 1.8 million pounds.

Holidays seem a totally standard part of life now. Suitcases abound — and not even for travel. People transport their work documents in wheelie suitcases. Funny, then, that suitcases have come pretty much full circle to their predecessor, the trunk.

With their four wheels and hard cases modern suitcases resemble upended trunks. But the wheels and telescopic handle show a new truth: you are carrying and storing this one yourself.

A shout-out to two lovely articles on the topic: What was life like before luggage had wheels? by Ian Jack, and The History of the Humble Suitcase by Daniel A Gross from the Smithsonian.

🌊 Let’s not forget: Recent research shows one in five children have never paddled in the sea.

While the media might be quick to claim that is the fault of screen-addiction the researchers found it was mostly due to the restrictions of poverty. Millions of children in Britain live in poverty and families can’t afford what so many of us take for granted.

👉 Get your free safe travel checklist at EpicTraveller.co