The History Of Luggage

Luggage, baggage, trunks, suitcases, totes, duffle bags, backpacks, and the list goes on and on. No matter what category or term that is used to describe it, all luggage strives toward one primary goal: moving stuff. Over the years, the history of how and why we move has shaped what our luggage looks like and how it functions.

While travel has always been a large part of human life, the means by which we travel and the distances that need to be covered have produced a necessity for more innovative and new methods of hauling our belongings. In a world of increasing complexity and ever-growing expectations, this is no easy task.

Vintage Suitcase on Hand Truck

 As we continue moving forward, luggage has experienced many improvements from the types of materials and methods of construction, to the size and shape of the containers.

With the increasing presence of technology, we are even seeing the integration of various sorts of technology into our luggage. One can only imagine what the future may hold for travelers as the industry continues to be spurred on by traveler’s needs and human innovation. Today we are headed on a trip down the halls of history, so pack light and jump aboard for the ride!

Early Developments

Stretching all the way back to our nomadic roots, man has always had the need to carry his belongings. Unlike much of today’s travel, ancient people were on the move out of necessity rather than for leisure. Before the development of farming and agriculture, people were driven to travel in pursuit of their next meal as hunters and gatherers.

Eventually, humans began to adopt the now familiar concept of settling down. Although the timing and details were different, virtually all areas of the developed world have taken up this way of thinking. As people settled down, the need to travel long distances dwindled, mainly restricted to major life changes such as fleeing conflict or pursuing a new life in a different permanent location.

 Then, around two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire revitalized the world’s appetite for travel. Through the creation of a complex network of roads, traveling shifted from a hardship done only when necessary to a means of business, entertainment and adventure seeking.

Even so, serious amounts of travel were typically limited to those with enough wealth or status to be able to afford not only luggage but the means to move it around. This often came in the form wheeled carts pulled by servants or animals. As the Empire of Rome expanded, so did the reach of its traveling armies of legionnaires. Due to being frequently on the move in large groups of people, it is here that we catch our first glimpse of what we might consider a “luggage tag” in today’s travel.

For a long time, hauling of one’s items took on a unique form, relying heavily on the social and economic status of the traveler. Fast forward to the mid-19th century and we begin to get a look at the first popularized luggage. Built for long, treacherous journeys, early luggage often came in the form of heavy and sturdy boxes or trunks. Perhaps the most well-known brand of traveling trunks came courtesy of Louis Vuitton.

Picture of a Roman Traveling Carriage

A Roman Traveling Carriage Helped Move Supplies Around The Empire

These meticulously constructed and luxurious containers represented the way the wealthy traveled in that time, and still, hold a significant presence in the market today. What stood out about these trunks was the heavy construction, with solid bases and frame, as well as the flat top. This met the needs of the newest methods of travel, by train and by ship. In both cases, luggage needed to be protected from the potential of sliding around and banging into other trunks and needed to stack easily.

It may seem like a no-brainer that the trunks should be flat to make stacking easier, but the truth is that most trunks to date were constructed with rounded tops to allow rain to run off rather than collect. Like other trunks, the Louis Vuitton trunks were coated with a layer of canvas or tree sap, as a way to protect against water damage while in transit. 

Picture of Vintage Luggage Collection

Although popular for travelers in its time, heavy and burdensome trunks were often expensive and very difficult to move.These combined hurdles limited travel to an upper class of citizens who not only had large amounts of valuable belongings to move but could also afford to hire others to assist in the process.

However, as the means of travel became more affordable and attainable to everyday people, the need for smaller and more personal luggage developed. Popularized In the late 19th century, what we now call “suitcases” began to gain traction. As the name suggests, these containers were designed initially to carry suits. These early models were little more than a miniaturized trunk, often constructed of wood and leather and outfitted with hinges, latches, and a carry handle.

Luggage Designs Changing With The Times

As the needs of travelers as well as the methods of transportation have changed, luggage has evolved as well. One of the first significant shifts in travel occurred as ships and trains became a more common method to get from one place to another. As more "common" folk began to travel, it created a market for cases or 'traveling containers' that could be carried by a single person. 

This came about because many trips were now characterized by a relatively short stay and then a return to one’s home, as opposed to long term trips or permanent relocation. Made with durable and protective covers and wood frames, the first personal travel cases would become a standard item for traveling.

They were designed to be small enough to be carried in one hand. In time, the would come to be outfitted with a variety of features including locks, latches, zippers, cloth interiors with pockets/pouches, hide-covered exteriors, and more by the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1950s, typical wood construction began to be replaced with lighter and more durable materials. This started with metal and plastic shells, maintaining the hard exterior and a softer, layered interior. In the 1980s, hard exterior suitcases gave way to the softer luggage that dominates the market today. The advancement of manmade fabrics and materials allowed for high strength and high durability, at even lighter weights.

Flexibility also meant more leeway for packing belongings and storing in transit. These developments were primarily influenced by the growing popularity of airline travel. To deal with the increasing number of passengers and limited capacity of aircraft, it was necessary for airlines to put restrictions on luggage such as size, weight, and quantity. This led to the coining of terms such as “checked” and “carry-on” luggage. As a result, luggage had to be carefully designed to meet these criteria.

 Moving on to the 1970s, we see another great stride in the world of luggage: wheels. Before Bernard Sadow claimed his patent for “Rolling Luggage,” the standard procedure was to carry luggage by hand or have it placed on a wheeled cart to be taken from checkpoint to checkpoint. This first style of wheeled case amounted to a suitcase with four wheels and a strap for pulling.

Approximately ten years would pass before wheeled suitcases would take on their modern form, standing upright and featuring a long, often collapsible, handle for pulling. In the beginning, these were catered explicitly toward airline employees, but would eventually catch on in a massive way for all travelers.

 It should be noted, however, that for years after its invention, the culture slowed the popularity of this style of luggage among men. The general attitude at that time was that wheeled luggage was for "wimps," and men who dared to use them were often ridiculed in accordance with the mindset of the day.

Within the last 20 years, these same goals of lighter, more durable, and easier to use luggage have driven some significant changes. The first of these was the Rimowa release of the first polycarbonate suitcases in the year 2000. This proved to be a popular choice since polycarbonate is not only lighter than traditional aluminum shells, but also extremely durable. Also, it can be efficiently designed to appeal to people's fashion sense with colorful and artistic details. Often paired with stout and durable zippers, wheels, and a telescopic handle, most luggage manufacturers now offer this popular style of suitcase.

Another development worth mentioning is the 2004 re-design of wheeled suitcases. First marketed in the U.S. by the popular Samsonite brand, this new style now featured a quantity of four multi-directional wheels. The result is an upright suitcase that can easily change directions with you, whether it is pushed, pulled, twisted, or spun.

Having four wheels also means that it can stand and roll on its own without being tilted at an angle like traditional wheeled suitcases. In addition to all of the upgrades and improvements in materials and mechanisms, the overall design and manufacture of suitcases have come a long way. Innovative designs and manufacturing methods paired with exceptional durability and usability testing has allowed for relatively affordable and high-quality designs from the popular luggage brands we have today.

Technical Takeover

Like almost any aspect of modern life, the luggage industry is indeed not immune to the takeover of technology. This has led to the development of some convenient and practical technological integrations, as well as some far-fetched and futuristic visions. What they all have in common is the rapid shift towards all things "smart." The ranks of items such as smartphones, smart thermostats, smart speakers and the like are now joined by a new lineup of smart luggage. Think of spy gadget type functionality such as fingerprint scanners, electronic locks, and the like.

To start off, one of our practical uses is a GPS locator built into the luggage. This, of course, allows the owner to locate the piece of luggage from anywhere within the range of GPS, which could be especially handy in the event of a luggage handling snafu. Using an app that can be downloaded to a smartphone, you'll always be able to keep tabs on your precious cargo.

Another feature that many of these high-tech carrying cases are equipped with is a battery. This can be used to power or charge personal electronics, such as phones and laptops. Something to note is that the lithium-ion type batteries in most of these are banned from being held in the plane’s cargo area and must instead be removed and brought with you into the main cabin. This is due to the potential fire hazard they pose.

 In the last decade we may have seen a glimpse of possible areas for future development. The first is the way the luggage is moved around. Woo Moonhyung tank suitcase (shown below) had caterpillar tracks around the main body case and a flexible handle, so the case could be dragged over most everything.
tank track luggage

The Modobag allows you to jump on and drive your carry-on case. With a 5-mile range, you could raise some eyebrows if you live near the airport. How this would handle anything but flat terrain and how popular you would be with other passenger whizzing around on the case is open to conjecture.

Internal design is another area where, in relative terms, there has not been massive innovational changes. The Shelfpack case however has removeable shelfs for keep different items of your luggage pristine.

Who knows, it is possible with the marriage of smart technology and design we could end up with your smartphone listing your clothing and advising what you should pack for what type of vacation or business trip and advise you how to pack your super looking super light, strong icase!

 Just as it has since the beginning of time, we can expect to see more changes to travel and luggage as time continues to pass. As a person from 100 years ago would struggle to imagine the now everyday pieces of luggage that travelers enjoy today, we can only dream of what the future holds. In spite of the countless possibilities that may be in store for future travelers, there is one thing we know for sure. For as long as people continue to travel, there will always be a need for vessels to haul all of our beloved “stuff.” This fact ensures that the history of luggage is far from over, as it continues onward and upward to match the pace of human innovation.

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