It seems ridiculous that we put a man on the Moon before anyone had the idea to add wheels to our suitcases, but until 1972, tourists were still lugging their gear around by the handle.
Indeed, it took more than 1,000 years from the time medieval soldiers were carting their weapons from castles to battlegrounds to arrive with the all-singing all-dancing ‘smart luggage’ we use today, and a recent book by American professor Susan Harlan delves into its evolution.
“The history of luggage is the history of travel,” she writes. “How we travelled, and why, and where, and what we packed.” Harlan’s book goes into great detail, of course, but the story is fairly straightforward.
Most historians agree that the first luggage was developed during the Crusades, when relentless, inconvenient battles were all anyone did, and wheeled containers were used to more easily transport weaponry.
Outside of war and throughout the Middle Ages, if you happened to be travelling for business, relocation or pilgrimage, your luggage options were limited. Aristocrats loaded horse-drawn carriages with chests of their belongings, while peasants used cloth bags (sometimes tied to wooden staffs) and travelled very light.
The term “luggage” originated, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, defined as “inconveniently heavy baggage” and derived, literally, from the verb “to lug”. True to its definition, luggage remained inconvenient all the way until the turn of the 19th century, when the introduction of railway made mass travel possible for the first time.
With people now travelling more frequently but taking shorter trips, men in particular needed a way to transport their business attire. So the solid “suit case” was born. These were somewhat cumbersome, with wooden or steel frames and were made from fibre or wicker, mock-leather, leather, or alligator or crocodile skin, in increasing order of grandness.
Along with railways, the cruise industry, too, was taking the world by storm and by the 1860s, the Great Eastern steamship was crossing the Atlantic in 12 days and carrying 3,000 passengers at a time.
This heralded the introduction of the robust, stackable “steamer trunk”, while bags with handles did the job of the carry-on (of all the baggage that was on the Titanic when it sank in 1912, only one piece was saved: a canvas carry-all bag belonging to Samuel L. Goldenberg, one of the saloon passengers rescued by the Carpathia).
Again, when it came to luggage on cruises, there was a class divide. How much you took with you for a transatlantic crossing dictated how wealthy you were.
Much like the Kardashians of today and the teetering stacks of matching suitcases that follow them through hotels across the world, there was no need to exercise packing restraint when someone else was doing the heavy lifting.
The next major innovation in luggage only came about with the rise of air travel from the Thirties onwards. With space at a premium, gone were the days when you could pack the kitchen sink, no matter how rich you might be. The first checked baggage rules were established in the US in 1938, with a weight limit of 40lbs (18.1kg) each for domestic fliers and 44lbs (19.9kg) for international flights.
Suitcases, therefore, needed to be lighter, and new materials including nylon, aluminum, and polyester replaced wood and steel components in the manufacturing process.
American Tourister - later acquired by Samsonite - was founded in 1933 in Rhode Island, and by 1945, the company was churning out an ever-increasing number of lightweight “Taper” luggage for the purposes of air travel.
It was standard therefore common for first-class passengers on 19th century cruise ships to bring 20 pieces of luggage each, according to Harlan, containing four changes of clothing per day. For practicality, trunks that stayed in the cabin folded out to resemble portable wardrobes with hangers and drawers.
Inevitably, the luggage that carted fine clothes from shore to shore soon became fashion items in their own right. Enter Louis Vuitton, who founded his brand in Paris in 1854. Seeing an opportunity, the designer fast became famous for his stylish trunks, which were crafted in wood, canvas, brass, and iron, and customised for their owners. “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specializing in packing fashions,” read the label’s first poster.
The floodgates were by now open and Vuitton made luggage of every size and description, from sturdy steamer trunks and vanity cases, to luggage which was attached to the sides of hot air balloons.
The brand also developed the first moulded luggage in the Sixties - hardside cases that could take the wear and tear associated with air travel - and were the first to test their bags with flight attendants from major airlines. Business was booming, and by the Seventies, industries in the “travel and tourism” sector were the largest advertisers in American newspapers.
It was not until 1972, however, that something close to the contemporary rolling suitcase came about, when American entrepreneur Bernard Sadow had the bright idea to affix four wheels and a short strap to his bag, thus enabling it to be dragged rather than carried.
It took a while to persuade male passengers that this was a good idea - many initially resisted on the grounds of it being wimpish and un-masculine to wheel a suitcase around. But eventually, aggressive marketing won out and they conceded.
More than a decade later, in 1987, Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath changed the orientation of the suitcase to upright and sideways (rather than flat) and added a handle. This was the birth of the now-ubiquitous Rollaboard suitcase, and meant that cabin crew and passengers could avoid checking their suitcases so long as they packed light.
The extendable, pull-up handle we are used to on modern suitcases was invented in 1993 by designer Don Ku.
Today, of course, baggage comes with all sorts of bells and whistles. ‘Smart luggage’ - not without its issues - can charge your phone, weigh itself, be location tracked - and even follow you around like a robot, negating the need to wheel it yourself. A bit wimpish? Or the next chapter in travel. That remains to be seen.
Luggage, published by Bloomsbury, is available to order online, RRP £6.99.
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