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Luggage: A Short History

For something with such a brief lifespan, luggage has an impressive collection of inventions to its name.  There was Louis Vuitton’s flat topped trunk in the 1850’s, Rimowa’s aluminium suitcase that launched in 1950, Bernard Sadow’s revolutionary wheeled suitcase patent in 1970, and Rollaboard’s collapsible handle which hit the market in 1987. But perhaps one of the most innovative moves has come from an entrepreneurial Frenchman with a penchant for buffalo leather, who has turned back the clock a century.

Luggage design has always been tightly linked to mass transport, and in the beginning we travelled by ship.  Waterproofed with canvas or tree sap, trunks were traditionally made from wood or leather and could weigh up to 100 pounds before they’d been filled – owing to their heavy iron base designed to stop them sliding around.  Their weight was of little consequence to their owners as in those days luggage was the concern of the hired help.

By 1900, travel had become democratised and luggage was no longer purely the domain of the wealthy.  Gone were the days of European Grand Tours complete with servant-driven coaches filled with furniture and trunks.  Swiss hotels were recording millions of overnight stays per year and people needed smaller, lightweight luggage that could be hauled from station to inn with relative ease.

While suitcases had been on the market since 1837, they didn’t have their moment for almost 60 years.  Essentially wood or steel frames with leather, wicker or thick rubbery cloth stretched over them, they were a definite improvement on a trunk by no means a breeze – though more lightweight versions were marketed specifically to women. 

A 1933 business report written to President Franklin Roosevelt by Hugh S. Johnson, an administrator in the National Recovery Administration, put it this way: “With the increase in the use of automobiles, it has become easy to utilize simple cardboard containers secured at little or no cost, in the back of the automobile in lieu of luggage.”

In other words, the luggage industry had to lighten their wares if they wanted to survive.

While Rimowa’s aluminium case (the design of which has barely been modified) changed the game in 1950, it is Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company, now Samsonite, who is credited with popularising lightweight luggage. 

The polycarbonate and alloy hardshell luggage of today may be the result of two centuries of experimentation, but it’s also thanks to a bevy of specially-designed testing machinery such as tumblers, (dryer-like machines that literally tumble suitcases), jerk-testers (machines that yank expandable handles to test their strength), and treadmills equipped with bars to simulate a bumpy journey.

By and large, modern day luggage design essentially draws inspiration from aviation regulations.  However there’s one man in northern France who sees things differently.  From his studio in Rouen, Florent Poirer recreates luggage designs from days gone by using pungent, fine grain buffalo leather.  Since 2010 he’s designed messenger bags – the kind that La Poste employees used to carry – old-school folios, a classic duffle bag and even leather sunglasses wraps - inspired by pilot’s goggle cases from the Wright brothers era.

French philosopher Pierre Corneille’s comment on age and worth (“Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n'attend pas le nombre des années,”) inspired Florent’s project, and each piece is carefully crafted.   Launching Paul Marius in 2010 was a gutsy move in the face of the inventions coming out of Samsonite’s tumblers, but Florent says it was a calculated one. 

“We must not be afraid of losing to succeed,” he says.  Indeed. 

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Check out the Paul Marius Mécanographe and shoulder bag.

First image from CrossvillE.  With help from the Smithsonian and Tendance Ouest