Making a case for the Suitcase

Believe it or not, even though we can’t imagine travel without this particular item, the suitcase as we know it has only been around for just over a century

Words Aninda Sardar

Travel is as old as human civilisation itself. Older in fact, since humans were habitually nomadic before the Agricultural Revolution (the discovery of farming) made us settle in one place. Eventually, old habits die hard, and we started moving here and there again. In the beginning the agenda was conquest. So we moved with baggage trains, supply columns for our armies, or we carried whatever we could in bundles as fled from those armies. This continued for a few millennia. 

Some of us mavericks however decided that we could travel for other reasons too. Trade, for instance. Or just for the heck of it. So we started exploring lands, discovering new places and the more we explored, the greater our curiosity. So if we weren’t trying to find a way around the globe to the Indies and discovering America in the process, we were trying to Cook up new paths to a whole new continent we now call Australia. Whatever our reason for travel, there was one problem that needed solving right at the start. How do we carry our belongings?


There was no such thing as a suitcase just a couple of hundred years ago

With travel being conducted either by road or by sea, for the longest time ever people were happy to pack their stuff into big wooden trunks or chests and carry them around, either in the cargo hold of ships or in carts drawn by beasts of burden. As late as the late 19th century, this was the preferred mode of carrying your things around. Besides, travel was difficult and mostly restricted to the wealthy. And they, anyway always had an army of servants to carry their things around. Those heavy trunks included.


It is only with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent mass movement that it brought that we see the arrival of the ubiquitous suitcase. At first it was constructed to mimic those trunks of yore – flat and rectangular, but with far less space, and a handle for convenient carrying around. Construction was simple too. A wooden or metal frame with leather or canvas or thick cloth covering it. The corners would usually be bound by leather or brass. Convenient though it was, the suitcase was still obscure and hardly the sought after luggage option it is today. In fact, according to the magazine published by the Smithsonian Institute, a 20-page list of luggage types published in a wholesale price-list in 1897 had the suitcase mentioned just twice! By 1907, there were enough to share a page with club bags and valises while trunks took up a full page. Things took a dramatic turn, an upward swing for the suitcase, in the 1920s when people started travelling in automobiles and suddenly the gentry felt the need for both space and convenience to carry their belongings in these smoke belching four wheeled horseless wagons. This was augmented by the rise of long distance train travel, where unlike a ship, space was relatively limited and having convenient luggage was a necessity.


Air travel paved the way for the rise of the suitcase

The suitcase as a gentleman’s principal luggage option only took off (pun intended) with the arrival of air travel. For obvious reasons, since space in an aircraft is at a hefty premium. Over the last six and a half decades of commercial air travel (here, I discount the early years) suitcases have moved into a whole new dimension with the invention of ever lighter yet stronger materials of construction, flexible materials, and of course the strolley. Over time the suitcase has also become a lifestyle statement with different brands operating in different kinds of luggage options ranging from mass market to luxury. Not to mention the stickers on the suitcase denoting whether you’re a well travelled gent or not.


If only the suitcase had been as commonplace for the eccentric Londoner Phileas Fogg back in 1873 as it is in 2019. He would still have had to go Around the World in 80 Days but at least his French valet Passepartout would have been able to pack more than two shirts and three pairs of stockings in a carpet bag. Don’t know who they are? Just throw in a copy of Jules Verne’s novel in your suitcase when you travel next.