By Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru
During the past year, this column has identified travel as both a favorite pastime
and a significant generator of spending, jobs, and tax revenues.
Have you ever considered where leisure or business travelers would be without a simple
innovation—the suitcase? One might presume that such carriers have been around
for as long as humankind itself.
However, that simply is not the case (rim shot).
Freelance journalist Daniel Gross, writing in the Smithsonian, tells us that the large travel trunk—a monstrosity built of wood, leather, and having a heavy iron
base—was the standard carrier for personal effects throughout the nineteenth
century. Because most travel was aboard steamship, these trunks tended to be
waterproofed by means of a canvas cover or a coating of tree sap.
Travelers during this time period tended to be from the upper classes of society; therefore, fortuitously, they had the means to pay porters and bellhops to do their heavy
According to Gross, one of the earliest references to an alternative form of carry-all
came from Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1873). In the book,
Verne has Phileas Fogg instruct Passepartout to pack in ‘carpet bags’ in order to
facilitate intermodal travel by the pair.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a container designed primarily for men’s suits
made its appearance on the travel scene. This ‘suit case’ arrived in time to support
the beginnings of mass tourism, with a growing middle class traveling by sea and
rail. Trunks remained in vogue until the 1910s, when they were supplanted in
popularity by the ‘suitcase’. Early suitcases were made of wool, linen, or leather.
These were relatively flat and not very deep, with rounded corners, making them
easier to carry than trunks.
In 1910, the Shwayder brothers established what soon became known as the
Samsonite Company. Early Samsonite suitcases were made of a durable combination
of vulcanized fiber and polypropylene. By the 1930s, automobile travel had taken its
place as the conveyance of choice. With no space for huge, heavy, space wasters,
auto travelers employed suitcases comprised of cardboard or plastic. During the
1960s, air travel increased in popularity; and lightweight cases of hard plastic with
alloy frames made their appearance. These cases utilized robust zippers in place of
the strong clasps characteristic of trunks.
These innovations were in full evidence on December 19, 1970, as my wife and I left
on our honeymoon trip to Bermuda. My Samsonite was the older of our carriers. A
book-shape design, it was divided equally between a suit compartment and a
section intended to hold everything else. So sturdy was my Samsonite that the crew
could have dropped it from considerable altitude without any visible damage to the
bag’s exterior. My wife’s suitcase was the more modern shoebox shape.
Made of lighter materials, the lid was narrow with a deep body. Her case was closed by
means of a zipper.
Had we waited two more years to begin married life, we would have benefitted from
Bernard Sadow’s innovation—the wheeled suitcase. This bag was maneuvered by
means of a leather strap. Several years later, I had the misadventure to borrow an
early Sadow suitcase and, failing to control the massive rolling crate while crossing a
Minneapolis street, lost one of the beast’s wheels. Needless to say, the remainder of
my trip was a drag (rim shot deux).
Suitcases of today are descended from the innovations of the Shwayders and Sadow,
with several important new elements. In 1987, the wheeled Rollaboard bag
introduced a collapsible handle. Bags after this point primarily traveled vertically,
rather than horizontally. The year 2000 saw the introduction of super light
polypropylene construction. In 2004, a German innovation—spinner
wheels—added the final characteristic of contemporary suitcases.
My wife has become a student of each new component, but I am not. I’m holding out
for the day when my clothing and other necessities can be beamed right from the
bedroom to our next destination.
After forty years as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Mark Okrant joins IndepthNH.org to offer concise, informative insight into New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry as a business, while showcasing the people and places you want to know. This guy’s really been around. And, he’s funny, too.
For more about Mark’s compelling tourism-based murder mystery series, visit www.markokrant.com.
For information on current things to do in New Hampshire, go to: http://www.visitnh.gov/what-to-do/event-calendar.aspx