A HISTORY OF VINTAGE LUGGAGE
AN OVERVIEW OF VINTAGE LUGGAGE
The history of vintage luggage is closely related to the history of travel, and also the history of hotels.
As time passed from the 19th to 20th Centuries and the use of staff, both personal and professional declined, the need for more personal (and lightweight) luggage arose. This, combined with the advent of air travel and the associated weight restrictions begat a universal reduction in the weight, size and structure of luggage.
The use of motor car travel, the individual liberalisation of travel was also, in part responsible for this change in attitude to one’s luggage. After all, without servants, who would want to lug an enormous trunk around with them? The days of the formalised groupings of structured and tiered heavy luggage and trunks was drawing to a close.
However, firms such as Louis Vuitton continues to produce such luggage groupings, now the sole preserve of those able to afford both the cost of such luxury luggage, and the associated costs of transporting the luggage itself.
With the advent of air travel a new generation of luggage materials were experimented with due to the avoidance of ‘excess baggage’ charges. These material included vulcanised fibre, raffia, wicker and lightweight alloys, all used to replace the heavier structured cases of leather and wood.
Many examples of vintage luggage bear witness to their travels, rather like a passport bears stamps and visas of exotic locations. With vintage luggage, a story can be gleaned, detective like, from the applied and attached history of its adventure labels.
One might find luggage with embossed or applied initials and crests, depending upon the previous owner’s pedigree, and these might be gold blocked or applied silver tags. The luggage tag itself, generally of a similar leather to the case itself, might also bear additional witness to the history of the case’s ownership, rather like the tax-discs of a car left in place behind the current disc.
The exotic and colourful applied labels for travel, destination and hotel can be a fascinating feature of a vintage case, individual cases bearing testament to the exotic travels, from Marrakech to Moscow, Berlin to Bermuda. These paper labels were used as a means of identifying the luggage’s destination and also a quiet means of advertising the hotel or holiday destination. Collectible in their own right, the labels are an example of the ephemera of the great age of travel, and the romanticism of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
A GUIDE TO QUALITY
The quality and condition of vintage luggage will have a direct relationship to its value, therefore for the dealer, collector, prop-master and decorator it might be useful to have a relative understanding of the factors of both quality and condition.
Aside from the applied clues to a case’s history, as discussed earlier, the construction and materials used will be examined to determine the scale of desirability.
The most common material used in luggage is leather, tanned for preservation, and in the case of vintage luggage, worn and ‘patinated’, each small knock, dent and bruise adding to the charm, history and character of the case. Just as we might view an interesting old characterful face as bearing witness to that person’s life, a case might partially reveal its history through its visual mapping.
For the collector and dealer of vintage luggage, condition is paramount – generally speaking, the better (untouched and original) the condition, the higher the price, rarity and collectibility.
Leather should be nourished and treated regularly to maintain its suppleness, colour and flexibility, there being many proprietary saddle soaps, waxes and creams. One should check the leather at its most vulnerable and heavily used areas, namely the seams, hinges and corners. These stress prone areas bear the heaviest wear and degradation.
Sometimes re-stitching might be suitable and perfectly acceptable solution to damage and wear, but beware of dry, perished and inflexible leather as generally speaking this cannot be repaired, hence replacement is the more expensive and less acceptable solution.
When judging quality there are several indications and pointers, and the most important of these is the maker’s mark or stamp (see below for a directory of manufacturers of vintage luggage). These marks are generally found on the leading edge of the case, inside the leading edge, or perhaps applied to the internal fabric of cotton, silk or chamois.
The more superior suppliers and manufacturers were less discrete with their markings, companies such as Finnigan Ltd, Insall & Son, and Brachers made a virtue of their branding and advertising – early examples of the ‘power of the brand’.
The locks too have an association with the quality, rarity and value of a case. Again, many of the more significant manufacturers would have locks stamped with their name/brand. Companies such as Finnigan Ltd, Barret & So, F. Lansdowne, John Pound & Co all had their name integrated into the lock plate, and Louis Vuitton would have both their name and serial number on each lock.
With case locks it can be read that a 4 lever lock implies a superior quality than that of a 3 lever lock, and so on to a single lever, and, as the country of origin might also indicate the location of the case’s origin both in terms of country and city.
Ideally a case will be preserved in original fine condition, with minor wear, but bearing the patina of use and care. One might consider the analogy of getting into a fine old car, maybe a Jaguar or Rolls Royce, and rejoicing in the scent of ‘wood and leather’, but subliminally relishing the gentle wear and ageing of the interior.
Some cases of the finest hide, crocodile or rare skins might be found with a canvas cover – this indicates the initial quality and cost of the case was something worth preserving and caring for. These canvas slip cases also add a gentle polish to the case, each time it is slipped on and off, like a coin each time it is handled.
Consider the metal the lock is made of, the highest quality locks might be silver, and thereafter gun-metal, brass, iron and tin, in descending order. Many locks have been electroplated in nickel, and this has, in many instances, been polished away to reveal a more ‘currently commercial’ brass lock underneath. One pointer to avoid is rust and pitting of the locks, as this indicates a cheap and low quality lock, and by association a lesser quality case.
THE MANUFACTURE OF VINTAGE LUGGAGE
(WITH A BRIEF HISTORY OF LEATHER AND SKINS)
Generally hide luggage was made over a timber frame, often of oak, mahogany but generally pine. This timber framework was sometimes externalised, resulting in ‘wood banded’ or ‘hooped’ luggage.
These wooden banded cases were often interspersed with brown or green canvas and occasionally, leather. Some larger trunks were constituted over a wicker foundation.
Generally cases were made of cowhide, of many varieties of grade and thickness. Perhaps the highest quality leather used in case manufacture is Connolly Leather.
Prior to practical use leather has to undergo a process called ‘tanning’, which involves the leather being stripped of both its external and internal layers, leaving the central layer, called ‘derma’.
Tanning can be achieved by using animal, vegetable or mineral means, the oldest method being the vegetable tanning. This involves tannic acid or ‘tannin’ often derived from oak, hemlock or chestnut, whilst non-European tanning processes use local materials. Also a synthetic was developed in the 1920’s. The process, which can take 3 moths, involves soaking and draining the leather in subsequently stronger tannin solutions. Mineral tanning involves the use of the chemical alum.
The finishing of leather produced many of the common and lesser known effect found in vintage luggage, from the chromium pickling process which produce glace kid leather to currying and glazing with a ‘glassing jack’.
Commonly used cowhide was often stamped with a warrantee or ‘genuine cowhide’ mark. A particularly rare method of treating leather is that of ‘Norfolk Hide’ and unusual process whose finished articles belie their leather origin by appearing to have been pressed from a single sheet, with no seams or joins.