Luterma plywood bags

Researching for Plywood: Material of the Modern World we have uncovered many unusual and unexpected uses of plywood. It was used by the ancient Egyptians to make coffins, by an American inventor in the 19th century to build an elevated tubular railway and by Antarctic explorers to furnish their expedition huts.

In the early 20th century the Estonian company Luterma (previously A.M. Luther) began manufacturing an array products from suitcases to hatboxes, laundry bins, barrels and trays. These commonplace items, which you might expect to be made of leather, wicker, solid wood or metal, were surprisingly made of plywood.

Suitcase made of moulded and sheet birch plywood. Originally owned by the architectural critic P. Morton Shand who was a contributor to the Architectural Review. Manufactured by Luterma in Esonia, about 1930.

Suitcase, originally owned by P. Morton Shand, contributor to the Architectural Review, manufactured by Luterma (previously A.M. Luther), distributed by Venesta, birch plywood, Estonia, about 1930. Museum no. W.12-2016. Given by the Shand family. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hatbox made of moulded birch plywood. Manufactured by Luterma in Estonia in about 1930.

Hatbox, manufactured by Luterma (previously A.M. Luther), distributed by Venesta, birch plywood, Estonia, about 1930. Museum no. W.11-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hatboxes made of moulded birch plywood, one manufactured in Russia (present-day Estonia) by A.M Luther (later Luterma) the other in the USA by Samson (later Samsonite).

Top: Hatbox, manufactured by A.M. Luther (later Luterma), birch plywood, Russia (present-day Estonia), about 1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bottom: Hatbox, manufactured by Samson (later Samsonite), birch plywood, USA, about 1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Among this array of products Luterma also made small cylindrical plywood bags. But why make a bag in plywood? Well there are a number of possible reasons for this. A good starting point is to look at what the bags would have been used for.

Small bag made of moulded birch plywood. Possibly used as a handbag or for collecting botanical specimens. Manufactured by Luterma in Estonia, about 1930.

Small bag, possibly used as a handbag or for collecting botanical specimens, manufactured by Luterma (previously A.M. Luther), birch plywood, Estonia, about 1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bag made of moulded birch plywood. Probably used as a handbag or lunchbox. Manufactured by Luterma in Estonia in about 1930.

Bag, possibly used as a handbag or lunchbox, manufactured by Luterma (previously A.M. Luther), birch plywood, Estonia, about 1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Page from Luterma catalogue showing plywood handbags and bags for collecting botanical samples.

Page from Luterma catalogue, published in Estonia, about 1920. Courtesy of the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design

A Luterma catalogue from about 1920 reveals that one of the intended uses for the bags was as a receptacle for botanical specimens. It therefore seems likely that the design of these bags was based on the vasculum – a container used by botanists for storing plant samples whilst collecting in the field. The origin of the vasculum has been traced back to a least as early as the 1700s and they were in use by botanists until about the mid-20th century. They came in several forms but the most common was a long, slightly flattened, cylindrical container made of metal with a hinged opening running along its length. They were usually carried over the shoulder by a leather or fabric strap but occasionally had a handle.

Vasculum previously owned by Charles Darwin.

Vasculum, used by Charles Darwin when he travelled the world aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, painted tinned steel with textile cord (according to conservation report by Rachel Weatherall in August 2017), 19th century. Permission of The Linnean Society of London

Vasculum made of lacquered metal with original canvas strap. Manufactured in France in the 20th century.

Vasculum, manufacturer unknown, lacquered metal with canvas strap and metal buckles, France, 20th century. Courtesy of www.oldgardentools.co.uk

Many renowned botanists and scientists are known to have owned a vasculum including Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) and Charles Darwin (1809-82) – whose vasculum (illustrated above) is still held in the collection of The Linnean Society of London. In Tove Jansson’s (1914-2001) Moomins series of books and comic strips one of the Hemulens characters – a grumpy and obsessive botanist – is often pictured carrying a vasculum over his shoulder (though it is not clear whether it is a plywood or metal one). Once collected the specimens could be taken home and pressed or illustrations could be made of them (or in the case of Anna Atkins (1799-1871) cyanotype photographs).

Comic strip showing Moon and a Hemulen with his vasculum

Illustration showing a Hemulen with his vasculum. From Tove Jansson, Moon and the Brigands, first published 7 July 1954. © Moomin Characters TM

Botanical illustration by William Kilburn showing a flowering rush.

William Kilburn (1745-1818), ‘Butomus Umbellatus [Flowering Rush]’ from William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis, engraving, London, 1777-1798. Museum no. E.457-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cyanotype photograph showing dandelions in the style of a botanical illustration

Anna Atkins, ‘Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale)’, cyanotype, Britain, about 1854. Museum no. PH.382-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Luterma’s plywood bag is so strikingly similar in form to the metal vasculum that it is almost undeniable that this was the inspiration for their design. Plywood would have been a very suitable alternative to metal as it is lightweight, so not tiresome to carry on long journeys collecting specimens, and is strong and rigid meaning the specimens would not get squashed. It can also be easily moulded into the same cylindrical shape of the vasculum.

Plywood even has several advantages over metal: it does not conduct heat so it would be easier to keep the specimens cool and prevent them from drying out; it also does not rust (metal containers were often painted or lacquered to help prevent rusting).  Both of these were common concerns often debated by botanists. Whilst collecting specimens in the tropical Cape Verde Islands in 1839 British Botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker noted: ‘The poor withered herbs that I gathered on my previous excursions used on my return to be more crumpled still from the fiery heat of the sun beating on the vasculum, and sorry specimens they have made…’

Although it seems that the form of the bags was based on the vasculum they were not solely intended to be used for collecting plants. The catalogue also advertises them as being Ovaalsed Käsitrommlid which roughly translates to ‘oval hand carton’. These bags were probably intended to carry small items, like a handbag, and were also sometimes used to contain sandwiches.

The bags would have been used by both women and men. We have come across two depictions of people using the bags – a photograph on a postcard and film footage taken at the 1924 Tallinn International Trade and Industrial Exhibition which can be watched here [at 02:30]. In both of these instances the bags are being carried by men.

The same Luterma catalogue lists a third type of bag a Kooliranits – which is a school bag. The design for this bag has been adapted from the satchel – bags made of leather or canvas usually carried across the body by a single strap or with two straps, to be carried like a backpack. These bags were invented by the Romans and were carried by soldiers. In the 1920s they were commonly used by school children, the military and by the postal service to carry mail.

Page from Luterma catalogue showing plywood school satchel.

Page from Luterma catalogue, published in Estonia, about 1920. Courtesy of the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design

Leather school satchel with metal buckles and studs. Probably made in Britain about 1930-1939.

Satchel, maker unknown, leather with metal buckles and studs, probably made in Britain, about 1930-1939. Museum no. MISC.81-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2 thoughts on “Luterma plywood bags

Aurelie:

Oh this article is very interesting! I am looking for ideas to make a vasculum by myself for collecting plants, and I didn’t think birch plywood could be an option.
Thank you for sharing your researches,
Aurelie

Dave Spathaky:

I have a box made in Sweden from thin birch wood which was made using roots to tie the parts together. The curved wall is either soaked or steamed. And fixed with pegs and wood resin glue. So there is a tradition of making curved boxes and bags from wood, not always from plywood.

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