The steamer trunk, if packed carefully and practically, holds all that any woman need require for the voyage to Europe. Since crossing to the other side has become an everyday affair, the question of what to take on the voyage has become a practical science – not a guesswork proposition.
Travelling light wasn't easy for the increasingly popular, lengthy transatlantic crossings that were made in the 19th century. Voyagers required an array of suitable ensembles and toiletries for various social encounters, and the clothing itself was often weighty, having to provide warmth against the cold ocean air. Additionally, luggage of the era was cumbersome and heavy, and the prospect of further onward travel once ashore meant the smaller confines of a train or carriage had to be considered.
For most passengers, there was an added financial incentive to pack cleverly and with restraint – charges were incurred for excess baggage, the contents of which could be further subjected to customs charges. Travelling trunks of the era therefore evolved to meet their specific needs, presenting clever solutions to the woes of travelling – many of which we still face today in the 21st century.
SELECTING AND PACKING YOUR TRUNK
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, women's journals offered advice to prospective ocean-voyagers. Articles paid particular attention to the selection and preparation of luggage, detailing the various types of customisable travelling trunks, bags, and valises available; what to pack for the journey; and, describing the most efficient system of packing with step-by-step illustrated guides. It was not unusual for first-class travellers to travel with an extensive suite of luggage, some of which was only required for the ocean-voyage itself and would go into onshore storage whilst its owner travelled onward. Investing in the most suitable pieces of luggage and packing them strategically would therefore increase the likelihood of a smooth journey. Questions to consider included: Which items would you need access to, and at which stage of the journey? Which luggage was suitable to go in the hold, which was inaccessible for the duration of the voyage? How many pieces of luggage could you carry? And, are your possessions suitably packed to withstand the rough handling of the journey's various stages?
The Bazar advises its readers not to buy a cheap trunk, for an essential requisite to the enjoyment of a tour is the knowledge that the baggage is secure; and anxiety about a lady's wardrobe has been known to detract even from the pleasures of a bridal tour.
Practical tips guided the traveller through the entire packing process; from lining the trunk with a sheet and placing the heaviest items at the bottom, to keeping possessions most readily needed at the top. Readers were advised on the best order in which to layer their ensembles, how to use tissue, padding and pins to shape and protect delicate pieces, and which garments to avoid packing altogether, such as those of “gauze, chiffon, or accordion-plaited stuff…as its beauty is destroyed in a few hours’ dampness” (New York Journal and Advertiser, May 16th, 1897). As a general rule, folding was to be avoided in case unsightly creasing occurred. If unavoidable, however, vertical folds were recommended over horizontal folds, as the creases produced would more readily disappear from clothing once unpacked.
A single toss of the trunk that is loosely packed means a hopeless jumble of hats, wraps, bodices, laces, and what not.
“the very de luxe of trunkdom”
Such practical concerns of economising space did not burden the wealthiest passengers. Miss Emilie Busbey Grigsby, an affluent American socialite, crossed the Atlantic regularly during the early 20th century, accompanied by an impressive assortment of the highest quality luggage. One such piece – a travelling trunk – is now held within the V&A's collections, and close study of the trunk provides an insight into the experience of recreational ocean-voyaging and the role luggage would play.
As an aspirational woman with fashionable flair, Miss Grigsby naturally turned to the most elite of all luggage manufacturers – Louis Vuitton. Since 1854, Louis Vuitton – former trunk-maker to Eugénie de Montijo, Empress of France – expertly crafted and packed trunks for the nation's most privileged travellers. Whereas early trunks featured curved-tops to encourage water run-off, Vuitton is credited with introducing the innovative flat-topped trunk to the French market in 1858, an advancement only made possible by its unique water-tight design. This more convenient, stackable form of trunk bore all of Vuitton's renowned quality, whilst remaining lightweight and sturdy. By 1896, the brand's entire range of goods would become instantly recognisable, with the launch of the now iconic L.V. Monogram Canvas. Literally stamped all over with luxury, Louis Vuitton luggage could convey in one glance the wealth and taste of their esteemed owner.
The modern trunk has a flat top, and the round-topped trunk of only a few years ago now looks old-fashioned beside it. The flat-topped trunk stacks easier in a baggage car, it packs away better in a store-room and it makes a very good seat in a room in a summer hotel…
In the late nineteenth century, Louis Vuitton luggage could only be purchased in Europe, ensuring an air of exclusivity that would have heightened the brand's allure to an American such as Miss Grigsby. The brand's reputation for exceptional quality extended far beyond France, and by the early 20th century select retailers in five cities across America sold Louis Vuitton goods. Whilst the quality of Louis Vuitton luggage was widely acknowledged, adverts aimed at the American market focussed on the brands additional ability to bestow its owners with social kudos, marking "its owner as a man or woman of discrimination" and giving "more character to the traveler than fine clothes" (The John Wanamaker Store advert, July 14th 1904). In an enthusiastic advertorial of 1911, one retailer overtly highlights the prestige associated with owning a Louis Vuitton trunk, stating:
Those tiny monograms say to every eye as clearly as if it were spoken in words: "I am the best trunk in all the world! I can have no superior for there is no better trunk made"… So say the Louis Vuitton trunks to all who read their little monogram aright. Seeing them outside her door, one knows instantly that Madame l'Amercaine is a woman of both judgment and knowledge. For Louis Vuitton trunks are recognized universally as the very de luxe of trunkdom – without exception the finest manufactured.
LABELS FROM A LIFETIME OF TRAVEL
Miss Grigsby's trunk still flaunts the travel labels from some of her journeys, charting a lifetime of excursions and attesting to the enduring quality of the trunk. At over one metre in length, the imposing bulk and sturdy construction of such trunks is evident, yet the solid exterior bears the scuffs and scratches from decades of use. First class labels from the Cunard Line, the White Star Line, and the Holland-America Line, along with supporting documentation in the form of passenger lists, allude to the frequency and high-style in which Miss Grigsby travelled – joining the likes of author F. Scott Fitzgerald and entrepreneur Condé Montrose Nast on some of the most significant ocean liners of the era.
Whilst Miss Grigsby enjoyed the luxury of travelling with a suite of the finest luggage, unconcerned with packing lightly or with restraint, her trunks would have nevertheless undergone the same journey as all other luggage – passing from the baggage handler to the hold, from the baggage reclaim depot to the customs office. It is throughout these various stages that the traveller sees the benefits of selecting a reliable trunk, and packing it appropriately following expert advice, for trunks had to be "secure and strong in order to endure the rough usage of the baggage-men" (Harper's Bazaar, New York, July 25th 1868).
The assorted labels and markings visible on travellers' trunks acted to ease the baggage handling and reclaim process. Several labels here feature a large 'G' for Grigsby as upon arrival at port, luggage would be offloaded and deposited in zones under the initial of the owner's surname. In much the same way as travellers today affix eye-catching ribbons or stickers to their luggage, ocean-faring travellers were also encouraged to "have trunks marked with full name and some striking sign – a red star, or white cross – for ready identification" (Ladies' Home Journal, New York, May 1905). This is the likely purpose of the red and black diagonally-bisected square painted onto the side of Miss Grigsby's trunk – aiming to minimise the frustration of searching for your possessions on a busy dock crowded with homogenous luggage.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Having disembarked and successfully located your luggage, the final hurdle facing many travellers is the prospect of a customs check, and the unwelcome scrutiny of your carefully packed belongings by a customs inspector. Adding to the many considerations that must be made when packing for an ocean-voyage, women's journals made it clear that such an eventuality should be prepared for.
All bags and trunks should be packed with a view to their ready investigation; any confusion or disorder is likely to create suspicion, and very sure to increase delays.
Once you have run the gamut of foreign Customs inspections you will realize that the ordinary methods of packing your trunk are altogether inadequate, and that something different is imperative.
Newspapers of the era took great delight in reporting on the cross-Atlantic toing and froing of American society's elite, including Miss Grigsby, who – despite her wealth – could do little to avoid the lengthy checks and tiresome bureaucracy associated with travel. In 1911, Miss Grigsby's arrival in New York aboard the White Star liner Olympic received significant press coverage for her astonishing volume of luggage, and the valuable jewels contained within. Reported to have travelled with 40 pieces of luggage, one article suggested the customs checks alone took three and a half hours to complete (New York Daily Tribune, September 6th 1911).
After the landing Miss Grigsby drew all the limelight when she went into the customs office on the pier and displayed for Government inspection jewels valued after appraisement at more than $800,000.
FROM THE OCEAN TO THE AIR
After decades of use, Miss Grigsby continued to travel with her trunks, despite swapping the ocean for the air. The limited cargo hold of air travel didn't stop her from bringing 14 pieces of luggage on a flight to Japan in the early 1960s – as revealed by the two BOAC (now British Airways) cargo labels affixed to the top of the trunk. With the advent of commercial air travel, increasingly modern and convenient luggage options were more widely available, and yet, Miss Grigsby remained faithful to her sturdy trunk.
In one final journey, Miss Grigsby's trunk would make its way into the V&A. Fulfilling its true purpose as a luxurious vessel for the transportation of personal possessions, the trunk arrived filled with the remarkable contents of Miss Grigsby's colourful wardrobe, purchased by the museum following her death in 1964.
Find out more in our Bags: Inside Out exhibition.
Discover more about ocean liner travel and style.