When Phileas Fogg decides to circle the globe in Around the World in 80 Days, the 1873 novel by Jules Verne, he doesn’t take a suitcase.
“We’ll have no trunks,” he says to his servant Passepartout, “only a carpet bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you. We’ll buy our clothes on the way.”
At the time, the suitcase as we know it today hardly existed. In Verne’s day, proper travel required a hefty trunk built of wood, leather, and often a heavy iron base.
The best trunks were waterproofed with canvas or tree sap, as steamships were a reigning mode of travel.
Without this protection, a suitcase in the hold of a heaving, leaky ship would probably have been wet within a few hours, and crushed by sliding trunks within a few more.
The Humble Carpet Bag.
When the suitcase finally did catch on at the end of the 19th century, it was quite literally a case for suits. A typical suitcase came equipped with an inner sleeve for storing shirts, and sometimes a little hat box on the side.
But even in the early 20th century, the “dress-suit case” was only one of countless styles of container that travelers could buy, from steamer trunks to club bags to Eveready portable wardrobes. These were boom times for the baggage business.
Which, of course, probably seems like an utterly useless fact. Most people care about containers much less than they care about the things containers contain—the pairs of pants, the paperback books, the miniature bottles of shampoo.
But the history of the suitcase spans every major transportation revolution since the steamship.
And this means that suitcases carry a lot more than spare socks and underwear—they carry in their design a subtle history of human movement.