When a suitcase is more than just luggage
  • What’s the story behind old suitcase filled with toddler’s clothes?
  • Janet & Sherry the auction hunters: Day 1
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    Auction Finds

    When luggage told the story of our travels

    The suitcase looked to have belonged to a military man. It was a dull green canvas with four narrow wooden slats fitted around it like belts. It sat there unassumingly on the concrete floor near the entrance to the auction house, looking much different from the other trunks and suitcases that seemed to have sprouted like weeds lately at auction.

    It was low to the floor and scuffed from too many trips. It had two small labels barely readable through the fading and dust on them. The interior was covered in thin fabric the color of muslin. There was a maker’s medallion in the center of the top and some tears in the cloth.

    A vintage military-style suitcase up for auction.


    The suitcase had two identical labels with “the Great Northern Railway, Delivered Luggage” printed on them. (I found out later that this had been a Midwest railroad with routes stretching from St. Paul, MN, to Seattle, WA.)

    Next to it sat a large black trunk with a wooden tray and some disparate papers and letters inside.

    I’m sure most people just walked right past the two in their search for goodies on the auction tables. But not me. I had begun noticing trunks and suitcases over the past few weeks because more and more seemed to be appearing at auctions. A few had baggage labels, most did not.

    I was drawn more to the labels because they were pointers to the cities and countries the owners had traveled to, and the vessels that took them there. Today, we throw a few clothes in a small bag with wheels that we can carry onto a plane to avoid paying the horrendous fee to check our luggage. Even if we checked them, there would be no one affixing airline or hotel labels. And if they did, we’d be charged for the service.

    Inside the military-style suitcase.

    If you get a hankering for vintage baggage labels, I found plenty of sites on the web where you can pick up a few for a couple bucks. Or if you travel abroad, you can just get by with your stamped passport.

    Airplanes don’t come to mind when I think of old suitcases and steamer trunks. I think of ocean liners and steamships, which were the most favorite mode of travel between the late 1900s to World War II. The Cunard Line was one of the of the best known shipping lines in the world, and the company prides itself on having some of the most famous people in the world as its passengers.

    Labels for ship lines and hotels show where the owner has traveled.

    A label for the line was affixed to one suitcase at auction recently. A bit tattered, the suitcase was also covered in stickers for the United States Line; the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Co.; Hotel Metropole Wein; Carlton Hotel, Chamonix, Mont Blanc; Hotel De L’Europe, plus more. There was no indication of when the traveling occurred.

    The New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Co. (commonly known as the Ward Line) sailed from New York to Cuba, Mexico and the Bahamas up until 1954. It started out in 1841 as a freight shipper and got into steamship travel in 1877. The name of the company was later changed to the Cuba Mail Line. The United States Line operated ocean liners until 1969; its most famous was the SS United States.

    One hotel label on the suitcase became infamous in World War II for its occupants. The once-elegant Hotel Metropole in Vienna was the headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, starting in 1938. Built in the 1870s, the place was bombed and destroyed near the end of the war. Under the Nazis, it was the site of the torture and murder of Jews and others, and a memorial was erected there to honor the victims.

    The Hotel De L’Europe may have been the luxury hotel in Amsterdam (five-star) or Paris (“a charming 2-star,” according to the hotel).

    This trunk was in the basement at an estate sale.

    I’m not sure if all of the trunks had made trips aboard ships or trains. Some may have just spent their time in a basement or closet holding clothes, mementos and other items. I found one such basement dweller at an on-site estate sale recently. The trunk was filled with clean white linens.

    Most of the trunks at auction were pretty utilitarian. There are some famous ones, though, including the Jenny Lind trunk, named after the singer dubbed the Swedish Nightingale. And then there’s this beautiful circa 1900s Louis Vuitton antique trunk selling for $22,500 on the web. It still has its stickers from luxury hotels around the world.

    Here are some of the other trunks and suitcases I came across at auction:

    A sturdy trunk with heavy water stains inside.

    A trunk containing papers and letters.

    Suitcases waiting to be auctioned. They apparently had traveled many miles because they were not in good shape.

    The luggage we use today .




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