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Leather suitcase

The railways revolutionised the way people travelled, opening up opportunities for people of all classes to make journeys more quickly and cheaply than ever before, and to visit places that had previously been out of their reach. Before the late 1800s, it was mainly the wealthy who travelled for ‘travel’s sake’ – to take in the delights of London or stay in summer houses in the country perhaps, or to absorb arts and culture on ‘grand tours’ across Europe. These travellers would bring along their clothes and belongings in heavy trunks, packed and carried by servants. But as people’s travelling habits changed, so did their luggage.

Leather suitcase, 1939

The first ‘suitcases’ began to emerge in the late 1800s – and they were just that, a case for suits. They usually included a special sleeve for shirts and sometimes a hat box. During the early 1900s, these evolved into something we would recognise as a suitcase today – like this one. Usually made of leather, or a thick ‘rubbery’ cloth stretched over a wooden frame, they were smaller and lighter than a trunk. A flatter shape and one handle on the longest side made them easier to carry. The owner of this one was travelling from Armley (west of Leeds) to Stockton-on-Tees and had paid a fee of two shillings to transport his or her luggage on the London & North Eastern Railway.

The development of flight travel, where space and weight are strictly limited, has been the key factor influencing the design of the suitcases we recognise today. Made from synthetic fibres, incorporating wheels and telescopic handles and with zips replacing clunky metal clasps, they are now more lightweight, compact and portable than ever before.

Image courtesy of Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum