this section I will list some of the most common questions I receive about
trunks as well as some outrageous trunk myths!. By reading these you will learn a great deal about trunks, and trunk
Trunk Myths & FAQs Incorrect,
or made up, information about trunks is what I call "Trunk Myths".
This incorrect information has been circulating for a long time. There are 3
reasons for this, one is that these trunk stories are romantic, and sound
plausible. The other reason is what I call the "Magical World Wide
Web" People seen to think that whenever they need some information, they
just Google it!, and it magically appears on their computer. Not so, someone actually
has to do the research, then put it where you can access it. When these intrepid trunk owners find no
information on their trunk (because there is very little to find) they put
their find on eBay, and say how rare it is because they found nothing like it
during their 5 minute search of the internet.
Or, they quote a trunk seller who has some good stories, and the myth
continues. If you want to find " How The Roman Catholic Church Influenced
the Design of Baroque Furniture", you will find reams of information.
Trunks? Not so much. Why? Time. It takes many, many hours of searching to get
even the smallest bit of information. Information that can be called a fact,
not a story. Oh, and then try to tell Mr. trunk owner that his "Rare Pre
Civil War Unicorn Covered Hump Trunk" is actually a 1910 Sears catalog
Canvas covered model. Good luck! Listen, I could ramble for days, but you get the
hint. Sometimes, people would rather hear a great story than the truth, and the
truth is hard to get. Oh yeah, the 3rd reason. Common sense. Some people just
don’t use common sense. If they did these stories would sound ridiculous. I
will elaborate more in the following myth debunking. I spend time each day
trying to find new facts about antique trunks. If I say it is a fact it is
because I have information to back it up. Also, some myths are so preposterous
that common sense is almost enough, and should be. Myth Round top
trunks were made for the elite class, and because of their round tops, these
trunks would be loaded last, and removed first. What a
load. At first read this story sounds like it makes sense. However, if you dig
further you will see it is ludicrous. First, a large dome top can easily weigh
100 lbs empty!, and 200 lbs full. Porters (or baggage smashers as they were
called) did not care how much you paid for your trunk, or its shape. They were
on a schedule to get the trunks loaded. So, naturally the large, heavy trunks
went on the bottom. How you ask? They were most commonly put on their ends. What do you think the lock protectors, slats, and cast iron were for?
Not just good looks. Round top trunks were made for the same reason anything is
made. Looks first, functionality second. A round top trunk looked great, and
had more room. And no, it was not only for the "wealthy elite" (who
comes up with this garbage) Trunk makers, like any business, had a complete
line of goods. These ranged from inexpensive packing trunks, to high priced
Dome tops and Sole Leather trunks.
Myth Monitor Top Trunks Were Named After The USS Monitor Ironclad I was looking at a trunk on eBay when I came across an
interesting statement. The trunk for sale was what many call a Monitor trunk.
Monitor Top trunks have a flat top, and rounded front, and rear corners. The
hardwood slats are bent at a 90 degree angle and go from the front to the back
valance. (see picture at left) These trunks were primarily covered with
metal, but also canvas, and leather, and have the horrendous nickname of
"Waterfall trunk". The statement I read said " It (The Monitor trunk) was named after the
Civil War iron clad battleship USS Monitor because of the resemblance of the
tops". Needless to say I believed that this was yet another trunk
"expert" who thought this sounded good. In any case, I doubt this
person had any actual evidence to back up his statement. Well, I looked at
pictures of the USS Monitor (top, and bottom), and I can assure you there is
nothing that supports that statement. Really now, did I even need to look? Also
stated was that these trunks began showing up in the 1870s, and they usually
had 2 locks. OK, story time is over, time for some facts. After actual research
I can tell you that Monitor Top trunks did not start showing up until
1880s. The earliest
reference I can find for "Monitor" trunk are 2 from 1878, and these
are not Monitor Top trunks. One, is a trunk advertisement (no picture), and the
other is from Goldberg Bros Trunk Co. catalog, 1878. The Goldberg Monitor (Right) looks nothing like the trunk in question, and the description of
the other (see picture Below) sounds nothing like a flat top with rounded corners.
Most Monitor Top trunk ads do NOT use the name Monitor. (see above picture) In
fact I have only found a couple examples (picture, and title) of these trunks
being called Monitor Top trunks (see picture bottom), and they are from the early
1900s. More often they simply describe the trunk (see picture above) as having a
flat top, and rounded corners, or a round top trunk. As far as the 2 locks goes, these trunks did
have double locks much more than any other trunk style, but no more than about
10% had these. I give that percentage after viewing hundreds of these trunks.
People nowadays have a need to label everything,
make some fantastic connection with a name. This is not to say that trunks were
not named after a famous person, or thing. However, a trunk named Martha does
not automatically mean Martha Washington, it could have been the trunk makers
mother. This does not however, stop many from making this fantastic connection,
and call it, not a possibility but, a fact. Some trunk makers did have names
for their trunks like Alice, Hector, America, and Beauty. Other makers used
numbers like No. 10 Canvas, No. X, and
No. XX. However most referred to a trunk by what it was covered with, not its
shape. Names like, Zinc Covered Dressing Trunk, Gentleman's Sole Leather Trunk,
and Waterproof Duck Saratoga were more common than Convex Top Zinc Trunk. (yes
that is what they called the top in this ad)
Most often people will
something long after it is gone as a means of categorizing it, and most often
they are wrong. Did you ever play that game in school where you whisper
something to the person next to you and they do it, and so on? Then at the end
the last person tells what he heard, and it is nothing like the original
statement? OK, now add 130 years. Do I think the trunks that were named monitor
have anything to do with the vessel? Sure, maybe. The USS Monitor was basically
a tank on water. So, a trunk with that name would infer a study, durable trunk.
However, to blindly make a statement, and call it a fact, is reckless.
How can I date my trunk? How
old a trunk is can be a more heated discussion that talking politics. If you
can come within a 5 to 7 year range, I believe you are doing pretty good. These
guidelines are to help you narrow down the age of your trunk. Remember all of
this information overlaps, and there is no date, and time when one style was
switched to another. There are also no absolutes, as there are always
exceptions. Think of this information as pieces to a puzzle, that when complete
it is much more revealing. To determine the approximate age of your trunk you will have to look at a few things.
Coverings. What a trunk is covered
with can help you narrow down its age.
Hair, Animal Hair, or Hide covered trunks. These trunks
were in use till around the early 1800s. Usually smaller, with an animal hide,
such as deer, used to cover the exterior.
Zinc. Many trunks were covered
with flat, or an embossed pattern (usually geometric) of pure Zinc (metal). If
a trunk is Zinc covered it will have a gray appearance, and it will be
non-magnetic. These trunks were prior to around 1880, and we see the beginnings
of Zinc on the bottoms of Jenny Lind trunks from the early 1860s.
Leather. Leather trunks have
"been around forever", but the early 1800s is when they started using
tanned, tooled leather on trunks. However, they were pretty much out of the
picture by around the 1890s except for a few high priced models, such as Sole
Leather trunks, which were still being made until about 1910.
Crystallized Metal. These trunks started appearing around 1880,
and went well into the 1890s or early 1900s. The finish looks like crystals in
the metal, and these were colored with lacquer. Gold was the most popular
color, but Silver, Red, Blue, Green, and Orange were used as well. Often the finish
is very worn and those in excellent condition are hard to find. But you
can usually see traces of the original colors and crystal patterns around the
edges and under the lid. Canvas. Canvas covered trunks
started appearing around 1880, and went into the early 1930s. The canvas, or
Duck cloth, was painted to offer some waterproofing, and green being the most
widely used color.
Embossed metal. Embossed metal
trunks with floral, alligator, Lions, Tigers, an Bears…sorry, coverings
started around 1885, and went well into the early 1900s.
Latches or leather straps. Trunk
latches were not in general use until 1872. Any trunk with latches was made
after 1872. The strap, and dowel pin method (a leather strap, and buckle like a
belt, and a dowel pin used to keep the lid from shifting side to side) was used
prior to 1872, and even a little while after. (probably to deplete inventory)
Cross slat trunks The cross slat trunk design (this is where the slats go from front
to back on the top and can go either way on the lower body) was patented by
C.A. Taylor in 1880. This style trunk was called the "New
Design" or "Cross slat", and was extremely popular, and
made by many trunk companies. While trunks with this design were made after
1880, some trunks with slats running lengthwise (side to side) on
top were still being manufactured. So, if your trunk is a cross slat
design, it was made after 1880 and possibly
as late as about 1915.
Patent Dates By
law items such as locks, latches, slat clamps, etc. had to display a patent
date if they were patented. This is very helpful in dating a trunk. However,
the law also states that items too small to put the date on were exempt so, not
all patented items have the date on them. Trunk locks will often have more than
one patent. This is because more than one patent applies to the lock, or a
patent was reissued. There may be a patent date on the latches, the lock, the
casters, slat clamps, and interior pieces. Obviously, the most recent date is
the oldest the trunk can be.
all want our antiques to be as old as possible so, it is human nature to push
the envelope. (why do we lie about or age? hmm…) All, or some, of the tips can
be used to help narrow down the age of your trunk.
I have seen many trunks (including yours) that are all wooden, and others that
have leather, or metal on them. I have even seen a trunk site that calls these
"wooden trunks". Were these trunks made this way? A.
times trunks that were covered with leather or canvas are beyond repair. The
only thing left to do is remove all of the old covering, and finish the wood
underneath. No travel trunks were produced without a covering of some sort. Weather
it be rawhide, leather, metal, carpet, canvas, or Hardwood slats, all trunks had
something on them to protect the box, and for appearance. I have seen these
trunk sites where trunks are described as "wooden" or having
"wood panels". This is just plain wrong. If a refinished trunk is
exposing the trunk box, something was removed. Think about it, a trunk maker
would never expose the soft wood box to the elements. It would be like owning a
car without a paint job. Your car would rust, and look terrible!
I see many types of trunks on eBay. Some look totally different but have the
same name, "Steamer". What gives? A.
I too have
seen the term "Steamer" used incorrectly. About half of all people call any trunk a steamer trunk. Many
times people will call a wardrobe trunk a steamer. However, a true steamer
trunk is a low profile trunk, no more than about 14" high, but can be
small or large in length. The size requirement was one the steamship company's imposed. Some makers also advertised that their trunk would fit under any berth on any ship. Trunks that were brought into your cabin were referred to as "On Voyage".
Here is a quote from the R.M.S. Aquitania, "Baggage wanted on the voyage
must be limited in size to 14 inches in height, 2 feet in width; and 3
feet 8 inches in length." The word Steamer is one of the most misused
How old is my trunk? A. This is a huge question,
and impossible to answer without pictures of the trunk. However, I can narrow things down a bit. The majority of
the trunks that people own today were made between the 1860s and the early
My great grandmother brought our trunk over from Ireland. Was my trunk made in
Ireland? A. 99% of the time, no. A huge
number of trunks were exported to Europe, and other countries for sale to those
immigrating to America. It is kind of funny, thousands of trunks that went
overseas for sale came home shortly after, so we didn't lose many.
What is the difference between Camel-back, and Hump-back trunks? A. This is one that many,
many, people get wrong. There in NO difference because those terms were NEVER
used to describe a trunk. The terms Hump-back, and Camel-back are slang for a Barrel Top trunk. In searching Patents, and original
newspaper ads, I have found NO instance of either term to describe a trunk. The
original, correct term used to describe a trunk like that was, Round-top. Also
Dome-top, and curved-top, Barrel top (or barrel stave) and I even found a
reference to "Convex-top" Look at the ad to your right. It is from 1881 and gives a good idea of the trunk terms and prices.
I have a very small trunk, (about 14" long) is it a Salesman's Sample
trunk?A. In all likelihood, no.
Unfortunately, anyone who has a small trunk (or any other item else for that
matter) thinks they have a Salesman's Sample. Myself, and others have done
hours and hours of research on this, and have discovered no evidence that any
trunk was made specifically for a salesman as a sample. A salesman's sample was
usually a very small version of the original. Think of an 8" high stove. A
stove salesman would carry this with them from town to town to show store
owners in the hopes the store owner would place an order. The sample would have
been the very best the company had to
offer, as they would have wanted to
showcase their stove making skills. What many people don't know is that as
early as the 1860s, trunk makers were making small trunks and selling them as
toy trunks ranged in size from 10" to 24" long, and were paper
covered for around 50 cents, (1880s) to "Saratoga" grade, leather
covered, with solid Brass locks, for around $3.00. Keep in mind that at that
time a nice full size trunk could be had for around $3.00 to $4.00. So, someone
who could afford a $3.00 toy trunk for their child was doing pretty good. Then,
as now, there are those that can afford opulent possessions. Today, there are a
good deal of these toy trunks floating around, and many of their owners are
under the impression they have a salesman's sample trunk. People mostly call
these Doll trunks, or Child's trunks, but in truth the term Toy Trunk was the most widely used term. Many others
believe they have salesman's sample trunk because the makes label in the trunk
reads something like this "ABC Trunks. Makers of Trunks, Valises, &
Sample Trunks". Many trunk makers made "Sample Trunks". These
were trunks made to carry samples. If you were a traveling salesmen, you
may have required a special trunk to showcase your wares, whether it be
toiletries, Tonics, or watches.
I have a metal covered trunk with a Gold crystal like finish. I have seen these
before as well as some with spots on the finish. What is this called, and do
you know how it was done? A.
This was a
very interesting process for ornamenting Tin plate covering trunks. What we
call "Crystallized Metal", was originally known as " Moiré
Métallique". This is a quote from the "Workshop Companion, 1879"
" This method of ornamenting tin goods was at one time very
fashionable; but like many other good things it has fallen somewhat into
disfavor, probably owing to the "cheap" look given by inferior work.
The process consists in various methods of bringing out or displaying the
crystalline character of tin." While I can confirm that this process has been around (in America)
from at least 1875, I believe it was done much earlier in France. I am still
searching for proof. Crystallized Metal is therefore a chemical process which
brings out the natural crystalline structure of Tin, (with acids) that has be
applied to sheet Iron through dipping. Pure Tin plate was also used for
smaller, less durable articles. Once the Tin has been "crystallized"
it is coated with a transparent, colored Varnish. The complete process, (which
is quite involved, and dangerous) of crystallizing Tin has been authentically
reproduced by myself. I doubt few if any have done this in the last 130 years.
However, the crystal portion is only half of the process. The other half is
coating the Tin with color. Now remember, you couldn't just run down to the
local paint store back in the 1870s. Some base materials you could buy at the
local drugstore, but the rest had to be made from scratch. Most all colors were
made from some kind of plant, or spice. (which is why companies like East India
Trading Co. were so prolific.) Saffron, and Gamboge for Yellow, Spanish
Annatto, or Dragons Blood for Red, and so on. Dissolved in a solvent for days
to weeks to pull-out the color, the color was then added to Lac (Lacquer), or a
linseed type based varnish. These were then mixed or applied as-is to the Tin.
The translucent color, with the crystallized base, made for an amazing effect. There
is another finish on trunks that looks like a spotting, or "Mottled"
appearance. Other trunk restorers call this "Spots on spots", or
"Spots", or some other such silly name. As near as I can find, this
appearance was originally called "Mottled" or "Marbled".
I believe (from patent data) this process was done with a base color, on which another color was placed. Then, a hydrocarbon type solvent (gasoline) & clear Lacquer, was dropped, or "flung" across the surface of the metal. (Of coarse this was all done before the metal was on the trunk. In fact companies sold this, and Crystallized Tin in sheets to trunk makers.) The result is a multicolored, spotted design.
Q. I saw a trunk on EBay that the seller claimed was very
rare because the wood had some printing on if from a cigar co. Have you seen
these? Are they valuable?
A. Yes, and no. Yes
I have seen what you describe, and no it does not add any value to the trunk.
I'll explain. When a trunks covering is too damaged to save, it is removed, (or
in the case of too many sellers it is removed no matter what) and the wood
underneath finished. Many times little "treasures" are found on the
wood. Usually, these are limited to pencil markings made by the trunk makers
such as panel #, trunk size, or in some cases the trunk makers name. (This one
about the trunk makers name is a whole other story) Sometimes printing is
found, such as the name of a company or a product. Sellers of these trunks tout
this like the finding of the Dead Sea scrolls. The answer is much more simple.
OK, here is where some of that common sense, and actual history, come into
play. Once upon a time, there was a company called ABC Co. They made all sorts
of do-dads, and gee-gaws. Their products were shipped, and stored in wooden
crates, (like most companies of the day) and these crates had their name
stenciled on them. As ABC got bigger, and/or their needs changed, they needed
different crates. The owner of ABC went to the local mill and said, "I
need 1000 new crates!" (think Jolly Green giant when reading that) The
mill owner says "sure" and gives the owner a price. The owner agrees,
and mentions that he has 500 old crates, and will the mill owner give him
something off the bill for them. Of coarse he will! Why? Because while trees
are everywhere, cut lumber is not. The mill owner knows that many of his
customers will gladly snatch these up at a discount. The customers that buy
these have the type of business where is does not matter what is written on the
old lumber. Hmmmmm....what kind of business would use these......come on...
it's not that hard. Yes! Trunk makers! As long as the wood is sound, the trunk
company can use it for the trunk body as this will be covered by metal, wood,
leather, or canvas. While we are on the subject of wood used for trunk
Too often I
read trunk sellers descriptions (again Ebay leads the way for misinformation)
about how their trunk bodies are made from some exotic wood. I read one the
other day that claimed the trunk they were selling had a body made of Birch.
Please! Here is where a little common
sense, and actual information, comes into play. The requirement for a trunk body
is that the wood be lightweight, and be able to resist
shrinking and swelling. These are the properties of Pine, and Basswood, which
were the woods used overwhelmingly on trunk bodies. I have also run into Poplar
a few times. Poplar is fairly easy to distinguish from other woods by its Greenish
color. The other large factor is price. Trunk companies made thousands of
trunks, using trainloads of lumber every week. They would never use Birch,
Walnut, Mahogany, or Redwood (Yes, I have seen all of these listed by sellers)
for trunk bodies as it would be way too expensive, and make the trunk heavier.
word about wood. Too many people assume that all slats on trunks were made of
Oak. In reality, most were not. In the mid to late 19th century Oak was being
used for many finely made products. It was not cheap, and was not the wood most
used on trunks for slats. In my research I could only find a very small number
of trunk makers that listed Oak as the wood used for their slats. The most
common term was just "hardwood slats" After that, Ask, Hickory, and
Elm were the most common woods listed in advertisements, and catalogs. Most
trunk sellers claim the trunks they are selling have Oak slats for two reasons.
One, Oak sounds better than the others. Two, they assume it actually is Oak.
Reason #2 is understandable as wood ID is very difficult. It can be next to
impossible to ID a certain wood used on a trunk for slats. For example, take
a sample of Oak, Birch, Ash, Hickory, and Elm. Now, depending on how the wood
was cut at the mill (the three most popular cuts are, Plainsawn, Riftsawn, and
Quartersawn) these 5 woods can look like they are all the same, or they can
look totally different. A Plainsawn piece of
Oak looks very much like what we believe Oak should look like with its
distinctive grain pattern.. However, a Riftsawn piece of the same wood does not
look like Oak at all. The color of the
stain used on them, can add to the difficulty of identification. Now, add 100
to 150 years, and the fact that the lumber cut back then was what was called
old growth (which looks different from today's wood) and you have a nightmare
trying to ID a certain wood, even when done by a professional. Lastly, many
trunk makers would use the hardwood that was currently available, and at the
best price. So, by listing it "Hardwood" they would not have to
change any advertising, or catalog entries.