Suitcase History

Intro

You can’t be a true suitcase aficionado without knowing everything about them? Got it. Equally, some people just like to know the history of an item before dropping several hundred pounds! That’s OK too.

The ubiquitous image of strolling through an airport or train station has been around for years. But who popularised them, and when did suitcases actually get invented?

Well, the results may surprise you. The suitcase is actually a relatively recent invention — the wheeled suitcase is practically modern!

crowd of people stood next to pile of old suitcases
Suitcases — and the world in general — have moved on somewhat in the last half a century!

When were suitcases first invented?

Suitcases really only took hold around 100 years ago at the start of the 1900s.

Before this point, travel was only for the very wealthy. As a result they didn’t need to worry too much about the convenience of transporting their luggage — as they had a small army of servants to lug around large trunks!

According to research by the Smithsonian:

“In 1897 wholesale price list included the words “suit case” only twice in a 20-page list of luggage types.”

With an explosion in travel at the turn of the century, suddenly the word suitcase was being used more and more.

“In a 1911 United Company catalog, however, around 40 percent of the advertisements were for suitcases.”

One thing to remember, is that the suitcases described in these travel company brochures in the early 1900s bear little resemblance to the suitcases we use today.

Suitcases arrived on the scene rapidly — but their evolution from the large wooden trunks they replaced was a lot slower.

Who invented the suitcase?

We know from records that the earliest suitcases were invented right at the end of the 1800s. However, as to who actually invited the original suitcase — nobody knows!

As such a simple object, it is likely that baggage referred to as suitcases were invented across the world at the turn of the century. Historical records do show notable inventions in the development of the suitcase, both coming from America.

Arguably two of the most famous, the ubiquitous aluminium suitcase and the wheeled suitcase:

  • Frequent traveller and American businessman — Erle P. Halliburton invented the lightweight aluminium suitcase in 1938.
  • The original inventor of the wheeled suitcase came 32 years later in 1970. Bernard D. Sadow wins the original claim to inventing the wheeled suitcase, with patent No. 3,653,474.

When did suitcases get wheels?

Suitcases didn’t get wheels until 1970!

Yes, that’s right, the wheels you have on your luggage are a pretty recent invention. The reason for this is more due to consumer demand rather than invention, though. It actually turns out that the heavy wooden trunks — used before suitcases — had a patent filed to add wheels to them as early as 1887.

The thing is, until the advent of mass transportation — and travelling for leisure really took off — there wasn’t any need for suitcases with wheels. With travelling confined to only the wealthiest of society, trunks were packed for their owners, carried to the train or aeroplane, loaded for them, and unpacked at the destination.

The people purchasing the cases presumably saw no real need to improve the process — as it wasn’t them doing the heavy lifting!