Modern travel, with the need for economy of space and weight, has reduced luggage to what must be its lowest common denominator. The impedimenta that our forebears found essential for their journeys now seems hopelessly burdensome. Thank heavens I don't have to pack one of those trunks, layered with lift-out trays and descending to almost dangerous depths. But then, I don't set off for weeks or months at a time, nor do I have to dress for dinner regardless of whether I am in Paris or the jungle. Wealthy travelers of the 17th and 18th centuries were very particular about their luggage and, as with most other things, it was custom made. Luggage in those days had to be strong, but weight was immaterial, as there was always someone on hand to carry it. Generally of solid wood construction with domed tops, the pieces were covered in leather that was attached with rows of brass studs forming decorative patterns and, of course, the owner's monogram. Varying in size from a large handbag to a chest freezer, they have survived in some numbers. Few bargains here, however, unless the owner has not recognized the age of the piece.
But humbler travelers, and especially naval and military officers, carried stout wooden chests made of pine and stained or painted. Most 19th-century pine trunks have seen plenty of action and often appear battered and scratched. For not too much of an outlay these can be bought and their paint or stain stripped off.
The cheap and hard way to achieve this is to mix equal quantities of paint-stripper, wire-wool, time, and energy. The rather more costly and easier method is to have the chest dipped. Either way, the wood will need a good wax polish or modern varnish to turn it into an acceptable piece of furniture. Many shops are offering these already stripped, polished, and restored at prices ranging from 80 for a very unpretentious piece to 200 or 300 for something more elaborate.
Old traveling trunks with domed lids are much less expensive. They are usually of a lighter, timber-frame construction covered in leather, imitation leather, or canvas, and strengthened with bands of wood or metal. Time and trouble used to be expended on the most functional items, and the fine detailing of these pieces will become apparent with careful cleaning. They make handsome pieces of storage furniture, especially when mounted, and can be bought for as little as 10.
I had thought that cabin or wardrobe trunks were virtually unsalable until I found one in King's Road, London the other day, priced at 350.
Wardrobe trunks were made especially for sea travel in the great days of the ocean liners. The trunks stand upright and remain open to reveal hanging space in one half, while the other is fitted with small drawers. Although they are plain on the outside, the interiors are much more decorative and are often lined with embossed paper.
Standing in the corner of a bedroom, one of these trunks would be both decorative and practical. Don't be hasty to remove original labels, as these add character. Prices will vary widely, and one might expect to find one far from the King's Road for as little as 40. And many an attic or loft still has an old trunk or two waiting to be promoted from dusty storage to honored antique.