Packing vintage comes with options! Image from

There are plenty of aspects of her life through which a girl can show off her ‘vintage’ side – her dress, what she collects, her home furnishings, how she travels, and even her luggage!

Vintage luggage has become quite trendy lately with the upswing in the popularity of old items that might be considered antique or vintage.  Old suitcases can be found for a few dollars at your local thrift shop, haggled fiercely over at flea and vintage markets, or sold for hundreds of dollars per bag on vintage websites or in antiques stores.

So what’s in a bag? What’s the difference between a piece of true vintage luggage and something that’s just a bit old or ragged looking?

Antique luggage (1800s and turn of the 19th century)

Perhaps obviously, the quintessential vintage or antique piece of luggage is the trunk. Whether steamer or wardrobe, these heavy monstrosities were designed to last, and they hold a massive amount of items. However, they weren’t really portable, which often consigned them to a ship’s hold or the luggage room of a train during trips. They also required being able to tip for baggage handlers or a LOT of muscle to move.  They were usually made of wood, with either wood or metal ribs and hardened edges to protect their contents, and fastened with locks. Lids were usually flat (especially in the 1900s), versus the infamous rounded lids of treasure chests, to facilitate easier movement and the ability to stack them.

1940s suitcases at an antique store. Photo credit: Joanna Farley.
1940s suitcases at an antique store. Photo credit: Joanna Farley

For shorter trips, or for items that were needed during transit, valises, portmanteaus, Gladstone bags, and carpet bags were all popular. Made of fabric or leather, these were soft bags that opened at the top or side and were usually secured with straps or a clasp and lock.

Luggage, the inter-war and war years (1920s – 1940s)

Post World War I, the modern suitcase began emerging as class lines started to break down and travel became more accessible. While fabric, and especially leather, suitcases with hard frames or corners were in high demand, cardboard suitcases, sometimes covered in fabric to protect them from the elements, emerged as a cheaper alternative for carrying a traveler’s necessities. The canvas rucksack, used by sailors and the military, also became a popular ‘carry-all’ amongst workers– and is probably the originator for the modern backpacker’s travel backpack.  Both of these were usually closed by straps, and sometimes suitcases also featured combination or key locks. These bags, which were lightweight and portable, were usually stored with or near the traveler while in transit and were meant for short trips or to carry items a traveler needed to access frequently.

Both trunks and suitcases from this period often still have decorative destination stickers attached. These were used by hotels , transportation groups, and tourist companies both as a form of advertising and to help ensure porters got bags to the right destinations!

Mid-century luggage and air travel (1950s – 1980)

1960s and 1970s ‘soft side’  suitcases and airplane carry-on case. Photo credit: Joanna Farley.
1960s and 1970s ‘soft side’ suitcases and airplane carry-on case. Photo credit: Joanna Farley.

Plastic hard suitcases, often with wheels, became popular post World War II as air travel became a viable option for many, and airplane holds demanded more protection for possessions than a soft-sided bag (although soft bags were still popular).  Plastic suitcases were heavier than canvas or leather bags, making it unlikely that people could carry them comfortably on their own. But travelers still needed to transport them through airports. For this reason wheels and hand (pull) straps were popular. Bags fastened with straps disappeared, and combination and key locks became the way to safeguard possessions, both for the additional security they offered and because they were less likely to get caught on a conveyor belt.


As for what luggage a vintage girl in the 21st century travels with? Well, that’s a different story! All I can say is that this vintage girl is a modern one in this regard; I’m not giving up my trusty travel pack or my convenient multiple rolling soft suitcases any time soon!