Spotlight On …

Saratoga trunks!

Written by Philip Warner

Trunk. From the Latin truncus pertaining to that outer, central, sturdy part of a tree or a body.

The origins of the word, in terms of luggage, appear to be mid-15th Century French, where tronc was used to describe the collection box in a church. The crossover to a box or case is likely to come from the notion that the trunk is the ‘case’ for the body or a tree.

Our founder, John. W. Waterer, was a luggage maker, so understandably there are a wide variety of ‘trunks’ in our collection. Different shapes, sizes, and ages. All carefully crafted for the purpose of protecting the belongings of travellers.

Leather is an important part of a trunk. The basic wooden box was covered with it, the handles were made with it, and the edges most prone to damage were reinforced with it.

Trunks go by many different names; the Jenny Lind, monitor, steamer, full dresser, barrel top, bevel top, dome top and cabin. Today, let us look at that which is arguably the cream of the crop; the ‘Saratoga’ trunk.

© National Leather Collection 2018

Saratoga trunks take their name from the city of Saratoga Springs in New York state, USA. In 1863, the Saratoga Race Course was opened. It was the brainchild of ‘Old Smoke’ John Morrissey an Irish-American bare knuckle boxer turned professional gambler. True to these skills, he was later to become a Democratic State Senator and U.S Congressman. In his boxing days, during a fight with one Thomas McCann, he is said to have been pinned on his back on some burning coals that had fallen from an overturned stove. He fought to his feet, and carried on the fight with back burnt and ‘smoking’.

Winslow Homer, Harper's Weekly, August 1865

Saratoga Race Course was a success. The ‘Club House Casino’ quickly became a destination for notable guests such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller. It was even frequented by presidents Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Trips to Saratoga were for the elite, the rich, and the famous. The town has held on to that tradition to the present day; in 2014 it was on the Top 10 of towns to live in the USA.

Travelling to Saratoga was therefore done in style. The Saratoga trunk was coined to represent the best trunks that manufactures could produce and were a ‘must have’ for the wealthy holiday makers. Saratoga Trunks are characterised by their large size, domed top and solid slatted wooden construction with panels, corners and handles of thick hide, and a strong brass lock. Inside they are brightly lined with canvas or cloth. Wooden compartments stacked seamlessly together; the hat box, the glove box and larger clothes box beneath. Often these compartments would be decorated with brightly coloured chromo-lithograph prints.

© National Leather Collection 2018

The ‘Saratoga’ experience grew, and in 1941 it was dramatised by novelist Edna Ferber (author of Showboat) in ‘Saratoga Trunk’. Warner Bros. produced the film version in 1945, directed by Sam Wood and starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. In 1959, the Broadway stage musical followed too.

Luggage manufacturers such as Barrow Hepburn & Gale in the UK took up the name in the early 20th Century to represent their ‘best luggage’ model.Essentially, ‘Saratoga’ was not so much a type of trunk, but an elite model in a range; the model with the largest storage and the most compartments. Ideas that the domed top, quality and size of trunk ensured that none would be stacked on top, and thus it would be last to be loaded by porters (hence first to be un-loaded upon arrival), are not backed up by any evidence.

Porters or ‘baggage smashers’, as they became known, were not in the habit of being so discerning. Their eye was rarely, if ever, caught by good looking luggage. If anything, the need for thick hide corner protectors on these trunks would suggest that they were as roughly handled as all the rest. Porters would most likely just lay them on their side, each piece of luggage being loaded as it came; as quickly as possible.

We have a couple of fine examples of ‘Saratoga Trunks’ in the National Leather Collection. They are a fascinating window into a time and way of life that has now passed. It is often hard to date trunks precisely, the best clue being Patent marks or manufacturer’s marks on the locking mechanisms. The one shown here reveals a lock made by the ‘Corbin Cabinet and Lock Co.’ of New Britain, Connecticut. The Company was founded in 1882 and flourished in the early half of the 20th Century. It would, therefore, suggest a date of 1910-1920 for our trunk.