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It is a trunk, not a chest.

For as long as humans have traversed the lands they have had to carry belongings with them. As a nomadic people, prior to the establishment of Mesopotamia, I would imagine containers for possessions would evolve from plant/cloth woven and/or clay to wood as needs and resources evolved. Once we established farms, communities. and centers of commerce the needs and wants of people changed, including how to store and transport items. It is believed by many historians that trunks came into being before the Medieval Period (5th to 15th centuries).

Medieval Trunk, French 1400s.

Broader distances were traveled for both personal reasons and for trade. One of the most famous trade routes was the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes traversed by merchants and traders from 130 B.C., when China opened trade with the West, until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire closed the trade route. Merchants would bring back wares to sell and travelers needed to safeguard their possessions. As water ways, roads and eventually railroads were established and long-distance travel became easier, durable containers were needed to transport commercial goods as well as personal possessions for travelers.

While often similar in appearance, trunks are not the same as chests. For many decades people have used the terms interchangeably. While designs and sizes are similar, chests are furniture, meant to remain within a structure. Chests were primarily used for storage and depending on the owner’s wealth they could be ornately decorated. Trunks were designed for storage as well but were constructed to handle the hazards of travel. The interiors of some trunks were decorated while the exteriors were less so.

Victorian Chest.

Victorian Trunk.

There are seven basic trunk patterns: Flat Topped, Saratoga (Dome Topped), Slatted, Jenny Lind, Steamer and Wall Trunk. We have three different trunks in our Collection:

Flat Topped Trunk (1850s) - James Madison Museum Collection

Flat Topped (1850s)

This antebellum trunk is a very basic trunk design without much embellishment.

If the edges were wider than the trunk and shaped like the top of a loaf of bread, it would be in the Jenny Lind style.

Saratoga (Humpbacki) Trunk. James Madison Museum Collection

Saratoga or Humpback Trunk (1870s-1890s)

Like many things in the Victoria period, trunks started out with a pretty simplistic design and grew to be much more intricately designed. Initially composed as just a lockable, wooden box with a paper-lined interior (either decorative paper or something simple like newspaper), trunks soon came to be covered in leather, paper, canvas and some form of metal hardware (e.g. embossed tin), and came to have different compartments, drawers, trays and hangers that made them all the more functional.

Wall (Steamer) Trunk (1900-1930)

This specific Frank A. Stallman trunk was for an actor. The front piece folds upward, revealing the make-up mirror above and storage below. On the base, there is a narrow three-cubby hole section for make-up and other small items.

Frank A. Stallman Wall Trunk. James Madison Museum Collection

The trunk is able to be opened even though it is flush against the wall as seen in the photograph to the right.

The shapes and exteriors of traveling trunks vary as do the interiors. Since trunks share a common purpose, transporting possessions, they all contain compartments. It is in the arrangement of the interiors that we find interesting variations in theme. Let's look at the interiors of our three traveling trunks...

The Flat Top Interior:

There are two base compartments and one lid compartment.

Interior of Flat Top Trunk.