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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.

This trunk was a gift from Finders Keepers Estate Sales in 2019.

Interior Flat Top Trunk

The fashion plate affixed to the top section is younger than the paper that lines other compartments in the trunk. Perhaps one of its owners decided to update her trunk?

Flat Top Trunk Interior.

A former owner made a couple of repairs in the lid storage section to the "pull" and fasteners.

The original ribbon to pull the lid forward was located on both sides; not the black pull you see. The black fasteners are in the correct position, but not Period correct.

As shown to the left, behind the decorated panel is a paper-lined storage compartment. It is rather narrow compared to the primary storage compartment.

In the base, the top compartment has three sections in the lift-out drawer. The trunk was used to store mourning clothing.

Flat Top Trunk Interior

(Left) There are two mourning fans, a bonnet, shawl, and doll's mourning dress.

Interior of Flat Top Trunk

To the right is the larger lower compartment, lined with paper. The trunk contains mourning attire. In this section are the wool winter spats and button-up shoes, a lady's fur muff and a gentleman's trousers. When you think of the circumference of women's skirts and gowns and compare it to the storage space shown, it is easy to understand why women needed numerous trunks when traveling.

Saratoga (Dome) Trunk Interior:

The Victorian's with wealth spared no expense when it came to their traveling trunks!

Saratoga (Dome) Trunk Interior

The trunk has upper and lower storage compartments, but they are organized differently and more elegantly decorated with photographic images on delicately painted paper.

The domed top was ideal for a lady's hat (lockable section on the left). The upper right section was the receptacle for the removeable drawer elevated section.

An interesting feature of this trunk is that there is a documents leather envelope affixed on top of the removeable base compartment. Women of that time did not handle cash very often and would usually travel with letters to access accounts set up for them at banks operating in their destination.

Document Pouch Saratoga Trunk

The document pouch section would lift up and reveal another storage section. This entire lift-out drawer had four separate storage areas of its own.

Middle Wedge Storage of Saratoga (Dome) Trunk

To the right is the cover of the elevated storage compartment of the removeable section. Perhaps a teardrop bustle might be stored in that compartment? It is an unusual shape.

Base storage compartment, Saratoga (Dome) Trunk

The base storage compartment is a bit larger in this trunk that in the Flat Top shared above; however, it would be difficult to place more than one ball gown in this compartment, so perhaps a lady's unmentionables would be wrapped in tissue and stored in the compartment? Maybe a day dress of two? A lady's maid would know.

Frank A. Stallman Wall Steamer Trunk

This trunk is very different from the older two above. Frank A. Stallman made trunks for theatrical and commercial use, not personal use.

The first internally different structural feature is shown in the photograph to the right. Notice that the trunk is flush against the wall; hence "Wall Trunk." The opening lid section is actually a "side" section and doesn't require extra floor space. Thus, the trunk can be used in smaller spaces such as a traveling actor might be able to afford.

The front view (left) shows the complete difference in construction of this wall trunk to the prior two. There are two storage compartments behind the mirror, three nice-sized drawer shelves with fastening straps to keep clothes tidy. The base has a sectional make-up and small items storage with a larger compartment behind.

In the image above you can see the small compartments and behind them is the opening for the larger clothing compartment with fasteners.

There were hundreds if not thousands of trunk manufacturers when their use reached its zenith; the Victorian Era (1837-1901) through the 1920s. A number of events quashed leisure travel. The sinking of the Titanic (1912), World War I (1914-1918), and the advent of the Great Depression (1929). Air flight was the final blow. The expense of transporting the heavy trunks made them obsolete. Today we tend to use them for accent pieces of furniture or perhaps the base for tables.

If you have an old trunk, please research carefully before attempting to restore or repair it because a poorly restored trunk has little value compared to a properly restored one.

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