Steamer trunks or chests were used pervasively in the 19th and early 20th century for long voyages to distant places or as storage for the belongings of children going off to boarding school. However, their popularity was relatively short lived as they were quickly replaced by cheaper suitcases which could be mass produced more easily. Thus today’s desire to own a steamer trunk is either due to a love of nostalgia or a passion for interior décor in the home.
During the 19th century when travel to far off destinations was becoming more accessible to ordinary people, the demand for travel chests increased to accommodate the influx of exotic itineraries planned. Initially it was the railways that created the notion of fast, modern travel, but steam ships quickly came to the fore particularly because of the speed with which they could cross the Atlantic. Thus the steamer trunk was created to carry those all-important personal belongings onboard ship for long voyages.
Trunks were generally made of a pine or metal box and covered with leather, vellum, canvas or tin. Some were encircled by metal bands for strength, while others had detachable leather straps with buckles. Most trunks had a sturdy handle at each end for easy transportation. Steamer trunks either contained lift-out trays for storing smaller items, or were constructed with drawers in the deeper side and hanging space in the lid.
Strictly speaking, a steamer trunk is rectangular in shape with a flat top to allow for its insertion below a bunk in a steam ship or steam train. This feature also accounts for their other name: flat-top trunks. Other types of trunks were also used for this purpose and include camel top trunks with a domed lid, Jenny Linds which are one of the oldest kinds of trunk and were originally used on stage coaches and dresser trunks which could contain everything from drawers and shelves to mirrors and desk tops.
As steamer trunks were built to withstand the ordeal of 19th-century travel, many are still intact today. However, finding one in mint condition makes it extremely valuable and is rare due to the very nature or using steamer trunks for travel. Many antiques companies and restorers can refurbish or restore an original chest by mending torn coverings, fixing hinges and locks, re-lining interiors and replacing lost keys or metal corners.
Today the main use for 19th- or 20th-century steamer trunks is in the home as glass covered coffee tables or as storage chests for blankets and bedding placed at the foot of a bed. A steamer trunk can be a huge boon to an interior décor scheme and as such vintage versions are in high demand, although some companies are still manufacturing them solely for home use. The trunks of highest quality, and therefore cost, these days tend to be ones which are either strongly made, particularly decorative or have working hinges, locks and are fully in tact with all drawers and internal trays.