The name “trunk” is derived from just that, a “dug out chest” from the trunk of a tree.
When first made, the chest had an arched lid formed by the trunk of the tree. Early pieces were often called a “traveling coffer,” and some separate the trunks from coffers – however, the German term koffer means a box, chest, traveling trunk or even safe.
Old trunks were quite common and, in some forms, still are – a cedar chest or the foot locker that almost all service personal used during WWII.
A trunk’s size, appearance, finish and use was varied.
Flat or domed. After 1800, trunks were made in a variety of sizes, but two basic designs dominate. The rectangular shape is mostly employed; some have flat tops for a wider use as a stand or table, others have the arched lid. These latter types are referred to as “turtle backs, barrel or domed.”
Many early 1800 trunks were hide covered, often retaining the hair, with wrought iron latches, hinges and locks. Many of this type made a trip out to the West.
The first arched top trunks were smaller than later types, size increased as people acquired more personal possessions.
Train transportation dictated the preference for flat topped trunks, which permitted stacking more readily than arched top varieties.
Earlier versions had leather-covered lids. A few had designs tooled in them and were also fitted with brass or wrought iron hardware and strengthened corners and a strap iron around the trunk for added strength.
Cheaper by the dozen. Like many articles, lower cost material or production procedures were adopted in the production of trunks. Lower cost material came into use, i.e. browns or green canvas, printed paper for linings or pierced tin around the body instead of iron bracings. Even the leather coverings were replaced by the pierced tin. The more costly trunks had trays, either fastened or removable inside.
Specialized trunks were offered to the well-to-do travelers, 2 foot square and 1 foot tall types for milady’s bonnets or the gentlemen’s derbies, trunks for the young girls’ dolls. The latter, which held the doll and its attire, measured about 1 foot wide and about 10 inches deep, a perfect miniature of the adults’ trunks in appearance.
Then there was the very large wardrobe trunks, about 5 feet tall for the largest. Some large types were about 3 feet square, folded in the middle and opened up to form a miniature clothes closet with drawers. This trunk was quite sturdy and heavy, had a flat top (although a few were domed), usually were pine with metal strengthened parts, black leather, painted or canvas covered and reinforced on the inside with oak slats. Equipped with large, strong leather handles and/or metal corners for further support. These were quite awkward to move around.
Years ago at sales, my wife and I often purchased these at a dollar or so due to the unwieldy form. This type was more suited for travel than steamer trunks, which were quite large boxy appearing.
Design changes. Over the many decades of production changes were made by some manufacturers, a few more sophisticated, others lowered quality and some added features. On some the brass hardware was fancier than previous versions, iron or tin replaced the brass or iron plated with brass or even painted to resemble brass.
Check for wear. One factor concerning trunks: Damage is expected, wear and tear, broken hasps and hinges. The trunks were intended for careful or rough use- some were never moved from a house, others tossed about like a bale of hay.
On older leather covered versions, the cover often disintegrated, was torn or other wise damaged. This aged worn quality is not easily remedied. At times, the leather has been removed, the wood underneath exposed often refinished, when the trunk was made the manufacturer did not concern themselves with wood finish, it was usually rough cut.