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Trunks to Tech: The History of Luggage

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We’ve come a long way from bulky trunks and suitcases. One material makes modern luggage both sturdy and stylish. 

pink suitcase with beach hat, sunglasses and camera hanging on the handle

When you think about it, modern luggage is amazing. For an affordable price, you can buy a sturdy, light, stylish piece of luggage that will last for years, transporting your stuff around the world. High-performing, durable luggage is a relatively recent phenomenon, all thanks to plastic products. Here’s the fascinating story. 

The Invention of Luggage

In the late 16th century, the Oxford English dictionary added the word “luggage.” But luggage entered its golden age in the 19th century, as travel became a status symbol. Those wealthy enough to afford to travel bought themselves heavy trunks. In the early 20th century, more people were traveling—and carrying their own luggage—thanks to the expansion of the railroad, as well as steamer travel. Trunks were too unwieldy, so the suitcase entered the scene. Lighter than a trunk yet still bulky, the first suitcases were made of leather or wicker stretched over a wood or steel frame. 

How Plastic Transformed Luggage

Throughout the 20th century, luggage transformed from clunky and heavy to light and durable, thanks to the use of plastic-based materials, such as nylon and polypropylene. Once air travel took off in the late 1950s, luggage needed to be even sturdier, as it needed to withstand many changes of hand. That’s when synthetic, plastic-based materials really took off, so to speak. Plastic luggage was not only built to last, but it was lighter and easier to carry—right down to the handles. In 1974, wheeled luggage was invented. 

Modern Luggage 

Today, most luggage is made of plastic—either a rounded hard plastic shell (such as polycarbonate), or a plastic-based fabric (such as nylon) stretched out over an alloy frame. Plastic-based luggage is popular because it is lightweight, durable and long-lasting. It’s also stylish, as there are ample design opportunities to personalize the bag and deck it out in fun colors or patterns. In the last decade, luggage has gotten a technology upgrade, with smart luggage that can charge your phone and even let you track that bag remotely through an app. 

Packing Tips

Hitha Palepu, author of the book How to Pack, provides tips on how to make your packing process more efficient. 

  1. Gallon-size plastic bags are ideal for corralling each clothing article type—undergarments, shirts, socks—so everything stays together and is easy to find. “Plastic baggies are the original packing cube,” says Palepu.
  2. Shower caps make perfect shoe covers, protecting your belongings from dirty soles. 
  3. Shopping bags are great to stash your dirty laundry—and to pack up shoes, if you don’t have shower caps lying around. 
  4. Zipped sandwich bags keep your phone and other tech safe from sun and sand, and the touchscreen still works through the bag, so pack a few if you’re headed to the beach, suggests Palepu. Bonus: Use those sandwich-size bags to pack up damp swimsuits when you are headed home.