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T119 - Wardrobe Trunk History


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I get more questions about these trunks than most others so I wanted to list some information for you here. Wardrobe trunks are basically like a mobile clothes dresser and closet. These typically have several drawers on one side and clothes hangers on the other side but there are several fancier models. These didn't really come on the scene until about 1900 and then really became very popular from the 1910's to the early 1950's. The Montgomery Ward trunk catalog of 1897 didn't even contain wardrobe trunks but had all other styles. Then after about 1910 all the trunk companies made or carried wardrobe trunks. Most were made between about 1920 and the 1940's by a couple dozen large companies in the U.S. Several lock companies make trunk locks for these including Eagle, Yale, Corbin, Excelsior Lock company and others, but they didn't make the trunks. There were many models of wardrobe trunks with different features including expanding clothes racks, hat cases, ironing boards and irons, fold down desks, shoe cases, clothes bags, lights, etc.. Some were fairly simple but others were quite elaborate with many drawers and compartments, fold up tops, mirrors, and revolving stands. Nearly all wardrobe trunks came complete with wooden clothes hangers and tie down straps inside. They ranged in size from the smaller compact models to huge trunks the size of phone booths or larger. I wonder how many people it took to move some of these enormous trunks, especially loaded with clothes! Based on research I've done it appears that more patents were issued for wardrobe trunks than any other trunk style. The largest makers of wardrobe trunks were companies in Wisconsin, including Hartmann, Wheary, Oshkosh, and others. But companies all over the United States and also in Europe made wardrobe trunks. Some wardrobe trunks have labels from the maker such as Hartmann, Wheary, Oshkosh, Seward, Wilt, Likely, Winship, Drucker, National, Parkhurst, Indestructo, Innovation, Goyard, Louis Vuitton and many other trunk makers. Now and then, I still see a wardrobe trunk with no maker's label on it. This could be because these trunks were often made to be sold by furniture and retail luggage stores who sometimes put their own labels on them. While a few wardrobe style trunks were patented and made prior to 1900, the majority were made between 1920 to the 1940's. Some of the earlier wardrobe trunks were canvas or leather covered wood, however most wardrobe trunks were plywood covered in vulcanized fibre and painted in a variety of colors. Vulcanized fibre was a hard waterproof material similar in look to formica, but more flexible and not as glossy. Most wardrobe trunks made after 1900 had brass plated hardware, but a few were made with solid brass hardware, which is fairly rare to find. (If a magnet sticks, it's not solid brass) The lining of wardrobe trunks varies from paper covered, to cloth, linen, and even silk on high end models. Many small toy wardrobe trunks were popular for children during the 1920's to 1950's and a few salesmans samples or store display models were also made, but these are rare. A variety of wardrobe trunk pictures, ads, and patents are included to show some of the variety. Don't be too surprised if yours is different somehow from these as I have seen hundreds of different looking wardrobe trunks!

Keep in mind that even though today you will hear most people call these "steamer trunks" they are really something completely different than the original steamer trunk. The early trunk catalogs from the 1880's through the 1930's showed and described steamer trunks as the low style flat top trunks which were designed to fit under berths on steamships. They were typically about 12 to 14 inches tall. Some catalogs also called them cabin trunks. I've seen some other websites call them half trunks, but they were never called that. Somehow over the years the term steamer trunk was gradually applied to all old travel trunks. Copies of a variety of early trunk catalogs are available to purchase on our Research page. Many people are surprised to learn how many styles of trunks were available and when they were made.

While I have restored and sold some wardrobe trunks in the past, This Old Trunk no longer buys, restores, or sells these, primarily because of their large size and high cost of shipping. Also with the trunks made of vulcanized fibre there is really not too much that can be done except to clean them and possibly repaint them if desired. The trunks are slowly becoming more popular and collectible, but are still quite plentiful and so prices are typically not very high on these except for rare models. Hope you have found this to be helpful.


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This product was added to our catalog on Wednesday 02 February, 2011.

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