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T117 - Embossed Metal Trunk Coverings History, Info Only

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I get many questions regarding the metal coverings on antique trunks, especially about the embossed (or pressed design) coverings. I'd like to share some of the information I've found based on my research, as well as some provided by Jim Cardoza. Embossed sheet metal covering for trunks was made from flat sheets of zinc, tin or sheet iron (three types of metal most commonly used) which was run through a press to put the raised patterns into the metal. The earliest types of embossed metal used on American trunks was actually made of zinc and zinc coated sheet iron and very few patterns were available. This was used primarily during the 1870's to mid 1880's. Most of the sheet zinc was actually imported from Europe and not produced in the U.S. Zinc was used because it does not rust, although it does oxidize and change from a shiny silver color to a due gray color over time. Some plain flat sheet zinc was used on American trunks, primarily for the bottoms, during the 1860's. The later embossed zinc was made in patterns including "cable", "chevron", "pinwheel", and a seashell design. Alexander Campfield patented one of the first embossed designs in 1876, which he described as "a series of chevrons, differing in size, placed one above the other, and forming a series of small squares". There could be others but those are the ones that I've seen on trunks. The names for some of these patterns is just based on their design and not all of them have been found yet in historical documents.

The embossed tin and sheet iron covering generally followed the use of the zinc covering, with some overlap in the usage. Anthony Romadka of the Romadka Brothers Trunk Company, patented a trunk metal design in Nov. 1875 which has only been found on Romadka made trunks and described as "a series of raised parallel ribbed lines, arranged to represent woven work with the figure of a star raised in like manner at the points when the corners of the woven work approach each other". (basically a small star shape in the center of a woven fabric design.) The Romadka patented design was used on the black sheet iron of some of their trunks. They also had another similar design which they used exclusively on their trunks. But it wasn't until a decade later that the embossed tin and sheet iron became more widely used. In Feb. 1885 William Gould patented the "Alligator" pattern sheet metal covering which he described as "resembling in appearance crocodile's or alligator's skin or hide". Gould also patented the "method of ornamenting" the metal with the surface "crystallized, so that the light reflected therefrom produces a mottled appearance. The outer surface is covered or coated with a suitable transparent varnish or paint having suitable and appropriate coloring matter therein.". This "crystallized metal" finish was later produced in many colors, used both on embossed and plain sheet metal. Colors produced included gold, silver, blue, green, orange, and red. Later in July 1887, James Wood of PIttsburg, PA, patented the process of application of different colors to the embossed metal, so that it had a two colored look, by rolling a painted finish onto the raised patterns and leaving the indented areas a different color. (The patent describes the process more completely). This two colored embossed metal (the alligator pattern at first) quickly became very popular and from 1887 to the 1890's many other patterns of embossed metal were patented or produced for use on trunks. So far I've found patents for 5 other designs from 1887 to 1892, but parts catalogs and advertisements of the early 1900's show many more patterns and several trunk hardware companies either manufactured or sold many patterns of the embossed (or fancy) metal. One advertisement by the American Can Company stated that they made over 30 patterns of embossed metal trunk covering. I've personally seen about 40 different patterns over the years I've been working on trunks. I also own a trunk hardware catalog from 1889 which shows two embossed patterns (cable and new) and the crystallized metal. Another trunk hardware manufacturer catalog I own from 1916 shows 13 embossed patterns, and the crystallized metal in several colors, as well as four styles of wood grain painted sheet metal. I've attached these pages in the pictures provided below. They named their embossed metal patterns for sale to trunk makers, but most of the trunk manufacturer catalogs did not specifically name the patterns used on their trunks (with the exception of the Alligator pattern). The various trunk company catalogs I've seen describe their embossed metal trunks as "Fancy Metal:" trunks. I'm sure that's because they used a variety of embossed metals and could not always guarantee which pattern would be available. Some old trunk catalog pages are also shown below, for Alligator and Fancy Metal trunks.

The metal patterns (both embossed and finished flat metal) shown below from the 1916 Neumann hardware catalog include (in order): Wild Rose, Scroll, Poppy, Grecian, Alligator, Marbleized Iron, Japanned Iron, Canvas Pattern, Square, Striped, Maple Leaf, Star, Silk, Crystallized Tin, Morning Glory, Acorn, Quartered Oak, Curly Hungarian Ash, Rosewood, and Quartered Sycamore. Other companies produced many other patterns and possibly some of these as well.

So, based on actual historical documents (catalogs, patent documents, and ads) the embossed metal patterns which were used by many trunk makers began with embossed zinc, made in only a few patterns, and later the embossed tin and sheet iron, beginning with the alligator pattern, followed by many others from the late 1880's to early 1900's. Note: The Romadka Brothers trunks (from Milwaukee, WI) are an exception and they used their own designs before the other patterns became popular. They also used other patterns later and described their trunks as Fancy Metal trunks as did many other trunk makers. They also made many trunks with the flat crystallized metal. By the early 1900's many different color combinations were used on the embossed, crystallized, and marbleized metal trunks. This information should help some in determining the age of a metal covered trunk. Many of these trunks may have hardware (latches, locks, clamps, etc.) which were patented before the embossed or crystallized metal came into use. By the way, I have not seen copper or brass used for the embossed metal, even though some of the old metal may appear to resemble those due to the aged patina.

I've included pictures below of catalog pages, ads, and some embossed metal trunks which I've restored, as well as a couple in original unrestored condition. There is one of the shell pattern zinc and one of the cable pattern zinc covering. It would take dozens of pictures to show all of the embossed metal patterns and color combinations. I hope you find this information helpful. If you have some new information or additional historical documents to share, please write to me at Marvin@ThisOldTrunk.com Thanks! Marvin December 2016


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