Trunks which date back thousands of years in China and elsewhere, were also called Traveling Chests. They were used when a person would be away from home for an extended period.
Trunks were more ruggedly built than chests. Both had handles on either end to make carrying them easier. They were typically 4-5 feet long and 1-2 feet high. Trunks were constructed of a pine box that was covered with a protective outer layer and decorative materials. The earliest trunks had hide or leather covers and looked like furniture. Most trunks were manufactured on the side by furniture businesses. The trunks changed with the travel and usage. Coverings of paper, canvas, plain or embossed tin and all different types of hardware and hardwood slats held the coverings in place.
There were many styles that often changed hardware and shape every decade or two. Most of these styles are from the late 18th century into the early 20th when lighter cheaper luggage like suitcases were being manufactured.
Saratoga Trunks: Premium trunks that nearly every trunk manufacturer made. They were before the 1880’s. They had many compartments, trays and heavy duty hardware.
Monitor tops: date from the late 1870’s to the late 1920’s. They had rounded front and rear corners that formed a lying-down “D” when viewed from the side. The earliest ones had hardwood slats curved the top.
Steamer trunks: They were so named because of where they were stored on a steam ship or “steamer”. Another name for them was flat-top. The chests appeared in the late 1870’s and became popular from 1880 -1920. They had flat or slightly curved tops and usually covered in canvas, leather, or patterned paper. It was originally called a “Packer” trunk.
Cabin trunks: Were also call the “true” steamer trunk. They had a low profile and small enough to fit under train berths or the cabin of a steamer. Most had a flat top and inner tray compartments to store valuable.
Hat trunk or Hat box: these were square trunks popular in the 1860’s and into the 1890’s. They were smaller, easy to carry, and had a handle on the top of the lid. Most had flat tops, with a few having domed lids. Often times this type of trunk will be called a “ladies” trunk because it was preferred by Victorian women.
Barrel-stave trunk: Also called a dome-top trunk. But a barrel-stave trunk was made a decade or more before the dome-top. They have horizontal slats instead of vertical. These were made from the late 1870’s to the mid-1880’s.
Bevel-top trunks: Date from 1870-1880for their first appearance and 1890-1900 when they came back into favor again. They had a trapezoid shape when viewed from the side. The earlier ones had a shorter, flattened top.
Wardrobe trunks: Stood on end to be opened and had drawers on one side and hangers for clothing on the other side. A high-end wardrobe also had buckles and tie-downs for shoes, removable suitcases, privacy curtains, mirrors, and make-up boxes. They were very large and heavy and used for long trips by ship or train.