Skip to content

The Suitcase Is Not Trying to Look Beautiful

Post date:

The story of the modern suitcase is the story of modern travel and thus the story of technology applied to changing circumstances. Nowadays, we think of travel as a leisure activity and not as the exploration or emigration it once was. Early travellers travelled by steamer. [See here for more about S.S. Campania.]


These first leisure travellers were wealthy and could afford to have their belongings packed into steamer trunks and dispatched to the steamer where valets and maids would install their contents in their employers’ cabins.

louis vuitton steamer trunk

These early travellers also travelled with their favourite furniture and other items.

Victorian Harp Case Steamer Trunk

If they carried anything at all, it was no more than what they might have carried on an afternoon in town – a handbag, a cane, etc. The story of the modern suitcase begins with people emigrating to other countries – largely to America but also to Australia and other colonies. Those with many possessions would pack them into less precious steamer trunks such as this one.


More precious items were carried in suitcases such as the one below. Many took only the suitcase. The wooden frame and metal metal-reinforced corners made it sturdy, and the oil-treated cowhide made it flexible and waterproof to a degree. It was heavy.

By the 19th century, the modern suitcase was finally taking its familiar form. [weburbanist]

The need for lightness was driven by air travel. Leather and timber were replaced with various materials that may not wear or age as well, but were lighter and less expensive. This 1950 Rimowa has an aluminium casing over an aluminium frame.


A less expensive option was to use reinforced cardboard. Notice how the corners are less protected and how much trust is placed in those locks.

cardboard suitcase

It was not long before travel became synonymous with air travel, leading to an ongoing quest for lightness as airline baggage allowances came to be more strictly enforced. Tough fabric, vinyl/fabric composites and, later, molded polypropylene replaced cardboard composite casings.

vinyl suitcase

Possibly driven by the increasing size of airports, the next round of improvements concerned mobility. Suitcases came to have luggage trolleys built-in. The future was dragging. Here’s an early attempt at a suitcase with wheels. It’s just that – a suitcase with wheels.

early suitcase with wheels

The addition of a leash or handle meant that it could be ‘walked’ along behind like a dog.

Photo of Luggage in Patent

ASIDE: This is the charm that Trunki® has for children, as well as being able to sit on it when tired or play on it when bored.

Seven times Champion Jockey Tony McCoy takes part in the first eFor parents, it means that kids can cart around their own stuff for a change. Win win.

child pulling trunki

There were many variations on the handle/leash and wheels combo. This one has a solid handle that tucks away.

suitcase with leash

This later one’s from circa 2000. It’s mine. The compact handle makes it easier to counter instability using the wrist and forearm. The shortness of the handle means that only two wheels are needed. Since one is actually half-lifting a suitcase off the ground this arrangement is fine for short distances but tiring and uncomfortable over long ones. Note the supplementary side locks, one of which broke on a recent trip – probably due to incomplete closing – hence my current interest in suitcases. : |

handle and rear wheels

A fundamental problem of this vertical orientation is the high centre of gravity and poor lateral stability, especially once outside the terminal where there are dropped kerbs and such. Horizontal, wide-wheelbase suitcases have a lower centre-of-gravity problem and the extendable handles harness that first engine – the lever, to make half-lifting the case that much easier. This configuration allows top speed on straight level surfaces. 


A peripheral improvement was the full-circumference zips that had been used on smaller pieces of luggage known as ‘cabin trolleys’ such as used by cabin crew.

cosmolite zip

The bulk of thought, however, went into how to make the suitcase more stable and comfortable to pull


and also into how to make the handle extend and retract easily, reliably and repeatedly.

retractable handle

Here’s what all these improvements added up to. The suitcase was almost perfect.


Now thought was given to how to manufacture it more easily. Suitcases came to have nearly identical halves made from injection molded plastic. Refer to US Patent US 6367603 B1 “Containment article having a pair of hingedly connected, substantially identical plastic shells and related improvements” for details. ( I love the language of patents – it’s neither more precise nor less precise than it needs to be. ) 


There wasn’t much more that could be done but designers tried to improve it anyway.


Cheers for that, designbuzz. Stand down. Pulling a suitcase along a corridor or even up stairs wasn’t the problem that needed solving. The new problem was standing in a long check-in or baggage-drop queue and having to bend down repeatedly to incrementally move and orient your suitcase along the snaking queue. Pulling wasn’t the issue, manoeuverability was. The new check-in queue objects of envy are suitcases such as this.

RIMOWA trolley suitcase

Check out those features – nice wheels! They’re positioned right on the corners for both structural reasons and to lower the centre of gravity, and they’re now free-swivelling casters, not rollers. The suitcase can still be pulled on two wheels like the ones before but now has the added functionality of being able to ‘spin’ on the spot and be guided in any direction with minimal effort.

free-swivelling caster wheels

Furthermore, the telescopic handle is at hand height and thus more ergonomic. In practice, all this probably only frees up hands to carry other things, but the wheels and hand-height handle all allow the suitcase to be ‘driven’ from the side instead of by pulling it along behind. This allows for tighter and more controlled cornering and for more compact and orderly queues.


It’s a bit pricey. Plus, at 5.6kg, it represents more than 20% of a 25kg baggage allowance. Looks damn good though.

“Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane …”

To make the parting less burdensome, along comes Samsonite® and its Cosmolite® range using CURV® technology.



Propex® is an ultralight thermoplastic composite with low weight and incredible impact strength. It’s like it was developed just for suitcases, but it wasn’t.


And at less than two thirds the price of the aluminium shell suitcase shown above, this polypropylene suitcase is half the weight yet has 25% more capacity.


This is not a sponsored post, btw. Other, less well-known manufacturers are already using polycarbonates, if not Propex®, to make suitcases having approximately equivalent functionality. This next one weighs has about 25% more capacity than the aluminium frame suitcase but, though it weights only a bit less, it’s a quarter the price.

Carlton spinner

The core function of a suitcase is still to provide a portable container that protects its contents from environmental extremes, impact damage and theft. A suitcase still looks like a suitcase but its technology has adapted to the changing environment in which it has to function. All these adaptions, improvements and advances are quietly becoming mainstream, meeting no resistance, no inertia. It’s a natural process.

The things we use should always get better and less expensive. If they don’t, then it’s probably because we don’t really want them to change badly enough, or because we can’t really imagine how much better they can be.