Although trunks have been around for thousands of years in China and elsewhere, the most common styles seen and referred to today date from the late 18th Century to the early 20th, when they were supplanted in the market by the cheaper and lighter suitcase.
Among the many styles of trunks there are Jenny Linds, Saratogas, Monitors, Steamers, (or Flat-tops) Barrel-Staves, Bevel-tops, Wardrobes, Dome-tops, Barrell-tops, Wall Trunks, and even full Dresser trunks. These differing styles often only lasted for a decade or two as well, and - along with the hardware - can be extremely helpful in dating an unmarked trunk.
Trunks were generally constructed with a base trunk box made of pine which was then covered with protective and decorative materials. Some of the earliest trunks are covered with studded hide or leather and look much like the furniture of the same period (which makes sense as trunk manufacturing was sometimes an off-shoot of a furniture business.) Later coverings include paper, canvas, plain or embossed tin, with an uncounted assortment of hardware and hardwood slats to keep it all down. One of the rarest and most-sought after examples is the complete outer covering in matched oak slats, generally ascribed to the Excelsior or Clinton Trunk Cos, which have been known to fetch more than $5,000 if completely original and intact or over half that if correctly restored with complete, original-style tray-systems. (This is as opposed to the standard range of $100-$200 for a median-grade, unrestored dome-top, and up to $1,000 for the finest surviving examples of all-original trunks.)
Current restoration techniques for trunks are generally limited to either "wood-based", (where the central metal sheets or canvas is removed, exposing the underlying pine box, which is then stained in some fashion) "metal-based", (where even plain metal panels are left intact) and the almost unheard-of "original" (a true restoration to what it was, including interior wallpaper or otherwise.) Interiors for these may include the original paper being stripped out and replaced with modern or original-style wallpaper, padded or unpadded fabrics, sanding/staining the interior, lining the entire trunk with strips of cedar, or even simple paint.
Most of these methods may be found in one of the half-dozen or so pamphlets and books in print, and may be found in most online bookstores. Uninformed restorations will often shred or damage the trunk even beyond the greatest professional's ability to repair, and so you should not attempt to restore your own trunk without research. Also there are times when leaving a trunk intact and original - regardless of its current condition and physical appearance - is the correct action to take. Much controversy exists over "restored" or "original" in relation to a trunks value. However, little information exists regarding what actually determines the value of a trunk or even a proper definition of the term "value" as it is applied in this situation. For the largest percentage of trunks, an increase in monetary value is bestowed upon those with visual appeal, exceptional condition, unique attributes such as rare design, or are from a maker whose works are collected. Often, it matters little each way whether these examples are restored or original as the value is determined on a case by case bases by the individual buyer. However, there are trunks that exists whose value is measured not only in monetary terms, but more importantly, historical value. This is the heart of the debate and the only real argument that exists in trunk restoration. To take an essentially ruined standard trunk with not one shred of evidence regarding its past and restoring it to a nice, usable antique piece generally makes it more appealing and increases its market value over its original state. However, restoring a trunk with a link to an important historical person or event could destroy any proof of its past in which case history is lost and the monetary value would significantly be reduced. As it turns out, situations exist where both sides are correct. A well done restoration or refinish can increase a trunks value. Conversely, that same restoration can destroy important information regarding a trunks history and its original condition would have been the more valuable state in all aspects. This debate is not unique to trunks and frequently applied to most antiques in general. Often, the most important skill is in understanding the significance and uniqueness of the particular trunk in question. Some are simply very rare while others could be called historically significant. A proper restoration should begin with understanding the type of trunk in question and researching information regarding the history of the trunk if present. If in doubt, it is best to approach conservatively.
Nearly all of the hundreds of professional and part-time restorers in the United States have their preferred or learned method of restoration. However, there are only a few who are able to gain the experience necessary to master more than two proper techniques.
An detailed instruction set of a step-by-step commercial restoration process showing both before and after photographs of an original canvas covered dome top steamer trunk can be found by clicking here "Steamer Trunk Restoration". The reader will note that all of the original outside canvas covering and inside paper lining was carefully removed. Then the entire trunk was washed in a cleaning solution of bleach and water so as to remove all of the horse glue, molds and potential harmful bacteria that may have accumulated over a century or more of storage.
The easiest way for the casual observer to date any trunk is still by examining its style, so a short description of each aforementioned major variety follows.
Jenny Lind Trunks have a distinctive hour glass or keyhole shape when viewed from the side. They were named after the Swedish singer of the same name (and figure) who toured America in the mid 19th Century along with PT Barnum. In fact, she was well-known to carry a trunk of this style with her while on the road. An example of a Jenny Lind trunk can be found here Restored Jenny Lind
Saratoga trunks were the premium trunks of many makers (or the exclusive design of many premium trunk makers) and actually can encompass nearly every other style of trunk manufactured if loosely-defined, although generally they are limited to before the 1880s. The most readily-recognizable feature of Saratogas are their myriad (and generally very complex) compartments, trays, and heavy duty hardware. An example of a Saratoga Trunk can be found here Saratoga Style Trunk, Restored
Monitor-tops (incorrectly known as water-fall trunks from the furniture) date from the late 1870s to the late 1910s, and are characterized by their rounded front and rear corners to form a lying-down "D" when viewed from the side. Earlier examples usually included labor-intensive hardwood slats that were curved with the top, while there was a revival much later with rarer, all-metal ones being constructed. An example of a Monitor Trunk can be found here Monitor Trunk Restored
Steamer trunks which are sometimes referred to as Flat-Tops, first appeared in the late 1870s, although the greater bulk of them date from the 1880-1920 period. They are distinguished by either their flat or slightly-curved tops and were usually covered in canvas, leather or patterned paper. An example of a fully restored Steamer Trunk can be found here Restored Steamer Trunk
Barrel-Staves are sometimes referred to as a form of Dome-top trunk, but generally date from a decade or more earlier and are notable for having horizontal slats instead of vertical, giving it a distinctive look and construction. These were generally made from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s.
Bevel-tops are separated into an early and a late (or revival) period, the former generally dating from the 1870-1880 period, and the latter from 1890-1900. They are characterized by a distinct trapezoidal shape when viewed from the side, although the earlier period tended to have a much shorter flattened top section than the later did. These tend to be extremely rare, although are not as popular or sought-after as many of the other varieties.
Wardrobe trunks generally must be stood on end to be opened and have drawers on one side and hangers for clothes on the other. Many of the better wardrobe lines also included buckles/tie-downs for shoes, removable suitcases/briefcases, privacy curtains, mirrors, make-up boxes, and just about anything else imaginable. These are normally very large and heavy as they were used for extended travel by ship or train.
A Dome-top trunk has a high, curved top that can rise up to heights of 25-30". A variety of construction methods - including curfing, molded ply, barrel construction, and so forth - were used to form the inner boxes. Included in this classification are Camel-backs which are distinguished by having a central, vertically-running top slat that is higher than its fellows, Hunch-backs or Hump-backs which is the same but has no slat in the center of the top, and Barrel-tops (not to be confused with Barrel-staves) which have high arching slats that are all the height. (To tell you should be able to lay a ruler flat across the tops of the slats.) These trunks date from 1870s-1900s, although there are a few shops still manufacturing them today. They are not only the most commonly trunks referred to as antique, but also are among the most popular. An example of a Camel Back and a Barrel Top can be found here Barrel Top is the all wooden trunk and Camel Back is the Green trunk An example of a Hump Back trunk can be found here Restored Hump Back Style Trunk
Wall trunks are made with a special hinges so that when opened the trunk could still be put flat up against a wall. The two main manufacturers include Clinton and Miller, which can be easily noted by the name on the hinges. In good condition these are comparatively sought-after trunks for a specialty type, although are in the middling range when it comes to price.
Dresser trunks also known as Pyramidal trunks due to their shape, are a unique form of wall-trunk that generally date from the 1900-1910 era. They are characterized by a lid that opens up nearly the entire front half of the trunk, allowing it to rest on the bottom. Extremely large and rare in good condition with all of their drawers/lids/trays/etc, these trunks have been known to fetch high prices when fully restored. The two prominant manufacturers of this trunk style is F. A. Stallman and Homer Young & Co., the latter being harder to find.
Oak Slat trunks are perhaps the rarest and most sought after trunks by avid Americana trunk collectors. This type, which incorporates many construction-styles (e.g. dome-top, flat-top, bevelled-top, and as well as the particularly rare wall-trunk style attributed to Clinton Wall Trunk Factory), are built on a wooden frame, wherethen the malletier would fit thin oak slats vertically side-by-side until the entire trunk is covered. To a Victorian, this would show the complexity of the trunk and astuteness of the malletier, and was an indication of wealth to any purchaser. Oak Slat trunks were built by several companies. The Excelsior Company's oak slat trunk is often deemed the premier maker of this style, but several trunk authorities claim that this misconception of superiority between the few trunk companies who made oak slat trunks have affected the trunk market, as more people are in search for those made by Excelsior. And some experts reason that all oak slat trunks are built professionally, thus any trunk that embodies this style is extremely rare and no maker-preference is necessary. Other trunk companies known to have built oak slat trunks are: MM (Martin Maier) Company, Clinton Wall Trunk Manufactory, and El Paso Slat Trunk Company. Some oak slat trunks, unlike those whose individual vertical slats are uniform in color, were made with alternating colors on the vertical slats. An alternating-color oak slat trunk is very rare and exemplifies the oak slat style's use of uniqueness and beauty, and its value henceforth will be greater.
Some of the better known trunk makers are Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Haskell Brothers, MM Secor, Leatheroid, Clinton, Hartmann, Oshkosh, Molloy, Truesdale, and Taylor. Other rare and fine Malletiers still in existence includes La Malle Bernard. One of the largest American manufacturers of trunks at one point - Seward Trunk Co. of Petersburg, Virginia - still makes them for school and camp, and another company - Shwayder Trunk Company of Denver, Colorado - would eventually change its name and become Samsonite.
During the steamer trunk restoration process when the inside paper covering is removed you will sometimes find whimsical dated notes in lead pencil made by the original craftsman as well as the circular saw blade impressions made on the rough-cut wood at the saw mill both of which give added character and value to the restored trunk.
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