Before the age of Samsonite, travelers carried their luggage in steamer trunks. In the late 19th Century, this form of cargo was often used on trains and steamships (hence the name “steamer trunk”). While these trunks usually do not prove extremely valuable, there are collectors who will pay top dollar for one of these items especially if it has been well-preserved.
How to Identify a Steamer Trunk
Also known as “flat-top” trunks, steamer trunks are box-shaped with flat tops. They are often covered in smooth or embossed metal though some have canvas exteriors. These trunks also have wooden slats or metal bands to strengthen the frame and for decorative design. The interiors sometimes contain trays but little else of note. Steamer trunks are distinct from dome-top trunks and “stagecoach” trunks that are held together with leather bands and brass studs.
Types of Steamer Trunks
Steamer trunks come in various sizes. Some models were carry-on pieces of luggage that could be stowed underneath the berths of trains. Larger steamer trunks can measure up to 42 inches in length and 24 inches in width & depth. These trunks usually require two people to carry them. Generally, the smaller trunks are harder to find and greater in value.
The Value of a Steamer Trunk
If you come upon a steamer trunk in your attic, its value depends upon in large part upon its condition. An “as-is” steamer trunk may sell from between $35 to $100. In pristine condition, it may fetch as much as $400. A subspecies of the steamer, the wall trunk (a trunk that can be opened when flush against a wall) is a highly collectible item and can be sold for significantly more than a typical flat-top model. Also, the value of the trunk is greater if you have the original key to lock and open it.
Cost of Restoring a Steamer Trunk
If you find a steamer trunk in poor condition, a professional trunk restorer can refinish it to its former glory. Several vendors also sell toolkits as well as trunk parts so you can do it yourself. In either case, the time and expense make this work more of a labor of love than a profitable business venture.
Trunk Labels and Tags
Another collectible associated with steamer trunks are the labels and tags get attached or pasted to a trunk that has made its way through many ports and hotels. Collectors often will pay $5 to $15 for one of these tags or labels. Further, they enhance the overall value of the trunk for many collectors.
Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.