Thursday, March 29, 2018

Old Luggage

Before the Boeing Airplane Company took over travel, mass market suitcases were made of old growth (six hundred years) cedar covered in Tolex. Not long ago, there was a wave of such luggage in local thrift stores. A few pieces made their way to the attic, and one of them made its way back to the main floor, perhaps to be of use. A nomadic acquaintance who made his living teaching and painting fine art stored his life in old suitcases that he transported in a used commercial van. Now that I comprehend the durability of Tolex, I appreciate the technical insight behind his choice of transit case.

A brief inspection reminded me that the suitcase is an attenuated version of a steamer trunk. It's designed to serve the same need to protect high-maintenance fabrics and present them in wearable condition. There's an elaborate internal structure to secure folds and hold hangers. I'm delighted no longer to have any use for such complications and equally delighted to have the opportunity to experiment with a mini-trunk. 

Cedar is no slouch at protecting textiles from pests, although the lignin in the wood means the storage is not archival. The rectangular profile of the case means that it will stack. I can rest my legs on it while reading, set it on end as a side table, and store bedding or emergency gear in the thing. The piece doesn't warrant fussy restoration, but using it to conceal field gear or small goods will be a thrifty way to take advantage of good value in vintage furnishings. This was never a suitcase to boast about, but the old custom of covering luggage with a protective quilted case might be revived using hot glue to tailor a cover from a moving pad. The quilts had bound openings around the handle. I'd consider using gaffer's tape to that end.


Tolex is an early synthetic fabric that has both an interesting history and an entertaining current inventory on offer. I just wipe it down with a damp cloth. The early vinyl edging can be refreshed with biker's chrome polish from Germany or, conceivably, tooth paste. Brass locks can be refreshed the same way. Working on instinct rather than archivist's expertise, I'd wash chemically aggressive polish residue from vinyl edging and anoint the stuff with artist's wax medium or the wonderfully benign leather conditioner sold under the brand name of a Detroit luxury car. The Tolex might benefit from a coat of wax, too, or of the protective automotive spray designed to protect vinyl that is famous for repelling ash from Mt. St. Helens. Consult a specialist if you think your piece might be of some value, and keep in mind that there is concern about health hazards associated with vinyl. I have a hunch that a protective coating that prolongs the life of a piece will also isolate toxins from the surrounding space -30-

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