Collectibles-General (Antiques)/Old steamer trunk


QUESTION: I just purchased this old trunk and I was trying to date it. It's 2 feet tall and 3 feet across and covered in brown canvas. The inner liner seems to be made of fabric in a brown Basket weave (reminded me of art deco) pattern and there are 4 squat wheels at the bottom. I've seen similar trunks but they all had reinforced wooden slats and this one doesn't. I would love any kind of information.

1911 trunk catalog
1911 trunk catalog  
1911 slatless trunk
1911 slatless trunk  
ANSWER: Ellie,
The American trunk companies began making more of the "slatless" trunks such as this in the late 1890's and mostly by around 1910. Most trunk catalogs of the early 1900s show both trunk styles, with the thick outer slats and those like this without wood slats.  These trunks were almost always made of basswood, which was very strong, flexible and lighter weight than many other woods. They were made this way mostly because they were lighter weight. They were covered with thick canvas which was painted and called duck canvas in the old catalogs. The edge binding and center bands are made of hard pressed fiber, which was made to look like leather. The interiors were lined with either paper or cloth, sometimes linen. I've seen the cloth lining in many different patterns. The style of the hardware, such as latches, clamps, and bumper corners helps date this trunk to the early 1900's to about 1920. They used the same type for many years.  There were many American companies making this type trunk and some have labels but many do not.  I'm attaching a couple pages from a 1911 trun maker catalog that shows similar trunks.  They also had many other styles including those with thick wood slats and some with embossed metal covering. You can see the details they gave about their trunks. I see the lock is missing from your trunk, but old original locks can still be found for these.  I hope that helps.

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Crack on top
Crack on top  
QUESTION: Thank you again for your incredibly informative and quick response! I have been doing some research over the past few days and I realize that this is not *actually* a steamer trunk I meant to label it as a flat top trunk but before doing research I had always thought oversized trunks were "steamers" which is undoubtedly how the misnomer is continually perpetuated. So I do apologize for the title!

I've also been looking into trunk restoration and I was wondering if you had any advice regarding cracks in the wood... the canvas is quite damaged in spots on the top of the trunk and the wood is exposed underneath and almost all of those spots have a crack in the wood.

Do you have any suggestions for cleaning this trunk up? I'm curious about how I might clean up the faux leather fiber piping too....

Thank you so much!

Refinished trunk
Refinished trunk  

before picture of trunk
before picture of trun  
Most of the time when the canvas is ripped or has pieces missing, people will remove it all and refinish the wood body of the trunk.  The canvas can be carefully cut with a razor knife around the edges and pulled off exposing the wood. if you don't want to remove the canvas you could use a little wood glue to glue down loose pieces or to fill some of the narrow cracks. If you remove the canvas the wood can be lightly sanded with find sandpaper and then stained or just finished with a clear satin varnish or tung oil varnish.  There are almost always some cracks in old trunks. Some are small and very narrow and don't really need to be filled. If they are wider and you want them filled you can find a variety of wood fillers at home improvement stores, including one I sometimes use called Kwikwood which is an epoxy type filler which doesn't shrink.  But it is usually hard to stain wood filler to match and some people use some colored filler or even a small brush and some acrylic paint to touch up the filler after it dries, to try to match the wood color.  There is not really one simple way to tell you how to do this and different types of wood have different colors or can be stained.  
To clean the fiber banding you can use some fine steel wool and rub off any dirt or spots. Then you can wipe a little wood stain on it to bring out more color or to deepen it, or use the same wood finish on it to seal it and keep the color as it is. I would not sand the fiber pieces but the steel wool should not hurt it. This usually looks great when it is cleaned and has some finish on it. Again, there is not just one way to clean up or finish these trunks, so you can experiment a little and see what works best for you.  I'm attaching a before and after picture of a trunk that had the canvas removed and the fiber banding cleaned and finished as I mentioned.  I hope this helps.

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Marvin D. Miller


I can answer questions related to antique trunks, their age, manufacturers, styles, patents, etc, including all types of trunks such as steamer trunks, saratoga trunks, Victorian trunks, slat trunks, toy and doll trunks, stagecoach trunks, valises, hat trunks, and others.


I have over 40 years experience in trunk restoration, collecting, and research. I own the most extensive collection of historical documents, catalogs, maker's labels, cards, etc. related to antique trunks. I am always updating my inventory of historical documents and antique trunks.

Association of American Antique Trunk Restorers, President.

Primarily on the website Cotton & Quail Antiques newspaper (Southeast). Antique Journal magazine.

Bachelor of Arts from the University of Georgia. I have conducted extensive research related to the topic of trunk manufacturers and trunk styles in the U.S. and Europe.

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Have consulted for the Pawn Stars TV show on antique trunks. I have sold antique trunks to museums in California and Florida and to customers around the world.

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