Awhile ago I received an email from Emily regarding an antique trunk article I wrote roughly two years ago:
I saw an article you wrote about antique trunks and there is a picture of one trunk that I would like to know if you know anything about it. I have the same one. It says patd. oct 2 1888 on the front lock.
I do not know much about trunks or their makers (nor am I an appraiser), but since Emily and I are related via the adoption of sibling antique steamer trunks, I’d try to share what little information I have…
Our trunks are classic flat top trunks, rectangular boxes covered with sheet metal (called metal backgrounds — some trunks have canvas or burlap backgrounds) and hardwood staves with additional metal trim and hardware. These trunks, produced in great numbers by various manufacturers worldwide between 1870 and 1920, were true shipping workhorses, stacked in cargo holds of ships.
These trunks are not steamer trunks; true steamer trunks (about half the height of most regular flat top trunks) were the trunks passengers were allowed to keep in their quarters during steamship voyages. Whatever was in the smaller steamer trunk was what they had access to during the trip; all other trunks and their contents were inaccessible, stored in the cargo hold until the end of the voyage.
The sheet metal used was typically plain old flat tin, but often you’ll find the metal embossed to look like canvas. Some people have questioned why such embossing would be done, when canvas would have been cheaper than sheet metal — let alone embossed sheet metal. I suppose that this could have been done to disguise a more expensive trunk — eyeballing it, a person perhaps wouldn’t notice it as different from the cheaper canvas backed trunks. But a porter would certainly notice the difference in texture and weight.
Primarily, trunks embossed with more ornate patterns, like ours, were surely designed to appeal to buyers. And they continue to appeal to us today — the more decorative antique trunks are, the more they are sought after.
Being that such large objects are certain to be not only on display, but noticeably so, collectors and those of us who find the practicality of trunks compelling, looks matter. The most beautiful are the domed or rounded-top trunks, but, as I said in that other article, I personally don’t own a single round topped trunk:
It’s not just the price which keeps me away from them. The same reason these trunks were coveted back in the day is the same reason I dislike them now: you can’t set anything on top of them.
Not only do I like to stack my trunks, but I like to use them as furniture. If the top is round, you can’t set a lamp or candle holder on them, nor books and a beverage. In a small house, anything that doubles as storage and a piece of furniture is a-OK with me.
However, clever porters storing trunks quickly realized that round-topped trunks set on their backs, fronts or sides gave a flat ‘top’ which could be both stacked and stacked upon. If it’s hard to visualize, imagine the the round top of a trunk like the spine of a book:
This is a novel idea for display of antique trunks too; however, it will require thinking about using them for storage, as the lids will now open ‘out’ rather than ‘up’ allowing for items inside to spill out.
Most trunks once had wooden trays inside, but these were flimsy (poorly constructed from soft inexpensive wood) and so the inside ‘lip’ to set trays on is the only remaining evidence. Trunks found with trays usually aren’t worth that much more, as the wood is brittle and disintegrating, unable to be of much use — and even the most appealing parts of these trays, the pretty printed wallpapers papers (or fabric), are usually too tattered, mildewed and water stained to really be enjoyed. If your trunk, trays and/or compartments have wallpaper, pictures, or cloth intact it could be worth more to collectors — but generally speaking, only if the outside and original hardware are in equally wonderful condition.
In general, flat-top trunks fetch lower prices than their round or dome-topped relatives, and, unless they are incredibly spectacular, they have little monetary value past storage and decorative objects. ‘Round here, you can get them for as little as $1 at an auction — though in retail settings, perhaps up to $150 or so (but those dealers will wait awhile for that sale). I don’t think I’ve paid more than $15 for an antique flat top trunk myself.
Prices will vary with your location, as always; but keep in mind that the large size of antique trunks limits the size of a collection more than figurines etc., so demand, in general, is lower and so the prices are lower.