There, among the mostly black others jumbled on the airport conveyor belt, is your suitcase. A happy sight.

Our luggage arriving is almost as good as us arriving.

Here come the cases — one with pink ribbons, some with personalised tags, one with straps with a surname printed on, a couple plastic wrapped, and most with a variety of padlocks, colourful and otherwise . . .

The suitcase is our private space — our little home away from home, containing all we need as we travel.

For some, it’s just the first bag grabbed out of the “family store”, with stuff thrown in like the contents of a tumble drier.

For others, it’s a particular thing, packed in a certain way, the same every time.

Soft with zips, hard shell with latches, four wheels or two — modern luggage comes in the wide variety we expect of the modern world, in everything from the aluminium/magnesium to lightweight carbon-fibre and ballistic nylon.

And, for all that, mostly in black.

But we might look back 150 years, to the 19th century and see the early ancestor of the modern traveller with a trunk — often weighty, built of timber or leather, iron framed, and perhaps waterproofed with tree sap or canvas for travel across oceans when steamships ruled the waves.

We might then look to the end of the 19th century, where we see the genesis of the modern suitcase — literally, a case for suits.

Things had developed by the early 20th century, from these simple cases with a pocket for shirts to what were basically portable wardrobes.

As a recent study by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, in the US, comments: “These were boom times for the baggage business.” And it adds that “suitcases carry a lot more than spare socks and underwear — they carry in their design a subtle history of human movement.”

But the shift to mass tourism came in the late 19th century —“travel for travel’s sake”, rather than, say, pilgrimages to Jerusalem or migration to industrial towns. And it was no longer just for the rich. Suitcases soon became the symbol of travel.

The Smithsonian report says: “An 1897 wholesale price list included the words ‘suit case’ only twice in a 20-page list of luggage types. In a 1911 United Company catalogue, however, around 40 per cent of the advertisements were for suitcases.”

And indeed, there are threads of this history in WA.

Mallabones Luggage and Leather, in Perth’s Carillon Arcade, was established in 1898 by Jane Mallabone. One of Australia’s oldest luggage and leather goods retailers, it is today run by Fred Mallabone, her great-grandson.

And the Western Australian Museum has examples of luggage from our migrant past, like the trunk of migrant Zora Bryce. Although she emigrated with her family from the UK to Fremantle in 1962 on the P&O liner Acadia, the two trunks of possessions the family were allowed date from the beginning of the 20th century. They were originally used by her grandmother’s family when they emigrated to Canada.

And there one of the trunks sits on display at the Fremantle Maritime Museum in Victoria Quay, open and in the middle of other luggage, and, for display purposes, containing the belongings of Dutch immigrant Nonja Peters who travelled to Australia in 1949 on the Ugolino Vivaldi.

As mass tourism increased, a rash of new suitcases came on to the market — lighter, though still leather, wicker or of rubbery cloth over a rigid wood or steel frame, found the Smithsonian. And, still used on steamships, they were often still advertised as “waterproof” but still rather beautiful.

They give insight into the luggage of the visitors turning up at the Cote D’Azur in the 1930s — a golden age of tourism.

Particularly because of the plastics that started to be seen in the 1960s, the past 50 years has seen a proliferation of luggage designs, styles and features, as travellers have taken to the air. While 17 million flew on an aircraft in 1949, 172 million did so in 1969, and more than 3 billion (yes, that’s a “b”— 3,000,000,000) now.

Kevin Sheedy, who coached Essendon Football Club for 27 years, is a popular motivational speaker. In his talks, I have heard him reflect that in all those years Essendon won four premierships: “Eight hours of happiness. Things take time. It took us 2000 years to put wheels on suitcases.”

In fact, the 1980s brought the wheeled-luggage revolution. The Rollaboard bag was invented by Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath in 1987 (though a wheeled trunk had been patented exactly 100 years before, in 1887, and there is evidence of a modern wheeled suitcase in 1945 but it clearly just didn’t catch on).

As weight restrictions bit in the 2000s, luggage went lightweight and suitcases were tilted vertical, to help us pull them along on their wheels.

The idea of travelling only with carry-on luggage is far from new.

In 1873, the character Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, announced: “We’ll have no trunks.” And with that he explained to faithful companion Passepartout that they would travel with “only a carpet bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you”. He added: “We’ll buy clothes on the way.”

There’s a subculture among carry-on travellers these days — a bit of snobbery among types who pride themselves on being able to live out of a carry-on bag for, oh, years, anywhere from the tropics to Antarctica (all finely honed mix-and-match outfits and handles cut off their toothbrushes to save weight).

The trick is to minimise clothes, pick one colour scheme, don’t pack jeans (heavy), take small toiletries, go paperless, and look at Micro Four Thirds camera digital systems such as the Olympus PEN.

In these days of paying for luggage with low-cost carriers, there’s the advantage of saving on fees, there’s access to all your possessions during the flight, faster getaway from airports and transports and less fear of lost luggage.

On that, the most recent figures available show that 26 million pieces of checked-in luggage went astray in 2011 — modern airports have very sophisticated luggage-handling systems and the airline industry says that less than one per cent of luggage goes astray, most of it catching up with its owner in fewer than two days.

Technology will continue to help, like new digital luggage-tag technology, some details of which were outlined just a few days ago. For it is predicted that in the not-too distant future, those long sticky-ended airline tags will all have been replaced by digital tags.

- Qantas already uses Q Bag Tags, which can be bought for $29.95, containing what is claimed to be world-first technology that synchronises the passenger’s boarding pass details with their baggage.

- British Airways has a prototype light-blue coloured digital tag that communicates with the airline’s app on a passenger’s smart phone. It started testing the digital tags on flights in October.

- Air France-KLM has digital luggage tag developer the FastTrack Company developing for it a small tracking device that goes inside the luggage, connects to the internet and then to the passenger’s smart phone.


"The suitcase is our private space — our little home away from home".


© The West Australian

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