Flat Top Trunks
Please note that most of the trunks below are EXAMPLES. They are NOT FOR SALE.
The classic flat top trunks with canvas or metal background and hardwood staves were made from about the 1870s to around 1920. These trunks were the workhorses of that period. Many manufacturers around the world put them out in vast numbers. Their basic shape and design is a rectangular box covered in varying thickness of canvas (some is so thick it could be called burlap) or sheet metal and then hardwood staves, metal trim and hardware added. Some flat tops of this type were covered in sheet metal between the staves. This metal was usually plain flat tin but sometimes had embossed patterns to make them look like they were covered in canvas, why? since real fabric surely would have been cheaper. Most had trays inside but the trays were usually not made nearly as sturdily as the trunks themselves, therefore many found today will be missing the tray.
Flat trunks have been around much longer than this period, the very earliest chests of Egyptian design were flat and many stagecoach trunks were also flat. Many other trunk designs were popular during the flat top’s days. There are many legends around that supposedly explain why the rage of trunk design went from flat top stagecoach design to the round tops and humpbacks and then back to the standard flat tops with hardwood staves. Some say these rounded trunks came about because people were fed up with baggage handlers stacking their trunks and damaging them. So some bright soul decided objects with a rounded top could not be stacked. True, if you specify the object must always remain upright. Porters didn’t take long to realize that if a rounded-top trunk was laid over on its back (or front, or end) it was now flat again and could be stacked!
The interiors of flat tops were lined with paper until the late 1800s when some manufacturers started lining them with cloth, usually of a solid color. As the 19th Century drew to a close flat tops in general were made with more and more trim on the outside. Some became very elaborate with alignment dowels on the front on either side of the lock and on the ends where the lid met the box.
Flat Top With Straps
Common Flat Top
True Steamer Trunk
The canvas of most wooden flat tops is rotten by the time we find them. We remove the canvas and sand the pine (sometimes poplar or other woods) and apply a finish. These trunks require many hours of hard work to refinish but they’re almost always worth the effort. They make beautiful tables with lots of storage (and history). We say “refinish” as opposed to “restore” here because the overall look of the trunk changes dramatically but almost always for the better. This is an example of having to compromise sometimes between history and beauty.
The third trunk above is an example of a true steamer trunk. The name “steamer trunk” is very often misused. Many people tend to generalize and call all old trunks steamer trunks which is incorrect. A true steamer trunk is about half the height of most regular flat top trunks, the other dimensions are about the same as for a regular flat top. Steamers were used by passengers in their quarters during steamship voyages. Everything they would need during the voyage would be packed in that trunk and it was allowed in their room. Their other trunks, if they had them, were stored in the cargo hold and were not accessible during the journey. So, the term is associated with steam ships but not all trunks that traveled on steamships were steamers.