In Search Of The Perfect Suitcase
Someone I know owns expensive suitcases. At least six of them, fully lined with that all-too-familiar pattern copied widely for its status. He showed the set of them to me proudly. He travels rarely, so the suitcases don’t get to see the light of day very often. Unlike the suitcases in this blog.
Air travel hasn’t always been as easy as it is nowadays. You grab a trolley, toss your bags onto it and off you go – by way of example – into a plane for a four-day city trip. In the early days of aviation, flying was a serious business. You had to make preparations and you travelled with suitcases.
Take this travel trunk, something of an antique in today’s world. Two young men were needed to hoist this giant on board. Travel trunks could take a knock or two. Reinforced with wooden ribs and adorned with brass hardware, they were practically indestructible. We’re talking about times when porters stood at the ready, waiting to assist you with your baggage at stations and airports.
“Long ways, long lies.” Although someone returning from a far-off country could tell lies without fear of being contradicted, the stickers on their suitcases provided irrefutable proof. Self-adhesive stickers from airlines and destinations were widely issued, and could be slapped directly onto the suitcase, presumably to indicate where it had to be unloaded from the aircraft. This trunk appears to have travelled extensively. I see Basel, Zürich, Brussels and Hamburg. Its owners were definitely well to do.
Travelling to the former Dutch East Indies – especially before the Second World War – was a long journey. The itinerary included several stopovers – even for the night in some cases. KLM had its own Travel Services department. Employees made sure that passengers were well prepared before taking to the skies, providing them with labels, general travel tips, packing instructions for suitcases and this suitcase. Brown before the war and blue thereafter. Just imagine: you’re planning a trip and you get a ticket along with your very own suitcase. Unfortunately, I can’t uncover exactly why KLM did this.
The “Indië” suitcases – for the long journey mentioned above – were a hot favourite. Not only amongst passengers; KLM staff wanted them too. Unfortunately, staff were left empty handed. At least this much is clear from an article published in the Wolkenridder at the beginning of November 1949 about the Travel Services department. No suitcases for KLM staff. However, it was possible for staff to buy a KLM overnight bag: a handy blue bag with white trimming, clearly depicting the KLM logo. Passengers were given one of these too if they booked an intercontinental flight. Perfect for tossing in some toiletries, a few pairs of socks and your pyjamas. This bag appealed to the imagination and grew to become such an iconic must-have that it even featured prominently in a poster.
This one’s something of a curiosity: the Mass suitcase. On request, travelling priests could also be issued with one of these by the same Travel Services department. The idea was that – if necessary – they would be able to celebrate Mass en route at the airports. They contained everything: a crucifix, candelabras, a bell, a Chalice, a Bible and – yes, you’ve guessed – a portable altar. And all of this in a single suitcase! I’m not sure how long KLM provided this service, but I suspect it disappeared in line with the number of travelling priests and anticipated stopovers. Their numbers dwindled rapidly after 1960, and fellow travellers could more easily wait to go to church on arrival at the destination.
The legendary KLM suitcase. An almost square blue suitcase, boasting reinforced corners and studs at the bottom and back so that it wouldn’t get damaged standing or on its side. Made in Great Britain to boot. The photo shows them being issued to emigrants onboard an aircraft participating in the London-Christchurch air race. It was intended for hand luggage, pretty much the same as the KLM bag which could carry around the same volume. There were loads of them in circulation. My father had one, although he didn’t do much with it until my sister discovered it and claimed it as her school bag and then used it to store LPs – it was the perfect size for them. The KLM suitcase was produced for many years, changing in form and colour, from dark to light blue, while retaining the same proportions as the initial models. Attics full, I would suspect.
And last, but not least: the genuine KLM suitcase set introduced in 1983. In that year, close to 65 years of KLM experience in dealing with baggage were translated into a nine-part set consisting of suitcases and bags of various shapes and sizes, and a carry bag for clothing. The name: Royal Class Traveller Collection. According to the Wolkenridder, this bore no relation to the travel class that existed then too, but applied to the quality of the set. They were manufactured using plastic with super-strong nylon fibre at a density of 2,000 denier – also used to line the inner surface of car tyres at the time. These suitcases were unbreakable.
The set was only intended for the Dutch market and, something I find quite remarkable, a team of six KLM cabin attendants travelled from one end of the Netherlands to the other over a three-day period to promote the suitcases at department stores and leather goods outlets. The outcome: the set was soon for sale from Den Helder to Maastricht. KLM employees could purchase them at a 10% discount on presentation of their KLM ID. I wonder who still owns one…