Information on Trunks

Last week someone on FB was asking about trunks. Here is the article I wrote in 2008 called “Carrying Your Impression” (I need to get the images fixed). I’m going to pull out some additional information and images as well. It all depends on what I have buried where.

Carrying Your Impression

The question “what do you carry your stuff in?” is one that comes up regularly with new and experienced reenacters. We need small containers to store things like hairpins, jewelry, hairnets, sewing supplies, medicine, a first aide kit, etc. In the nineteenth century there were a wide variety of boxes made from wood, tin, pasteboard, bark, papier-mâché, straw, etc.. They included Deed and Document boxes (wood, tin, paper covered), Small traveling boxes/trunks, Bark boxes, Sewing boxes, Pasteboard boxes, Chip boxes, Cash/money boxes, Dressing boxes, Snuff boxes, Patch boxes, Band & Hat boxes, Pantry and spice boxes, Artists’ boxes, Salt boxes, Candle and tinder boxes, Liquor boxes, Teas boxes/caddies, Boxes for games, and many more. We also need larger containers to transport our gear and smaller containers in and out of an event or throughout the weekend.The following containers are organized by type regardless of size. I have included notes on the advantages and disadvantages of each type of container along with some reading suggestions to learn more about each. One book I highly suggest is Neat and Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Household by Nina Fletcher Little.

Considering Your Scenario

            You will want to consider the situation of your event scenario when choosing what to carry your gear in. If at all possible, look to documentation of someone from the period in a similar situation to help you determine what to use. Long term refugees may have full furniture transported in wagons including chests of drawers, blanket chests, beds, tables, etc.. Comparatively, a refugee who left in haste may have only what could be carried quickly. This could range from a traveling bag to a stuffed sheet or pillow-case. A person traveling may have a few pieces of baggage depending on the situation and duration. (See Virginia Mescher’s article “Traveling Tips for Ladies”) Someone out for the day would carry far less than those above. A woman in town visiting may only have a purse or the contents in her pocket (See “Dress Pockets: A Lady’s ‘Carry All’” by Glenna Jo Christen in the February 2007 Citizen’s Companion) A woman going marketing or shopping may have a basket (not to be mistaken for the modern-day catch-all purse) in which to carry her purchases.

Environment and Usage

When considering containers for an event, each one has its advantages and draw backs. You will want to consider factors such as the weather prediction including humidity and rain, moisture in what you are storing, weight, lid tightness, wear and tear, and organization within the container.  If the forecast calls for a weekend of heavy rain, you may want to consider a water resistant container to carry your extra clothes if you don’t have a nice dry location to store it.  If you are carrying fragile items such as dishes, glasses, or original books, a soft-sided container may not suit your needs.

Personal Needs

Over the past years, I have used many methods of carrying my gear to events and during events, some successful, some not. Since each method has advantages and disadvantages, I tend to go in phases of what I take. Personally, I need the area I am staying in to be very organized and I need to be able to transport everything up and down stairs and in and out of storage without being overwhelmed. For some, storage containers need to do double duty as furniture or decoration at home. For others, storage containers can stay nicely in a garage or trailer while at home.  

Options for Carrying Your Goods

Trunks  carrying 1

Trunks would have been purchased from a harness maker during the first half of the nineteenth century. They were a common item for transporting and storing household items. Trunks from the mid-century were generally smaller than the later steamer trunks used on trans-Atlantic journeys. Some trunks had inset trays for convenient packing. Dome and curve top trunks often had organized storage in the lids. These trunks were good for moving items in wagons but not good for on trains where they were difficult to stack. Stage coach trunks were small enough to lift, while full, up on top of a stage coach.

Trunks vary in size and shape. Original pre-war trunks should be reproduced for use as most originals are delicate and valuable. Trunks are good for transporting most materials and give some protection against moisture. Large or heavy trunks can be difficult to transport. Stage coach trunks such as the Jenny Lind trunk have ample space inside while being easy to carry by one person. My Jenny Lind trunk is 27.5” wide by 16” deep by 13” high. With the curved sides and lid, I can easily wrap my arms around the body of the trunk to carry it.  For addition information on trunks please see “A Study of Trunks” in the December 2006 Citizen’s Companion. For clothing storage see  “Hanging it Up or Not: Clothing Storage in the Nineteenth Century” by Virginia Mescher available on

Wooden Boxes

            A basic wooden box can be made in a variety of ways to store many things. In the era these were homemade or purchased. Some had latches and/or locks. Most lids were flat or domed and hinged while some can have sliding lids. The exterior can be carved, stained, painted, gilt, or inlayed. Early nineteenth century boxes could reflect a patriotic theme with stars, flags, eagles and the like, either freehand painted or stenciled.  Mid century painting tended towards sponging or swirling, faux graining or marbleizing, stylized foliage, life scenes, and stenciling similar to that done on interior walls, floors, and fireboards.  Some late 1700s boxes resembled miniature dower chests. The interiors could be compartmented.  Some of wooden boxes can be document or deed boxes used to store important papers.  Some boxes were covered with leather or hideresembling small trunks. Some hide used to cover trunks retained the animal’s hair or fur. These often had latches and locks as well as strapping and decorative nails. A packing or shipping box can be very simple, possibly stenciled with contents or destination.

A wooden box can protect contents from rainy weather. Depending on construction and tightness of the lid, it may or may not protect from the humidity. Weight and ease of transportation can also be a factor. The type of wood, the size of the box, the shape of the box, and what is packed inside all contribute to the weight and how difficult it will be to carry.  Attention needs to be given to construction techniques and the hardware used. Detailed information can be found in Nineteenth Century Wooden Boxes by Arene Wiemers Burgess.


There are a number of bags available for use. Some can be purchased while others need to be made by hand.

Directions for travel bags  are available through-out the pages of Godey’s and Peterson’s. A travel bag was intended for carrying what you would need during a journey. In the case of stage or train travel, this may include a shawl, reading material, and extra set of underpinnings, and needlework. The idea was not to have to access your larger baggage during the trip.

Similar to the travel bags, carpet bags were used during travel. These were both manufactured and homemade as they are in reenacting today. The Carpetbagger and Heirloom Weavers both make authentic reproductions with reproduction carpeting. Tapestry and some carpeting is available to make a homemade bag following period illustrations or mimicking an extant bag.  Depending on the size of your bag, you can pack a day’s or a weekend’s goods and clothing. Valises are similar in size and shape to many manufactured carpet bags, but they are made from leather.

            Each of  these bags are easy to carry. They work nicely for soft goods such as clothing. The soft nature of the bags does crush some items inside. The carpet-bag has more firmness to the body of the bag than the travel bag shown. This makes it a little better for items such as books.  Since these bags are fabric or carpet, they do not withstand heavy rain or heavy humidity while carried or set on wet ground. Some carpet bags have leather bases, protecting the contents a bit more from a damp ground. But, I do not suggest leaving it set on a very wet surface for a prolonged period.


Cloth Sacks and Pillow Cases

Simple sacks or even pillowcases can be an easy way to carry soft goods. These are especially appropriate for a poorer impression. Cornelia Peake McDonald’s step-daughter, Mary, packed her last minute items in a sheet from the crib before departing Winchester with her children on a stage coach while wearing her calico morning dress. (A War Diary with Reminiscences p182) Bevin Lynn shared on the Sewing Academy how she asked a group of new teen reenacters to store all their materials in a single, monogrammed pillow case for their first events. This helped during carpooling and while sharing a camp location at events.

Bandboxes and Pasteboard boxescarrying 2

Band boxes were made of thin wood then covered with wall paper. Pasteboard boxes were made of paper-pulp pressed into thick sheets. These were also covered with paper. Some papers were wallpaper while others were printed specially for pasteboard boxes. These could be printed with information or illustrations regarding the bonnet, hat, or hair-comb inside. Either of these boxes can be used to hold headwear as well as other items. Pasteboard boxes were made in nesting sets intended to carry or store a wide range of lighter weight articles of clothing such as dresses, caps, gloves, and collars. Oval ones were sometimes considered bride’s boxes given as gifts to store finery and delicate trinkets. Band-boxes and pasteboard boxes of the mid- nineteenth century did not have the convenient cording used to secure the lid that we are familiar with in the 20th century. Instead they were secured with a strap of clasp. Cotton bags were made to carry one or more of the pasteboard boxes. Pasteboard boxes can be round, oval, or rectangular of many different sizes. You can make one with a base box, period wallpaper and interior paper.

Bonnets could also be stored or transported in wooden boxes or bonnet trunks that were becoming more popular in the middle of the century.carrying 3

Sometimes we need very small boxes to carry medication, a key, a dollop of sun-block, etc.. There were small wooden stave boxes made for medicines held in the pantry. This may not be the best choice for modern medications. Consider boxes similar to snuff boxes or patch boxes for this use. These boxes sealed well and were made from fine or utilitarian metal, enameled metal, tortoise shell, ivory, horn, and papier-mâché. (be careful not to put moist contents in the latter part of the list.)

Staved Boxes 

            A pantry favorite, the staved box, can be very useful for an event kitchen. Staved boxes were used for many kitchen goods including cheese, butter, herbs, and flours. One New Hampshire example held hand-woven, hand-dyed linen handkerchiefs and towels (from Neat and Tidy). Those with pine staves/walls held together with hoops of a harder wood were used for moist items like butter. (This may not be practical for events because this box would need to be kept consistently moist. Consider a crock for butter instead.) Stave boxes were also made in sets that could nest. Round sets consisting of one large round box and seven or eight small round boxes set inside the large one were used beginning in the 1850s to store spices. Most often these were labeled: cloves, cinnamon, mustard, nutmeg, pepper, ginger, allspice, mace.

Round and oval Shaker spice and work boxes are the most recognized stave boxes. These were made with maple sides and pine tops and bottoms. These were available in most areas by 1825 either varnished or painted. (be aware, most cheese boxes available from Mennonite shops have staples instead of nails holding the staves. Early handmade stave boxes had headed nails clinched on the inside. Manufactured boxes starting in the mid-century had machine made tacks holding thinner, often poorer made staves.)

Tin boxes and Tin trunkscarrying 6

Tinsmiths made numerous tin containers for use in the mid-nineteenth century including canisters, tin boxes, tin trunks and small tins. Some have hinged lids with latches and handles such as the tin trunk which some used to hold documents. These can be nicely painted solid or painted with designs including stencils.

  carrying 4          Tin containers are excellent for storing items you do not want to get moist or invaded by insects. A container with a tightly secure lid can also hold up against the most curious of chipmunks, squirrels or raccoons. For this reason, I like to use tin to store baked goods. I don’t recommend any food with moisture, because some modern ‘tin’ does seem to spot rust from the inside out. For additional information on tin, consider The Art of the Tinsmith   by Shirley Spaulding DeVoe.

Basketscarrying 5

            Baskets were used for a variety of purposes in the mid-century. There were egg baskets, cheese baskets, market baskets, field baskets, laundry baskets, storage baskets, fruit drying baskets, garden baskets, and many more.  Baskets can be light weight and easy to carry with a built in handle or handles.

Baskets tended to be made for particular uses in mind. Their construction generally reflects this and should be kept in mind when choosing a basket. To strengthen the base of a basket for carrying heavy goods a basket may have a solid turned wood base or a “kicked-in” base. A buttocks basket with the handle encircling the bottom distributed the weight of the contents in the two bulbs of the basket making the basket easier to carry. A field or fruit basket could have an open weave on the bottom allowing dirt and particles to fall through and also allow the contents to dry. A basket meant for drying or for storing the contents could be footed or have runners, keeping the basket up off the floor allowing air to circulate under the basket. Regional variation and cultural origins should also be kept in mind when choosing a basket. While I, in close proximity to Shaker establishments, could choose a Shaker style basket, I could not as easily choose a coil basket made in a Pennsylvania village with German roots or a Nantucket lightship basket.

Baskets are relatively easy to find at craft stores, yard sales, even department stores. You may even be able to take a basket making class at a local history museum or through a continuing education program. For detailed information on baskets, please read Virginia Mescher’s articles in the in the Fall 2005 and Winter 2006 editions of the Watchdog and the books by Gloria Roth Teleki, The Baskets of Rural America and Collecting Traditional American Basketry which include several mid-century notations and baskets.

Baskets do come with a few drawbacks. Baskets provide minimal protection from weather and moisture. If the basket contains modern items, a cloth cover must be continually arranged to conceal the contents. Baskets, though popular for picnics, provide little barrier for hungry insects. I will never forget one of my early events when I had been sitting with a basket on my lap which recently had been on the ground. When the basket was set aside, my entire lap wasn’t the stripes of fabric but a mass of moving black and brown… ants, hundreds of ants. 


 Specialized Containers

            At times you will find you need a specialized container to suit your needs. A common one is a spectacle (glasses) case. These cases were shaped for the spectacles, made from metal, covered metal, leather, and papier-mâché. They were most often lined inside. They are the best way to carry your period glasses. If you will be writing letters or a journal during your event you may want a writing desk. Writing desks are useful for writing letters or journal pages. They are wood with a slanted top or fold down top with a writing surface. Inside there are compartments for holding paper, pens and ink. Some men may who plan to shave at events may want a razor box.  These wood boxes had swivel or slide tops. Some had compartments inside for razors and brushes. Another box, useful to most reenactors, especially during rainy events are candle and tinder boxes.  At an event you will want to keep your candles dry and if it is hot, straight. These boxes were wood or tin, the length of the candle. You will also want to keep tinder for the fire if it particularly wet. A period tinderbox would contain a piece of flint, a steel striker, dry tinder, and possibly a tin damper to shield or extinguish the tinder. You will want either those items or dry matches, a striker, dry tinder (charred linen, paper, or wood shavings) or a fire starter and possibly a dry candle stub.

Well-stocked sewing baskets or boxes are essential for anyone who plans to sew during an event. Directions for both smaller sewing kits and larger sewing boxes and baskets can be found in Godey’s and Peterson’s. Chances are, even if you are not an avid seamstress, you have or eventually will need at least a small sewing case during an event. Small kits such as housewives, needle-books and needle-cases abound for purchase. They are also easy to make.

Boxes shaped like books are sometimes popularized for smuggling at events. These book-shaped boxes weren’t an unusual item. They were constructed most often from wood to store important books or other items. They would open like a book or with a sliding cover in the back. Some had humorous titles. The author of Neat and Tidy says hollowed out books were popular in the early 20th century.

Toilet or dressing boxes and trinket boxes were popular for both men and women in the 17th and early 18th centuries among the wealthy classes. By the late 18th and 19th century, these boxes were popular for middle classes. Trinket boxes were similar to what we would now call a small jewelry box. (A trinket was a small ornament, usually an article of jewelry for personal adornment.) 19th century boxes were decorated or painted frequently by the woman who used it. They were most often rectangular or octagonal, occasionally with locks. Some were decorated to match dressing tables.


Each one of us will find different modes of packing our goods works well at different times under different circumstances. In my experiences I have found some favorite modes of packing ranging from carpetbags to a wide assortment of trunks to a jam cabinet. I have seen a several successful methods as well. One, which stands out in memory, is an entire kitchen’s goods including flour, sugar, eggs, etc. packed into a copper double boiler. Each item was well packed in a period appropriate container within the boiler making it easy for the cook to carry her weekend’s ingredients from kitchen to kitchen. I am certain I have neglected some favorite containers of other reenacters. If I have, I am eager to hear what you use.



Raycraft, Don and Carol. Country Baskets Wallace-Homestead, 1976. and The Basket Book. Paducah, KY: Schroeder, 1981.

Schiffer, Nancy. Baskets. Schiffer Publishing: Exton, PA, 1984.




Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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