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What Is a Steamer Trunk?

brown steamer trunk

A steamer trunk is a type of luggage or transport trunk. Traditionally, the large, rugged trunks would have flat tops so that they could be stacked on top of one another, although modern equivalents are available with beveled tops and other designs.

Steamer trunks were popularized in the 19th Century when they were used primarily on steam-powered boats and locomotives but would have also been used on stagecoaches and other forms of transport. They are still used today for transporting goods, although less rarely for travel, while many find use as linen storage or game boxes in modern homes.

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History of the Steamer Trunk

Although trunks were generally in regular use at the beginning of the 19th Century, it wasn’t until around 1870 that the steam trunk was introduced and gained popularity. At this time, long-distance travel via cross-country railroads and over the water was becoming popular and people needed a convenient and safe way to transport their belongings with them.

The trunks, which differ from chests that tended to be more ornate and took up a more permanent position in a home or other building, were large enough to carry clothing and other items without damaging them.

Originally, the steamer trunk was a basic wooden trunk but, over time, its design became more ornate. They were lined with paper and coated with materials like leather, and even the shape of the trunk changed, but the basic principle remained the same. Later models could also be stood up and opened, revealing the contents which were kept in separate compartments.

steamer trunk inside the room
Image By: David Mark, Pixabay

What Are the Different Types of Steamer Trunks?

The point of a steamer trunk was that it was rectangular and conveniently shaped so that it could fit easily into corners and snug areas in locomotives and boats.


Early steamer trunks are usually more basic. They have flat tops, are made from wood, and are unlikely to have too many ornate decorative additions. However, with the Victorian Age came a new wave of steamer trunks. More ornate trunks that were covered in material like leather are most likely from the Victorian or later ages. Modern steamer trunks are rarely used for travel, and they will often include ornate features like hinges, handles, and some purely decorative additions. They may be made from wood and can be coated with other materials.


Wood is the traditional material used in the construction of the trunk. It was easy to work with, readily available, and sturdy enough to be able to hold a person’s belongings. Over time, the trunks were bound in leather, paper, or other materials.

Top Design

A steamer trunk had a flat top so that other trunks and containers could be placed on top. Those designed with a curved top were created so that other boxes could not be placed on top, therefore preventing damage to the trunk and protecting the items within.

worn out steamer trunks
Image Credit: JAE ., Pixabay

Steamer Trunk Uses

Steamer trunks are large, cumbersome, and difficult to pull around by today’s standards. As such, they are rarely used for travel, but they do still find regular use.

With a history of around 150 years, they make good antiques and collectibles for the home. They are relatively inexpensive and there’s a good variety of trunks made with different materials, designs, and finishes.

Modern steamer trunks are still useful as containers. They are large and their rectangular dimensions mean that it is easy to fit almost any type of item inside. They are used as linen boxes, to hold games or for general storage.

Advantages of Steamer Trunks

  • Durable – Well-constructed steamer trunks can last decades. There are still some examples of trunks from the 19th Century that show how long they can last.
  • Convenient Storage Space – The shape of the steamer trunk means that it can be used to store anything from clothing and bed linen to paperwork or virtually anything in the house.
  • Attractive Collectibles – Steamer trunks can be found in antique shops and thrift stores. They are attractive and offer an affordable means of introducing a little antique chic to your home.

Disadvantages of Steamer Trunks

  • Cumbersome – The size of steamer trunks means that they are convenient for storage, but they are difficult to lug around because of their size.
  • Heavy – From a transportation point of view, the weight of wooden steamer trunks means that they are much less convenient than modern luggage alternatives.

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Steamer trunks are a type of trunk once used predominantly for transportation and as early luggage. They were used on steamboats, liners, and locomotives. Their convenient shape and size meant that they were useful for stacking and storing, while also providing ample room to hold belongings.

Today, steamer trunks are more likely to be used to hold linen at the foot of the guest bed, but they are still attractive and remain popular with a lot of people.

Featured Image Credit: David Nisley, Pixabay


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