Journalist Josh Sims discovers how Globe-Trotter suitcases came to embody the eternal allure of travel.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL CASE
Picture the kind of luggage that evokes a longing for the romance of travel’s golden age and it’s not likely to be a high-tech carry-on wheelie made of ballistic nylon. Rather it’s a case of the kind once typically laden with destination stickers and loaded onto steamers and BOAC airliners, and one that looks as well-travelled as its owner. Ask a child to draw a quintessential case and it will look like this. Indeed, there’s a good chance it’s a Globe-Trotter: a case that’s carried army officers’ equipment across the plains of Africa, explorers’ – including Robert Scott – over ice fields, British royalty’s effects to official engagements and rock stars’ leather trousers and hair dye all the way from limo to penthouse suite. It’s still made out of a material that dates back to 1903 and is as retro as the case’s aesthetic: vulcanised fibreboard, layered with paper, cotton fibre and wood pulp bonded in a zinc chloride wash, and then pressed to create a pioneering technical material that is light but also extremely strong.
WEAR AND TEAR
The company made an early, dramatic show of the material's toughness by demonstrating that a Globe-Trotter case could literally endure being stood on by an elephant it borrowed from Hamburg Zoo. Useful to know if you’re on safari, perhaps. On another occasion, Globe-Trotter demonstrated that its cabin trunk could take an impressive eight tons of pressure before it would break. And that’s at least a couple of elephants.
While other companies make the kind of elegant, hand-crafted and often logo-covered luggage they often advise not to check-in, a Globe-Trotter is a product that can take a battering. And which, like other iconic designs – a pair of 501 jeans perhaps, or a Barbour jacket – even looks better after it’s had one. It’s the kind of case that can take decades of punishment and then undergo reconditioning in order to take a few more – next stop, Mars perhaps.
FOLLOWING THE NORTH STAR
Not that Globe-Trotter, then and now, has been above some branding. Globe-Trotter’s parent company, Sächsisch Kofferfabrik Stabilist – founded in 1898 in Dresden, Germany – first registered its North Star logo in 1901. Appropriately akin to three points of the compass, it had a modernist simplicity that has travelled as well as the designs it has graced. It’s just that the company always had a product-first approach.
Perhaps this is why, back then, it made a point of stressing that its products were made in Germany – riding on the nation’s reputation for well-engineered products; and why, when production moved to the UK during the early 1930s, the British association with craft came to the fore. “The world’s most famous suit cases,” the company’s new tagline boasted soon after. “Light in weight – yet practically indestructible.” That wonder material from which its cases, as well as motoring trunks, hat boxes and even satchels was made? A British invention for which Sächsisch Kofferfabrik had wisely acquired the patent...
Indeed, Globe-Trotter’s appeal today lies as much in its tradition as in its practicality. The company can hardly be accused of ever having chased fashion, even while fashion has chased it. Much as that other transport classic, the Model T Ford, was said to come only in black, the Globe-Trotter case only came in four colours – blue, grey, brown and charcoal – until well into the 1960s. Even then, and since, these shades have remained the bestsellers. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And even with several promotional pachyderms to hand, breaking it, it seems, is rather hard.
Josh Sims is a freelance writer who is editor of social trends journal Viewpoint and contributes to the Financial Times, The Independent, Wallpaper* and Esquire.