Close-up of four suitcases stacked on top of one another. One suitcase is red with white corners; one is grey with silver corners; one is black with white corners; and one is green with black corners.

Historical Suitcase Production

Suitcases are everyday items that have been around for centuries. The Suitcase Production exhibition at the Deutsches Technikmuseum will acquaint you with a lost handicraft. Demonstrations on original machines from a family-run factory will show you step by step how a suitcase was manufactured.

Design and Production of an Everyday Item: A Timeline

Every traveler needs a suitcase. Travel used to be arduous, and suitcases were robust. Trunks with domed lids were mounted on stagecoaches, and XXL steamer trunks made journeys by ship. In the second half of the 19th century, railroads introduced two revolutionary changes. First, they made long-distance travel more affordable, thus slowly opening it up to the masses. Second, they changed the way suitcases were designed. Suitcases became smaller and flatter, to make them easier to stack on railroad cars. With the advent of air travel, reducing the weight of suitcases also became decisive, as every extra pound of luggage made it more difficult to take off and increased fuel costs.

A tall stack of historical suitcases in various shades of brown and black. Most of the suitcases are leather, but some are made of wood or hardboard.
Each suitcase tells the story of a journey. As new means of transportation were developed, suitcase design changed accordingly. In the 19th century, suitcases got flatter to make them easier to stack on trains.
SDTB / C. Kirchner

The Suitcase: From Handicraft to Mass Production

Down to the 19th century, suitcases were made by craftsmen in a series of workshops. Joiners made wooden boxes, pursemakers covered them with leather, and then locksmiths attached locks and metal fittings. In the mid-19th century, suitcase-making became a trade in its own right. Such craftsmen had to master riveting, nailing, screwing, sewing, and gluing. Nevertheless, their time was short, as they could not keep up with the increasing number of travelers or with the technological innovations that facilitated industrial manufacturing. Suitcases were now also being mass produced. Between 1870 and 1939, numerous suitcase factories opened in Germany, Europe, and the United States. A production line recreated in the Deutsches Technikmuseum shows how suitcases were typically manufactured. The machines and tools are from a small factory in southern Germany that produced standard hardboard suitcases in the 1920s and 1930s.

Making a Suitcase: A Step-by-Step Guide

Visitors to the exhibition can follow each step in the process of how our “museum suitcases” are produced, from the hardboard to the final product. These steps include:

  • Punching: Using a punch press, large holes are punched out of the four corners of pieces of hardboard that have been precut to the proper dimensions for making the top and bottom of a suitcase.
  • Bending: A gas bending machine heats up the flat, punched, precut boards to bend them into the desired suitcase shape.
  • Crimping: The top of the suitcase needs a wooden frame reinforced with a steel band. The flat steel is crimped (i.e., bent) on one side, sawed through, and shaped to fit the suitcase’s dimensions.
  • Nailing: Using a nailing machine, the bent hardboard is nailed to the wooden frame.
  • Finishing: After the bottom of the suitcase has been riveted, locks, fasteners, handles, and hinges are also riveted and nailed on.
A closed, red hardboard suitcase with black corners and a black handle.
The suitcases made in the Deutsches Technikmuseum can be bought at the Museum Shop as souvenirs or gifts.
SDTB / C. Kirchner

This tiny suitcase production unit at the Deutsches Technikmuseum preserves a bygone manufacturing technology. Indeed, hardly any suitcases are produced in Germany anymore. More than 90 percent of the suitcases sold in Germany are now manufactured abroad. In the 1970s, 40,000 men and women in Germany were still employed in suitcase manufacturing. In 2003, the number was fewer than 6,000.

The suitcases produced in the museum are available in the museum shop!