Ausschnitt von vier aufeinandergestapelten Koffern. Ein Koffer ist rot mit weißen Ecken, einer grau mit silbernen Ecken, einer schwarz mit weißen Ecken und einer grün mit schwarzen Ecken.

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.

Ein hoher Stapel aus verschiedenen, historischen Koffern in Braun- und Schwarztönen. Die meisten Koffer sind aus Leder, einige aus Holz oder Hartpappe.
Jeder Koffer erzählt die Geschichte einer Reise: Mit der Entwicklung verschiedener Transportmöglichkeiten veränderten sich auch die Anforderungen an den Koffer. Die flache Form entstand im 19. Jahrhundert, um das Gepäck in Eisenbahnen besser stapeln zu können.
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.
Ein geschlossener, roter Hartpappen-Koffer mit schwarzen Ecken und schwarzem Griff.
Die Museumskoffer sind als Andenken oder Mitbringsel im Shop des Deutschen Technikmuseums erhältlich.
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!