Sticker Shock

The lost art of luggage labels

Words: Lee Tulloch

We can all be happy that luggage these days is lightweight and rollable but to my mind most modern cases have one great flaw.

You can’t put stickers on them.

In the old days, before affordable air travel, people travelled with trunks, onto which porters would affix identifying stickers. The trunks were made of solid wood and canvas and the stickers would stay firmly attached, so much so that, over the course of a lifetime, as other stickers were slapped on, the trunk or case became a sort of diary of the voyages a person had taken.

In our disposable society, it’s unimaginable that a person would keep the same case over decades of travel. But that’s what people did. Flying now is like taking a bus, but when it meant weeks to sail from London to Melbourne or twenty days to fly from Sydney to Paris, the journey was worth commemorating. And if you did it multiple times, the stickers on your suitcase were multiple badges of honour.

I love antique steamer trunks and for years I’ve collected them to store clothing, but never fancied the reaction I would get if I turned up to the airport with one. I’ve never seen a passenger try to check in a trunk, for a flight or a cruise, and I haven’t led a sheltered life.

One of my trunks has seen better days but the stickers on it have clung tenaciously despite the bashing it has received over the years. The stickers tell me the owner once sailed from Southampton Pier and stayed at the Hotel Lotte in Paris.

What does my new suitcase tell anyone? Nothing. It may have only travelled to Hobart for all anyone might guess, and yet already it has seen four continents. It would be a very colourful and tarty suitcase by now if it had collected sticky labels – it has already been unpacked in Paris’s Le Meurice, Scotland’s Gleneagles and Marrakech’s Taj Palace. But, so far, it has only gathered an oil stain and a few grubby fingerprints.

I returned a few weeks ago from a journey on the wonderful Venice Simplon Orient- Express. It’s as romantic as you can imagine – beautiful old carriages exactingly restored, porters in snappy blue and gold uniforms bringing you afternoon tea in your cabin, and elegant four-course dinners in formal dining cars where Josephine Baker and Graeme Greene once sat.

the trunk or case became a sort of diary of the voyages a person had taken.

The experience demanded the glamour of a trunk, but the practicalities of flying from Sydney through Dubai to Venice meant the lightweight suitcase had to do. As we passengers boarded form the platform, our luggage was a mundane sea of nylon and polycarbonate. The porters, in their bright blue and gold-braided uniforms, deserved better.

Now here’s the thing: In lieu of stickers, our luggage was labelled with fetching paper VSOE tags, beautiful mementos of the trip. Mine stayed attached until it met its first airport baggage handler.  Now I only have the remnant of an elastic string to remind me of that wonderful journey.

We record our own so well these days via Instagram and Facebook and videos we post on You Tube, that perhaps we don’t need our suitcases to speak for us. But I can’t help feeling something is lost.

Certainly, I’m not the only one in a nostalgic mood. Where once I might have nabbed a handsome 1920s steamer trunk for $100, these days even an old cardboard suitcase from the 1960s might cost you double that. Anything made by Vuitton, Moynat or Goyard, is likely to sell for considerably more.

Interior designers are among those snapping them up. It’s fashionable to decorate homes and hotel lobbies (like Sydney’s QT) with vintage luggage. The more a suitcase or trunk looks like it has travelled – multiple stickers, worn straps, beaten-up buckles – the more evocative it is.

Maybe some hipster café in Brunswick in 2040 will ironically decorate with stacks of torn and stained lightweight rolling suitcases, and maybe they will seem nostalgic, but not one of them will speak to where we have been.

Last year, during a stay at the historic Raffles Hotel in Singapore, I received an envelope of nostalgic luggage stickers from classic hotels such as the Grand Hotel Nongkodjadjar in Java and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon. Try as might, I couldn’t get them to stay put on any of my bags.

But they did stick to my laptop, so I suppose that’s a modern consolation.

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