STEAMER BAG (c. 1901)

The Louis Vuitton brand – today synonymous with high-end conspicuous luxury – was already famous back in the late 19th century.

Founded in 1854 by a former malletier (trunk maker) to the French Empress Eugénie, the company responded to a burgeoning demand for practical yet luxurious luggage during the first great golden age of international travel. This was the era of long-distance trains such as the Orient Express and the palatial steamships that crisscrossed the Atlantic. Among Louis Vuitton’s earliest innovations was the grey Trianon trunk with its flat top, which allowed for easier stacking than the traditional curved top of other trunks that time.

An early version of Louis Vuitton’s steamer bag

In 1901, the company introduced the simple canvas and leather steamer bag, whose squat, squarish proportions were based on the mailbags used in the Americas. Here was a bag that could be hung on the back of a cabin door, carried around on deck – the first-class one, of course, or stored away in the hold inside one of Louis Vuitton’s famous packing cases.

Vuitton’s signature monogram canvas, first introduced in 1896, was here eschewed for bolder branding in the form of a black ‘V’ against the colors of the French flag – more easily identifiable, no doubt, in the hurly-burly of embarkation.

Louis Vuitton steamer bag in monogram canvas

By the early 1900s, even before the age of commercial aviation, travel had gone global, and so had Louis Vuitton luggage. Its stores could be found in almost every major port of call – from New York to Alexandria and from Buenos Aires to Bombay.