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Our resident vintage fashion expert is not so resident any more. A recent move from Tucson to Phoenix had her ruminating on how people used to travel. By Claudine Villardito

luisvuitoon trunk

Louis Vuitton cleverly circumvented travel restrictions with its rectangular trunk. Photo courtesy of Daniels Antiques

My recent adventure in moving my 3000-piece collection of vintage clothing from Tucson to Phoenix left me mystified as to how people traveled – whether for necessity or pleasure – in the days before the airplane and U-Haul truck. Though it hasn’t kept me from complaining about the cost of wardrobe boxes and professional movers, research into the bygone methods of travel and transport leave me ashamed of my lack of resolve.

Western Migration 1886

Covered wagons measured just eleven by four feet. Photo courtesy of National Archives

Take, for example, the Great Migration to the western United States in the mid-19th Century. Before the introduction of the railroads in 1869, pioneers crossed half the country on foot beside their oxen, armed with only as many possessions as could fit in an eleven-by-four-foot covered wagon. Though their typical load was 700 pounds, five times lighter than the inventory I just moved (drat you, brocade!), voyages routinely lasted six months and claimed the lives of four percent of those who attempted the journey.

Nineteenth century European immigrants endured shorter trips but similar peril. Because the cost to transport an average-size family in steerage class cost over one-third of a European laborer’s annual income, few immigrants could afford more than the most basic accommodations. That left little room for their possessions, which would likely have been destroyed during the rocky voyage anyway. Nevertheless, those who survived felt fortunate since ten per cent of immigrants died at sea from cholera, typhus or dysentery.

Upstairs in first class, however, pleasure-seeking travelers experienced a far different reality. The colossal wealth generated by the steam and electricity industries left an entire strata of Americans, Britons and Europeans with a taste for luxury and the time to pursue it, both of which were satisfied by ocean liner travel. Unlike their third-class counterparts, first-class passengers had no financial restrictions and traveled with as much baggage as they saw fit, which sometimes included furniture. Their only constraint was that the curved lids of their steamer trunks could not exceed fourteen inches, a restriction cleverly circumvented when Louis Vuitton introduced the rectangular – and therefore stackable – slat trunk in 1855.


The dining room of the Hindenburg Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection

The epitome of travel in the early 20th Century, however, was an airship or zeppelin voyage, which was the preferred transport for a woman whose clothing estate I very happily purchased in 2013. While first-class passengers aboard an ocean liner might cohabitate with as many as 1000 third-class occupants, airships kept their numbers to a mere 70 passengers and the ratio of staff to guests at nearly one to one. Furthermore, though a trans-Atlantic airship voyage took fewer than three days to make, passengers were permitted only 66 pounds of personal baggage in their cabins and an additional 220 pounds in holding. That’s half what early American settlers brought in their covered wagons.

The smoking room aboard the Hindenburgh Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection

The smoking room aboard the Hindenburg Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection


A passenger cabin in the Hindenburg Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection

A passenger cabin aboard the Hindenburg Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection

While the luxurious appointments aboard ocean liners included balconied dining rooms modeled after French chateaux and exemplified Edwardian opulence, amenities on airships were comparatively sparse in keeping with the Bauhaus style popular in Germany at the time. Miles of chrome and glass accompanied white walls and austere chairs throughout the craft, which included a formal dining room, passenger lounge, writing room, smoking room (?!) and a bar where the kirschwasser cocktail was allegedly invented after the bartender ran out of gin.


The passenger lounge on the Hindenburg Airship. Photo courtesy of Collection

Despite the comfort in which they traveled, however, wealthy vacationers still assumed risk, as we saw with the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters. The moral of the story appears to be that human migration has never been without sacrifice, and that I should suck it up and be grateful I’m not walking to Phoenix beside my U-Haul. But I still reserve the right to wish I had a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk to put it all in.

(Editor’s Note: While we at 3 Story are in mourning over the departure of Claudine and Black Cat Vintage from Tucson, we’re happy to report that she will continue to write for the magazine.)

• Claudine Villardito’s boutique Black Cat Vintage is online at

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