Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Restoration Affair

A corner of our sitting room , with the latest addition- A restored antique steamer-trunk.

When we first saw this trunk, we didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole. You’ll see what I mean when you scroll down. But I’ve been fascinated by my mothers old bridal trunk (which still awaits restoration), that I wanted to give this one a try for a pure "skills-test" purpose, before I ventured to take on larger projects.
After all-there’s still the option of putting it back on the kerb-side- in case things didn’t go as expected. :-P

After our usual modus operandi for tracking roots- which I must say has become a standardized process for us now (no ISO: 9001 yet, I confess), the process was something like this:
1. Trace by Baggage labels /Railroad labels,
2. Trace by Lock Manufacturer,
3. Trace by Trunk Manufacturer,
4. Merge all Traces, and you can pretty much narrow down a period with reasonbly good accuracy.

We will merge history and cleaning lessions as we go down the path of restoration.

Below: As-is condition. Pretty gruesome (and smell of old leather- not the good one, the bad one I mean).
Cleaning 101. Use of harsh chemical will damage the leather (that the old owner definitely cared for! as we can see). Anyway, under "new ownership", we must try and do as best as we can, shouldnt we? So back to basics- lightly moistened papertowels, and good old fashioned rubbing the grime off...for a few hours.
OK- onto History..
Trace by Baggage labels /Railroad labels- This is an interesting part- where have thou been? I know some trunks have fabled journey’s proof including travel labels from Shipping companies such as Cunard/White Star Lines (yep-The Titanic’s famed owner). Anyway, many of our trunk's labels are fully dilapidated, and in other places there are only marks that remain where labels have been. However, a few labels (newer ones) remain somewhat intact indicating last journeys around 1918-1928 - with the American Express Railroad Company (AREC) labels. AREC changed its name after 1929- so this trunk was on board, raibound, a few times before that year. (Labels show New York, Idaho, and Oakland, CA)

The details, I learnt, are very important in determining the age of trunks.
So now you know.
Above: One of the AREC labels, in still fairly readable form (i.e. The "printed" details. The handwritten details are long gone!)
Above: Another label. Possibly the last stop, since it's in California! Ship COLLECT! Uh Oh. Which in shipping terms means that the Receiver bears ALL freight charges, and will pay upon receiving/collecting the item. (So I dont think very valuable freight like perfume, and linens and spices would have arrived, atleast on that last consignment :-) )
Above: I really cant read this label, and I'm kinda cross-eyed by the time I got here. It does look intriguing though, and if anyone has any guesses, feel free to comment! (The letters AR are visible, and I think the next letter is G. Below are the smaller font words "Count on/off..whatever") Doesnt make much sense to me. Also is the small print "New York" on the below right corner.

OK, now... Trace by Lock Manufacturer-
Before 1830's steamer trunks were mostly handmade, but after around 1836 the trunk locks started to be machine made. Eventually steamer trunk manufacturing boomed in the US during 1860-1900. By then, many makers of trunks outsourced the lock part to expert lock manufacturers like Yale, Excelsior and Hartmann to name a few.

Yale lock Company was established in 1868 in Stamford, CT, by Linus Yale Sr., and Henry Towne. Yale Sr (inventor of the tumbler lock) died a few months after the company was formed, never knowing how world famous his locks would eventually be. And partner Henry Towne was probably gentleman enough not to drop his deceased partner's name, and the company was renamed Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co. in 1883. The reason I'm going to such depths is because ours bears the stamp of "Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co.". So we now know that the trunk was manufactured after 1883- possibly very close to that period, and the last 'recorded' travels were around 1918-1929 (from the Railroad labels above as we saw).

Unfortunately our trunk came with no key. I discovered a site called Antiquekeys, which will get you pretty much any key you may be looking for in your restoration. After photo-magnification (thanks to all the digital camera improvements in recent years), I could read through the rust, and see that our lock# was Yale-Y54.

Now back to "Cleaning", to give a break from our History lessons.
The fine art of rubbing with oil: This one was simply based on a whim. We initially tried cleaning it with the leather cleaner that I use for my car's inside. Not only was it a waste of cleaner- but it was more like a drop in the ocean on the century-plus old parched leather. A lightbulb moment brought us to try out with oil. (we used olive oil, but I'm sure you could do with others as well)- half a bowl should do the trick. At "First rub", the leather "drank" the oil, and we could see it dry up within a minute. Poor guy mustve been thirsty since the 1880's.

But the patience paid off. Subsequent rubs retained the oil, now that the leather was beginning to soak in it.
Above: we're getting somewhere. See the colour change, and the deep black beginning to show! I must say that I didnt have much hope on this after the initial rounds, that it would ever get back in this shape.

Below: The latch locks, tee up and fit perfectly, like it's just rolled off the assembly line. Pretty amazing build quality.

Trace by Trunk Manufacturer- Trace the maker of the Trunk, or the retailer, or both, and find out the company history and period of existence.
The Manufacturer in our case: Standswell Trunks. Fortunately, most part of the label remains. I could find almost no record on Standswell trunks as an independant manufaturer, though I did find links to Perkiomen Trunk & Bag Co. in Philadephia, PA. Later labels show the Standswell Diamond logo merged with the Perkiomen Logo. (It's reasonable to assume that Perkiomen might have aquired Standwell Trunks). You can find some pretty good history of Old Trunk labels on
After extensive searches, I still couldnt find even a single trunk with ONLY the "Standswell" emblem- like ours. (I found 1-2 with Standswell-Perkiomen merged emblem though). So in its own charming way, this piece we have could be a rare part of the Great American Trunk history after all! :-)

Final Touches: Cedar blocks on the inside to absorb any odor, and keep it clean for the years to come. We must say that were were absolutely thrilled at the end state, and also amazed at how sturdily they built trunks in the olden times. In spite of all the abuse it has gone through, the structure is rock-solid, and who knows-perhaps built to take a few more centuries on!
Below: And so it has come to rest - for now. A conversation peice in our quiet chat corner. Thanks for stopping by, and look forward to your comments!


  1. Trueblue, you are also a true antiquarian;)! I loved reading your restoration process. I too am partial to trunks and have an old one in my living room. It used to belong to an US Air Force pilot from the 1950's. He sold it to me and said he had had good times with it. I hope you have good times with yours!

  2. truly amazing "restored" piece :)

  3. It's one of the best posts we've read for some time. Reads like a mini novel, unraveling history with a hint of mystery.

    Look forward to reading more!

  4. I have solved the mystery of the "unreadable" label.

    Elementary, my dear True Blue!

    The AR obviously stands for A R Rahman. And the G is from SLUM DOG....

    It's the suitcase that ARR brought along for the Oscar Night. He was trying to relive his humble beginnings by using that much travelled trunk!

    So there you have it.... No, you don't have to thank me for it.Just doing my duty!!

    Now I am off to solve the Bermuda Triangle mystery. You will hear from me shortly.. why do I have a sinking feeling? :-)

    Hey your work is truly amazing .. quite a historian and restoration specialist you are turning out to be. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.

  5. Beautiful blog you have here Trueblue:-)

    Will try and drop by often:-)


  6. OMG.... How lovely!! I dont know how I missed this post... (must be the age catching up!!) I am so impressed. I love old trunks... and have been hunting for one.. My grandma wont give me hers... coz she has a few grand children who are desperate for it!!! So I have to go hunting... but... but...

    When I do find one.. I'm coming back to read this post... You've done such a fabulous job!!

  7. Just a little hint: Quite often when curators can't read some of the inscriptions on printed or printed tags, a black light (UV Light) is used which can reveal things which have faded away or sometimes even which have been obliterated in other ways.

    Saddle soap is really good for cleaning leather. Putting crumpled up newspapers and changing them out, or putting in some activated charcoal can also help remove smells. Spraying with alcohol can also do quite a bit to kill off odors.


  8. Thanks Lisa! That really helps. We didnt know that information. I will try it out. Guess these lights are available commercially? :-) joe

  9. Absolutely wonderful ashwathy.Wonderufl,it was amystery reading the restoration ur blog.

  10. I loved this, A question for you though? How did you clean the brass, and what do you do about the excess olive oil? Did it just wipe off?

  11. I just found an old trunk that a co-worker was going to throw away. I snagged it, though to the dismay of my wife.
    I'm going to try and clean it up much like yours. The issue is, I still need a key for the lock and have been unable to see the inside to date. Hope it is in good condition.

  12. Hey Anon,
    Thanks for the comment. I have given a link to an Antiquekeys website above. You should be able to get pretty much any type of key once you figure out the make and model of the lock.

    We didn't use anything special for the brass..but BRASSO or Weiman's metal polish is what I would pick if I needed to.

    The olive oil dries up by itself. Parched leather just drinks it up .

    Good luck .

  13. Just my opinion of what the tag says

    Count(country) of origin Amount
    Total $

    Westside Terminal New York

  14. Thanks Anon!
    That seems like a pretty good guess.

    -Joe :)

  15. Olive oil can go rancid, so be careful to not overuse it

  16. Hi, I know this is quite a bit after the fact as I just happened to see this posting about your old trunk. But I wanted to share a little more historical information for anyone who is reviewing this information or wanting to learn more about their own antique trunk. I've been restoring trunks for about 40 years and have done extensive research on trunk companies, parts, locks, patents, construction, etc. From all of this I can tell you that this trunk was made most likely sometime after 1910 because of the style of the latches and hardware. Also, the metal hardware on the trunk is brass plated steel, and this brass plated hardware was not used on trunks until after 1896 and mostly after about 1910 with the style you have. Another fact that will surprise you and most people is that the trunk covering, even the brown bands, are not leather but rather a hard pressed heat treated fiber material called vulcanized fiber. This was developed in the late 1880's for trunks but not really used too much until about 1910 when it was mass produced in New Jersey and Delaware and many trunks after that date were covered with this material which held up better than leather and was much cheaper. It was made in a variety of colors including brown to resemble leather. It was then coated with a varnish and it had the appearance of leather. But it can be cleaned as you learned and repolished or dyed with leather dye to get the color back. The dark covering on your trunk is also vulcanized fiber. So there are other important issues to consider when determining the age of a trunk besides the labels, manufacturer, etc. because you can make some wrong assumptions. The Yale and Towne locks were used on many types of trunks in the early 1900's also. Personally I believe this trunk was probably made in the early 1920's. Thanks, Marvin Miller, Trunk restorer,

  17. Thanks Marvin for your expert advise on the subject! - jacob

  18. I stumbled across this post while trying to find info. out on an old Perkiomen trunk I have - it's hard to find any information about that company. Seems they were destroyed by a fire in 1930.

    Thanks for sharing these pictures and this info - I really enjoyed exploring a little bit more and reading the comments.

  19. I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it.Cheers for the info!!!! & This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you .........
    Leather Repairs Bradford


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