Happy New Year, friends!
I’ve just returned from a three-week trip on the other side of the world, after spending Christmas with family in Australia and New Zealand.
As we lugged our suitcases from London to San Francisco to Sydney to Wellington (and then back again), my thoughts turned to luggage – and how much it’s changed since I was a kid.
I can remember packing my parents’ brown Samsonite hard cases when we went to visit my grandparents.
The suitcases were only carried between houses and cars, so their lack of wheels wasn’t really an issue.
But when I graduated from high school, my grandparents gave me a grown-up set of luggage, including two suitcases with wheels.
I used those wheeled suitcases to pack up my belongings when I went to college, and later when I spent a semester abroad in Los Angeles, and another in London.
It’s hard to imagine a time when suitcases didn’t have wheels.
But men were going to the moon before people were carrying suitcases with wheels…why?
I was curious…
Most stories about the history of wheeled suitcases begin in the 1970s, with a man named Bernard Sadow.
But he was not the first one to dream up the idea…
It turns out, several people were thinking about adding wheels to suitcases long before Sadow.
In 1921, New York resident Theophilus Hokkanen filed a patent for a “new and improved valise” that included a wheel on the side.
Four years later, another New York resident, Saviour Mastrontonio, filed a patent for a “Luggage Carrier” — as seen below.
More patent applications for “wheeled luggage” were filed by various inventors over the following decades, including this one by Grace and Malcolm McIntyre of Connecticut in 1949:
Though several people were dreaming up ideas and filing patent applications, the idea for wheels on suitcases didn’t take off. (Hee hee)
And not everyone who had the idea for wheels on luggage sought a patent for their idea.
A photo from 1954 shows Polish-born artist Alfred Krupa pulling a suitcase with two wheels, but little is known about how or when he created it.
A more commercial approach was taken in 1958, by American inventor David Dudley Bloom.
Bloom suffered from back pain and took a prototype of his idea – a suitcase attached to a platform with castors and a handle – to the Chairman of the Atlantic Luggage Company.
Bloom was working for the Atlantic Luggage Company at the time, and was optimistic about his creation.
His product would be cheap to make, and would tie in with the company’s existing designs and distribution channels.
But the Chairman described it as “unwieldy” and “impractical” and scoffed,
“Who’d want to buy luggage on wheels?”
Bloom didn’t pursue – or patent – his idea.
That takes us to 1970, when Bernard Sadow was going through customs at an airport in Puerto Rico, on the way back from Aruba with his wife and kids.
He was wrestling with two large, tightly packed 27-inch suitcases, without a porter in sight, when he spotted a man moving a piece of machinery on a wheeled platform.
Sadow turned to his wife and said:
“That's what we need! We need wheels on luggage.”
Sadow was in the luggage business, and made his prototype by attaching four castors to the bottom of a suitcase and adding a flexible strap.
Sadow was optimistic about his invention, but – just like Bloom – he was rejected.
“People do not accept change well,” Sadow said.
“I showed it to every department store in New York City and a lot of buying offices, and everybody said I was crazy.
“At this time, there was this macho feeling. Men used to carry luggage for their wives. ‘Nobody’s going to pull a piece of luggage with wheels on it.’
“People just didn't think in those terms.”
After weeks of rejection from department stores (including Macy’s), Sadow had a meeting with Jerry Levy, vice president at Macy’s.
Levy was impressed with the idea – and called the buyer who had recently rejected Sadow’s idea… and gave him the order to buy it.
Macy’s sold the first suitcases with wheels in October 1970.
Sadow applied for a U.S. patent in 1970, writing in his application:
“The luggage actually glides… any person, regardless of size, strength or age, can easily pull the luggage along without effort or strain.”
“Whereas formerly, luggage would be handled by porters and be loaded or unloaded at points convenient to the street, the large terminals of today … have increased the difficulty of baggage-handling [which] has become perhaps the biggest single difficulty encountered by an air passenger,” he wrote.
In 1972, Sadow received his patent for wheeled suitcases — and an idea that had been rejected for decades was finally embraced.
So how did suitcases with wheels finally take off?
By the 1980s, more people were traveling, and airports were becoming bigger.
At the same time, more women were traveling independently, especially for business trips.
The macho argument against wheels on suitcases no longer applied.
Wheels on suitcases made travel easier — and common sense prevailed.
And 15 years after Sadow received his patent, the next advancement in rolling luggage hit the market.
In 1987, Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath improved on Sadow’s invention with the “Rollaboard”, the two-wheeled suitcase with a retractable handle.
Originally marketed to flight crews, Plath’s suitcase gained popularity with the masses, and he left flying to found the luggage company TravelPro.
Flight crews (and passengers) around the world are still carrying TravelPro models today.
And over the years, luggage companies have continued to improve their products.
Now you can buy suitcases with features like USB ports and four wheel spinners.
Perhaps next they’ll come up with an easier way to find your luggage at a crowded bag claim…
Thanks for reading!
David Dudley Bloom may not have received much credit for the idea of suitcases with wheels, but that didn’t stop him experimenting and inventing.
His creative mind came up with the idea for a continuous play tape recorder, and he was also involved with the introduction and marketing of “reality-based toys” — including the “magic milk bottle” for dolls (where the milk disappears as you feed the doll).
Do you remember these from your childhood?
Recent Work and Writing
It took all of my jet-lagged energy to write this week’s story, but in case you missed them, check out my round-ups of memorable communication moments (the good, the bad, and the what were they thinking?!) from 2022.
Santa’s Naughty List — See whose communication skills earned them a lump of coal this year.
Santa’s Nice List — These people earned a spot on Santa’s Nice List with their communication skills.
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? — A book from Kurt Vonnegut arrived at just the right time.
The ONE thing that matters most when you’re giving a speech — Trust me, folks. If you’re giving a speech or a presentation, this is where you need to focus.
How Can I Help?
I’ll keep saying it: Communication matters.
If you want to improve your communication (and get all the good things that come with that), I’m your gal.
So many companies could reap significant benefits – from performance and culture to retention and engagement – by improving their communication.
So, if you know someone who could benefit from some help (as even the most seasoned leaders do), please get in touch and check out my website for more information.
You can also see my Top 10 list of what I can (and can’t) do for you here.
And if you see any communication examples (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that you think are worth analyzing or sharing, please send them my way!
We had these exact hard-sided brown Samsonsite cases! Blows my mind, like Jenny says, that this didn’t take off until the 70s. And no retractable handles until the 80s - madness.
Another illuminating story! I’ve loved every one. As a Gen Xer, I feel them hit just right. Keep up the great work!