Ready for Takeoff

Travelers have always expected suitcases to be light and strong

In 1918, the Shwayder brothers of Denver began to manufacture a newfangled kind of luggage called the “suit case.” Facing no shortage of competition from more established trunk makers, Jesse Shwayder cooked up a brilliant name and a marketing gimmick. He called the suitcase “Samson” (named after the Biblical muscle man) then put out an advertisement showing the three brothers—1,000 lbs., the lot of them—standing on the case. No dummies, those Shwayder boys. Advertising the strength of the luggage is what helped to make Samsonite (the name the suitcases carried by 1939) the leading luggage brand in America.

But as the ads on these pages make clear, strength was actually only half of the branding equation. Once the airplane replaced travel aboard ocean liners—obviating the use of steamer trunks and also suddenly forcing consumers to heft their own bags—Americans began to demand luggage that wasn’t just strong but lightweight too. That shift had started right around the time of the 1956 Samsonite ad at right, and, as its 2012 counterpart makes clear, the shift was permanent.

“The primary things people look for are strength and lightness,” observed Ian Stephens, principal of brand consultancy Saffron. “The ads are different in the way they’re expressed, but I can imagine that the brief would have been exactly the same. Not many sectors can say that. It seems like nothing has changed at all except the technology.” Indeed, these two ads point to an even deeper truth. While new technologies sometimes change consumer demand, in some cases they merely help to better satisfy demands that never change at all.

In 1956, Samsonite began making its “Ultralite” line of suitcases, partnering with Dow Chemical for both the magnesium—“the lightweight airplane metal,” as the luggage company termed it—and the marketing. The ad here not only shows how “feather light” the case is (hell boys, even a woman can lift it) but also gets added mileage from the prominent airplane imagery. “The aircraft reinforces the idea of durability and technology,” Stephens observed. Move ahead half a century to the 2012 ad and it’s clear that while the technology is different (notably, polycarbonate plastics have replaced magnesium), Samsonite’s pitch of “lightweight durability” remains substantively unchanged.

That said, it’s hard to fight the impression that, even as the brand messaging has remained constant, the manner of its delivery has lost some of its panache in the service of utility. Stephens believes that the 2012 ad is doing the brief, clear work it has to. “But it’s a bit bland,” he said. “There isn’t the same kind of spirit and romanticism there was in the 1950s.”

And little wonder. Airline passengers packing their Samsonite suitcases in 1956 could look forward to a swank flight on a silvery DC-6 complete with a soup and dessert course. Today, that ritual is, most often, merely the precursor to the security check-in and a cramped coach seat.

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