Some 19th-Century Packing Tips

Do you make a packing list before a trip? Do you take a couple of small suitcases, or one large one? Do you fold or roll your clothes, or just shove them in? If you were wealthy in the 19th century, these were things you didn’t have to worry about, since servants did the packing for you and carried your bags as well. That’s why Joseph Bonaparte is able to travel with mountains of luggage when he and Napoleon set out on a tour of the United States in Napoleon in America. As railway travel became widely available in the mid-1800s, more common folk had to figure out how to pack. Many 19th-century packing tips sound remarkably like those of today.

These folks could use some packing tips.

Miseries of Travelling: The Overloaded Coach, Thomas Rowlandson, 1807. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

Remember the goal

[J]udging by the remarkable results one sees, packing is the vaguest possible term applied to any method of getting one’s possessions into the receptacles provided for them.

With many young ladies, whose only idea is to avoid crushing, it means having the largest possible trunks, and laying their possessions neatly in them, one on the top of each other, entirely ignoring the vacant sides and corners. With the majority of young men, on the contrary, the predominant idea is to take nothing but absolute necessaries, and to squeeze them into the smallest possible compass; which laudable desire they carry out by cramming everything into a small valise, utterly regardless of the consequences, and then standing upon it till the clothes are sufficiently crushed together to enable the key to be turned.

If we could only combine in ourselves the merits of these two types of packers, our trunks would indeed be models of perfection. Let us remember then that, in packing, the ideal we have to aim at is to get our possessions into the smallest possible compass consistently with the least possible crushing; and the problem before us is, how is this to be done? (1)

Take as little as possible

Honoré Daumier, The Third-Class Carriage, circa 1862-64. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

Honoré Daumier, The Third-Class Carriage, circa 1862-64. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

In travelling, take the least amount of luggage that you can manage with, and this should be properly directed. Woollen stockings are preferable to cotton; the latter cut the feet in a long walk; worsted socks, or cotton stockings with worsted feet, are the best. Gaiters are useful in wet weather to keep the socks clean. To protect the eyes from dust and cinders while riding in railway carriages, black glass spectacles are useful. (2)

Gather everything that needs to be packed

Before beginning, it is always advisable to collect all the things that have to be packed; in fact, it is impossible to do our work satisfactorily in any other way. When everything is put together, you can judge how much space will be required, and can then pay your visit to the box-room and select the trunk best suited to your requirements. Sometimes, however, this process has to be revised; in arranging a tour, for instance, in which you intend to leave the line of railways, and consequently may sometimes have difficulties with your luggage, you will have to consider first what sized trunk you can take, and then make up your mind to content yourself with only just what you can pack into it. (3)

Choose appropriate luggage

Travelers who appear to have followed 19th-century packing tips

Midland Railway of England poster by Edward Penfield, circa 1890-1920. Source: Boston Public Library

It is a strange fact that ladies almost always prefer a trunk of some sort or other to a portmanteau…but the adherents of leather valises have this argument on their side: that in the course of a tour one never knows into what sort of inconvenient vehicles one’s luggage will be expected to go; and any kind of leather bag adapts itself to unlikely holes and corners, which would not accommodate the straight sides and square corners of a trunk.…

There is a good deal to be said, however, for trunks, when visiting friends or going to only one or two places. They require much less careful packing to avoid crushing; and it is always evident which is at the top and which is the bottom, so that one never has the annoyance which can sometimes happen with a portmanteau, of finding, after carefully packing all one’s heavy goods at the bottom, that we have had it wrong side up all the time; but this advantage is rather nullified by the perversity of railway porters, who, unless the trunk is very heavy, lift it about by one handle, and finally leave it standing on end, so that all one’s care to put the heavy things at the bottom is of very little use. (4)

Write down what you put in each bag

[Those] who anticipate packing a trunk for a vacation trip may gain some suggestion from the following description of how one woman does it.

First she makes a list of what she wants to put in a certain trunk. She travels a great deal, and she always takes two small trunks in preference to one large one. She is system itself in everything she undertakes, and so she has reduced the art of packing to a science. She has an awning cloth bag, into which she slips her music. These bags she puts in the bottom of her trunk, with articles of underwear. She saves her old sheets, and tears them in two, using them to pin her nicest dresses in. After the trunk is packed, the list of articles is pasted in the trunk lid, and she keeps a duplicate list in her satchel. In this way she knows exactly the contents of each trunk. This arrangement serves the purpose of jogging her memory when she is packing, and in case she should lose her trunks she knows what is in them. A troublesome experience with a transfer company caused her to adopt this precaution. (5)

Pack in this order

Having arranged at the bottom of the trunk all the music and books, except time tables, guide books, and others which are in constant use, take care that the interstices between them are well filled up with small soft articles, such as stockings; not only does this economize space, it saves the books from injury.…

Next to books should come linen, which is heavy, and will not injure by crushing; but, of course, if you are packing for a tour…articles required every day, whether heavy or light, must be put at the top.…

Collars and cuffs must be packed at the bottom with the linen.… They should be laid side by side, lengthwise, between two articles of linen, say two nightdresses, and then, nightdresses and all, rolled up; the collars will come out perfectly clean and uncrushed, and the nightdresses will be none the worse for being rolled instead of packed flat.

Next in order come rather lighter articles: dressing-gown, plain skirts, and such like; but these large articles cannot be squeezed into corners, they must be as far as possible spread out flat, and this involves leaving the sides and corners vacant, making convenient niches for sponge bags, scent-bottles, work-case and shoes.… [Boots] must be covered in some way, and the device of wrapping them in paper is both inconvenient and untidy. Bags are very little trouble to make, and add much to one’s comfort in travelling.

By the end of a tour, or a sojourn by the sea, one has generally collected a number of fragile treasures, the packing of which without breaking it is a difficult and anxious task. If small enough, they can be greatly protected by being stowed inside the boots, the stiff leather of which forms a shield around them. (6)

Don’t crush dresses & bonnets

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth), James Tissot, circa 1876. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth), James Tissot, circa 1876. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We next come to dresses, the most difficult part of the whole matter, and especially difficult to give any advice about, as each new fashion requires a completely new style of packing. It is always advisable, on getting a new dress home, to unfold it carefully and observe the way the dressmaker has folded it.… Some people think that dresses and mantles are the least crushed by being rolled up instead of folded; this applies particularly to velvet or plush, which is completely spoiled by creasing. The dress should be folded as smoothly as possible, and only just as much as is necessary to go in to the length of the box, and then very evenly rolled up.…

Bonnets are as great a difficulty as dresses, and it saves a great deal of trouble to have a separate bonnet box or basket; but, of course, when the amount of luggage has to be restricted this is impossible; and one has to make the best of the difficulty by packing the bonnet in a cardboard box in the trunk; or if even this much space cannot be spared, by so arranging the heavier goods as to leave a space at one end in which to put the bonnet, protecting it from injury by a sort of barricade of large articles, which, as they extend the whole length of the box, will be kept in place, and so will not slip down on the bonnet. (7)

Leave space for souvenirs

In travelling, whether by sea or land, it is well, if practicable, not to fill one’s trunk quite full; even on a long voyage one always puts in at a few ports, and visitors to a strange land are always tempted to carry away some souvenirs of their visit; but if the luggage does not contain a spare inch of room, these relics are a dreadful encumbrance. (8)

Label your luggage

Let your name and destination appear legibly on your luggage; and if you wish to be safe against all chances of loss, put your name and address inside also of each package. Picture to yourself the trunk lying on the road, left in the corner of an office, or sent out to a wrong direction, and imagine what you would then wish should be on or in it, that it might be correctly and speedily sent to you. What you would then wish you had done, do before you start. Let the label be of a strong material, and firmly attached to the package. (9)

How not to pack

Steamboat Travel on the Hudson River, Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1811-1813. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942

Steamboat Travel on the Hudson River, Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1811-1813. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942

Lest you’re tempted to disregard these packing tips, consider the cautionary tale of one gentleman.

I had, as is my custom in the afternoon, left all my minor commissions unexecuted up to 2 o’clock of the day of my departure. I had already travelled a few miles by land and a few by water that morning and reached New York only two hours before the departure of the steamboat. Then the hurry of buying, paying, forgetting, remembering, packing up, bolting my dinner, paying the bill – thermometer 82 degrees – two cambric handkerchiefs and one silk one wanting to be hung out to dry. In short, the departure of a comet occasions less fuss and perspiration than my departure from New York did.

The porter of the hotel had burglariously entered my room, and taken my baggage to the boat, as I was informed. I made myself happy in the expectation that I had packed everything carefully up, and five minutes before four made one more pop upstairs, to see how the room looked without shirts, vests, trousers, et cetera, occupying each chair in the room, as though they were sitting up for company. No, said I to myself, I have packed up everything. I shall see nothing there but that rascally narrow bed, not broad enough, by half a league, for a fertile imagination; and it is fortunate – for the miserable side pocket of my surtout is full of handkerchiefs, and my trousers are crammed with receipts, small change, barley sugar, and tooth brushes; so that I can scarce walk up stairs.

Bang went the door, and, horror upon horror! Lo! A clean shirt on the pillow, which I had intended to regale my feverish shoulders with, just before I went on board; next, my razors, cake of soap, pot of Naples soap, tooth brush, nail brush, hair brush, all arrayed on the table by the provident chamber-maid, who had brought them to light from the drawer where I had forgotten them. Here was enough, and to spare, to capsize the greatest statesman in China. I was a lost man. Oh, my dear trunk, and sac de nuit, thought I, if I had you here once more, I should be in danger of laying my back on this wretched bed, and my legs on a couple of chairs at the foot of it, tonight. All this passed in less than a minute, besides a great many carriages that I heard rattling along, and heartily did I wish myself in them, or out of them, or anywhere but in such a quandary.

At length, remembering that time and the steamboat wait for no man, I desperately seized a newspaper, and I stuffed shirt, and all the barbarous paraphernalia before me into it, and with giant strides gained the steamboat just at neap tide, when the last ebb of the natives had withdrawn itself into the bosom of the population on the wharf. Mr. Fidget, said the captain, it was touch and go with you. Is there any air to be had on board, I inquired. Go on the poop deck, he replied; and there I went and sat myself down, thankful that the dreadful business of getting out of New York was over.

When the river breeze had somewhat cooled me, and I began to feel calm, I found time to observe that…I was seated next to a very amiable person of my acquaintance…. We were conversing…when, from a voice behind me, I heard ‘well, here’s full proof at last that Sir Walter Scott is not the author of the Scotch novels.’ Curious to see the full proof so nigh at hand, of what I deemed incredible, I instantly turned towards a narrow sky light dividing the bench where I sat from that where the speaker was; but all the proof I saw, and it was enough to take me out of my senses, was my shirt, razors, soaps, brushes, &c. &c. laid out in apple-pie order on the sky light.

‘All these things (said my lady acquaintance, continuing our conversation) come very well in their places, but are only to be occasionally used.’

‘Upon my word, Ma’am,’ I replied, ‘my difficulty is to understand how they came here at all… They seem to me to have come by themselves, and I expect every moment to see a basin of water and towels borne by invisible hands.’ … I could not forbear exclaiming, ‘Who the devil put these things here?’

‘I did sir,’ replied a gentleman, whose voice I recognized – ‘they were falling out of this newspaper; and a passage having caught my eye stating that the public mind was now satisfied Scott was not the author of the celebrated novels, I was curious to examine the reasons which were given in it, and placing the articles carefully on the sky light, I was reading the paper when you turned round. (10)

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  1. Dora Hope, “The Art of Packing,” in Charles Peters, ed., The Girl’s Own Outdoor Book (Philadelphia, 1889), p. 260.
  2. William Jones, How to make home happy; or, Hints and cautions for all, (London, 1857), p. 148.
  3. “The Art of Packing,” p. 260.
  4. Ibid., pp. 260-261.
  5. “How to Pack a Trunk,” The Teacher’s World: A Journal of Methods, Aids and Devices, Vol. I, No. 10 (New York, June 1892), p. 397.
  6. “The Art of Packing,” pp. 261-262.
  7. Ibid., pp. 262-263.
  8. Ibid., p. 263.
  9. Adam and Charles Black, Black’s Picturesque Tourist and Road-book of England and Wales (Edinburgh, 1847), p. ix.
  10. Sanders M’Fun, “Sir Walter Scott,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), September 4, 1823.

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Judging by the remarkable results one sees, packing is the vaguest possible term applied to any method of getting one’s possessions into the receptacles provided for them.

Dora Hope