Luggage Connects us as Human Beings

White Star Line's Titanic 
Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) 
Hamid Amirani - 2.14.19

It's been almost 107 years since the sinking of the Titanic, and the public remains fascinated by the historic tragedy. This enduring interest is understandable. Over 1,500 passengers of all classes, ages and backgrounds fell victim to an unimaginable horror that continues to grip our imagination.

Crowd awaits Titanic survivors 
Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

With the Titanic lying at the bottom of the Atlantic and the last surviving passenger, Millvina Dean, having passed away in 2009, the items recovered from the deep sea graveyard serve as the only existing links to those who set sail on the maiden voyage. And there is nothing more potent than the luggage that belonged to the ill-fated travelers. 

At every exhibition and in every documentary, it’s the sight of luggage that survived ocean burial that elicits a visceral response. And it's not hard to fathom why. Luggage isn't just about functionality, it's a tangible link to our pasts and to our fellow men and women. Seeing a weathered bag recovered from the most famous maritime disaster in history is profound because it's the only surviving representation of the soul who owned it. We're not just looking at a material possession, we're looking at something that symbolizes our shared humanity.

It's that humanity that piques our curiosity. Titanic textile curator David Galusha sometimes thinks, "What was this person like? What was the station in life of this person?" One such person was Marian O. Meanwell, a 63-year-old hatmaker from England who owned a black alligator purse. Marian's body was never found, but her purse was recovered 88 years later during an expedition to the wreckage. It contained jewelry and a letter from her landlord praising her as a good tenant.

When we’re impressed at the well preserved nature of recovered luggage, it’s in no small part due to the leather. Some of the portmanteau Gladstone bags stored on board have survived in remarkably good condition because the bags’ "turn-of-the-century tanning process [repelled] the microorganisms that eat organic matter on the ocean floor."

The official custodians of Titanic artifacts explain: "When we find a leather suitcase, wallet or trunk, it is a virtual time capsule to 1912, with its contents well protected from the elements."

That is why the violin that was played while the ship was sinking survived. Bandmaster Wallace Hartley secured his violin in a large leather valise moments after he finished playing. The valise was later found and returned to his grieving fiancée.

Wallace Hartley's violin with valise 
Credit: Bournemouth News

The durability that comes from quality manufacturing is why many consumers opt for leather over relatively inexpensive alternatives like nylon. Today's customers buy Cecilia camera straps, backpacks and messenger bags without thinking much about how the item might look 100 years from now. It's very likely that a bag or strap made of a synthetic material will endure, but leather products acquire a history of their own, and display it as nicks, scuffs and the distinctive patina that accumulate naturally through years of normal use. Nylon gets old, but leather ages; that gives the cases real character, which is especially evocative when an item sees daylight after decades hidden at the bottom of the Atlantic. 

Over a century since the Titanic plunged to its resting place, our fascination persists. James Cameron's film remains a classic, but it's a fictional dramatization, and photos of those who were on board are undoubtedly poignant, but they're of individuals we never knew and whose contemporaries have all died out. Therefore, it is almost always through the prism of the travelers’ personal belongings and especially their luggage that we make a human connection to the souls who perished.

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