Old-time luggage wouldn't work for today's traveler

TERRY MAURER, WHAT'S IT WORTH?April 21, 2013 

Among things to consider when we travel today are "Should I just go with a carry-on bag, or is checking luggage worth it?" There were fewer questions decades ago -- you took it all. Like our reader's mother when she went off to school.

Q. My mother used this trunk to transport her clothes, books, etc., from Elgin, Ore., to Monmouth, Ore., to attend Oregon Normal School. She graduated in 1929. The trunk has a metal outer casing with plywood interior covered with a patterned paper. The interior removable tray appears to have had cross-section bracing, now missing. The bottom of the trunk shows signs of moisture damage to the paper lining, which does not seem to have affected the wood. The webbing is in good shape and is firmly attached. The leather handles on each side are in good shape. No key was found. It is used currently as a decorative piece. I'm curious about the date it was manufactured, history of the Multnomah Trunk and Bag Co. and the trunk's approximate dollar value. -- Patricia in Kennewick

A. In its day, during the first several decades of the 20th century, the Multnomah Trunk and Bag Company was one of Portland's leading businesses. At that time, there were hundreds of trunk and luggage makers across the country. Multnomah was among the largest on the West Coast.

Organized in 1885, the firm saw its biggest business growth in the years just before World War I. In 1915, Multnomah sold 2,000 suitcases, 5,000 traveler's bags, 6,000 trunks and 4,000 telescopes. They had traveling salesmen representing the firm up and down the Pacific Coast, as well as in Alaska, Montana, Utah and Hawaii.

Located on Water Street, along the Willamette River in what, at the time, was Portland's industrial district, Multnomah Trunk moved in the early 1920s to a two-story building covering most of a city block on Thompson Street. The company is out of business now and the building is for sale.

In the first years of the 20th century, 26 men and women were employed at an annual total salary of $26,000.

Their products were of the highest quality and many featured "3-Ply Construction." That technique is advertised on a metal label attached to Patricia's trunk.

Three-ply construction, using fir, offered "the finest and best material in the world of which to construct trunks," said Samuel Holcomb, the company's president in a 1916 newspaper article. "Our three-ply veneer fir makes trunks so strong they will withstand the roughest kind of handling," he said.

A much fancier and larger steamer-type trunk by Multnomah sold at auction in eastern Washington several years back for $275. This trunk -- probably made about 1920 -- shows quite a lot of damage and that holds the price down considerably. We'd place a value in the $50 to $75 range.

Thanks to Scott Daniels of the Oregon Historical Society for information on the company's history. Incidentally, there are a number of resources online where one can order replacement trunk parts. Leather handles, metal straps, hinges and keys are available.

Q. What can you tell us about our ceramic mug? It has a penguin on one side and Admiral Byrd's ship on the other. -- John & Iva in Roosevelt

A. Your mug -- made by Ohio's Fraunfelter Pottery -- commemorates the expedition of Admiral Richard Byrd to the South Pole. Byrd and three companions became the first to fly over the pole on Nov. 28, 1929. It was considered a feat of enormous importance and Byrd was lionized as an American hero.

The mug, of heavy restaurant quality stoneware, was made several years later by Fraunfelter China of Zanesville, Ohio. Fraunfelter, founded in 1915, was also known for producing porcelain of European quality and sold blanks to other companies for decoration. The firm went bankrupt in 1939.

These Byrd commemorative items came in plates and bowls, as well as mugs. Some were decorated with an image of the Ford Trimotor airplane used for the famous flight, others had penguins, the flagship and sled dogs.

It is generally thought, but not confirmed, that these pieces were made for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair -- but their exact use in conjunction with the exposition is unknown.

They show up in the marketplace from time to time and, while interesting to collectors, are not of high value. In excellent condition, this piece could be expected to sell for $40 or $50.

-- Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by e-mail at tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com

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