Welcome to History Lesson, LuggageBase.com’s newest blog feature. Once a month, we’ll be covering the storied histories and colorful pasts of your favorite luggage brands and products. This month’s featured brand is Samsonite. One of the best-known travel brands in the country, Samsonite has been bringing quality of Biblical proportions to the luggage (and furniture?) industry for over a century.
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Around the turn of the 20th century, a young Colorado native named Jesse Shwayder was working successfully as a New York-based luggage salesman for The Seward Trunk and Bag Company. Though he made plenty of money, Jesse was homesick for the west. In 1910, he took his luggage knowledge and life savings of $3,500 back to his home state to establish his own company. It was after this leap of faith that the Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company was born. Without traditional management experience, Jesse based his business model on the Golden Rule, applying “do unto others” to his own employees as well as their customers.
Though the initial $3,500 disappeared quickly, business was steady. In 1917, Jesse turned a profit of over $76,000. By 1925, the remaining four Shwayder brothers–Maurice, Ben, Mark, and Sol–had joined the rapidly expanding team.
Despite the Shwayder Trunk Company’s initial success, Jesse knew he didn’t yet have the resources to compete with his larger, more established competitors. Instead of struggling to offer his merchandise at rock-bottom prices, Jesse took a different approach: let the quality of the product, not the price, take center stage. Though Shwayder luggage wasn’t cheap, it was some of the most durable on the market. On the long, rough trips before the advent of air travel, toughness was a hot commodity. A photo of the five Shwayder brothers standing atop one of their suitcases became one of the most popular and effective ad campaigns of the decade as their luggage was shown to be “strong enough to stand on.”
A Shwayder trunk supporting a half-ton of sugar appeared in the window of Macy’s Department Store in 1918, and just four years later, annual revenue tripled. In less than twenty years, Shwayder trunks had earned the trust and business of thousands of customers across the country. Clearly, Jesse was on to something with his tactic of pursuing quality over cost.
Like most American businesses, Shwayder Trunks struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the stock market crash. Throughout the 30s, the Shwayders offset their losses by expanding to merchandise beyond luggage. Their foray into other markets–including furniture, sandboxes, and license plates–proved just lucrative enough to see them through the Depression. For a brief period, their card tables actually outsold their luggage.
A religious man, Jesse Shwayder called his most durable luggage line Samson, after the Biblical strongman. Samson products pioneered innovative features like rayon linings, stronger handles, and specialty fiber finishes–cutting-edge technology for their time. In 1939, the first Samsonite luggage product was introduced: a tapered suitcase reinforced with vulcanized fiber and leather binding.
During World War II, the Shwayder factories were temporarily converted for the war effort, though business resumed as normal by the late 40s. After the Korean War, the brothers began to expand beyond travel trunks and suitcases, creating hardy cases for musical instruments and electronic equipment. In 1956, manufacturing took a turn for the revolutionary when the Shwayders introduced their Ultralite line of luggage. Ultralite was the first in the industry to eschew the traditional wood frame in favor of lighter, stronger magnesium and molded plastic frames. That same year, Shwayder Trunks began expanding outside of North America, with an entire export division handling the European market. Shwayder Trunks ushered in the 60s as an internationally recognized, multi-million dollar corporation.
As consumer demand for luggage became more popular, Shwayder’s company–still manufacturing furniture and automotive parts, as well as luggage–turned its focus to Samsonite, its cash cow. It wasn’t until 1965 that the company officially changed their name to the Samsonite Corporation, and the Samsonite brand as we know it today was created. Since then, the company has changed hands several times–initially staying within the Shwayder family, and being bought, incorporated, and merged with other companies throughout the 70s and 80s.
In 1995, Samsonite changed hands once again, again becoming an independent, publicly-held company under the leadership of Steve Green. Today, both Samsonite and American Tourister, working together under the Samsonite umbrella, are still revolutionizing the way we travel. Silhouette Sphere, Samsonite’s newest line, leads the way in spinner luggage with four spherical wheels. And LIFT, one of the brand’s most popular lines, offers some of the lightest luggage in the industry at a competitive price point.
When Jesse Shwayder left his New York job in 1910, it’s unlikely that he knew what a large impact his ingenuity and imagination would have on the travel goods industry. Though he found his fortune in Samsonite, his legacy lives on through his brand’s innovative and high-quality products that continue to dominate the worldwide market. As consumers, our habits, tastes, and expectations are constantly evolving–and since 1910, Samsonite has always been one step ahead.