Travel Chic: How to Clean Vintage Luggage

How to Restore Vintage luggage.

How to restore old luggage, step by step

By Lisa J. Hall and Sabrina Sakata

How to clean a vintage suitcase: restoring old suitcases.
How to clean a vintage suitcase: restoring old suitcases.

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, to have a set of custom-made luggage was a luxury afforded only by the rich. The concept of travel was different then too.

Young men traveled the world to finish off their educations and women traveled to get some relaxation time from their hectic and straining social schedules.

Boxes Covered with Cowhides

Most luggage was made from wooden boxes and covered in the finest leather cowhides. All trims were hand-stitched and lined with silks and canvas. A good set of luggage wasn’t high up on the list for the average girl during those times.

In addition to clothes and larger items kept in huge trunks, a minimum of eight pairs of shoes were kept in shoeboxes alone. Women had a separate, usually much smaller, a piece of make-up or toiletries luggage.

Make-up was fairly expensive and women had to special order their shades through pharmacies and department stores so that their shipments made it several weeks before it arrived. It was not uncommon to spend several hundred dollars on specific types of luggage for all their personal needs.

Luggage Bought by Women

Luggage was bought mainly by women as part of her obligation to her “man.” One of the obligations of new brides, according to an article from Cosmopolitan magazine in 1935, was her responsibility at making sure that the “box room” or luggage room was well maintained by the servants. It was her responsibility to make sure that the luggage was well-taken care of – waxed, polished and cleaned inside and out.

Old fashioned luggage, displayed as if someone were going out to catch an ocean liner to go across the Atlantic. Sofia Peralta photo.
Old fashioned luggage, displayed as if someone were going out to catch an ocean liner to go across the Atlantic. Sofia Peralta photo.

The average cost of one piece of luggage during the ’30s and the late ’40s (before Samsonite) was about $350.00 – the current price for a shoulder bag from Louis Vuitton (which, today, is made of cardboard and canvas).

Women would pay these exorbitant amounts because their luggage sets would last them a lifetime. Most of the luggage being made today is disposable within a few years of using it.

During World War II, most luggage manufacturers were discontinued because they moved away from the high expense of leather. In the late 40’s Samsonite factories started making camouflage for the army with industrial sewing machines until the end of the war.

The entire market changed when Samsonite discovered that they could use canvas for luggage, and completely took over the competition.

A popular model of the 1950s was the white hatbox, used for things like gloves, scarves, and hats. It became known as the “model’s hatbox”-because, one supposes, every model needed to have a white Samsonite hatbox with all of the aforementioned items.

The idea of “keeping luggage” changed during women’s liberation. Although many women in the 1950’s and ’60s were still carrying their mothers and grandmothers matched luggage sets, it had less to do with status than it did convenience.

The world began to see fewer hardwood leather cowhide pieces of luggage, and more cardboard for “bargain prices”. How to clean vintage luggage, you might ask?

Chain Store Luggage

Today we find luggage at Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, and sometimes Nordstrom or JCPenny. They all look very much the same and don’t quite have the funkiness or originality of earlier models.

If you’re sick of analyzing black bags on the carousel to find out which one is yours and often find yourself yearning for a bit more originality in the way of luggage or carry-ons, then find an old, vintage piece and give it new life. We don’t mean the $3000 vintage pieces sold at Sotheby’s.

We mean the $5 variety at your thrift store, or free from Aunt Maude’s attic. When you are done with it, it’ll be better than new because it has a story.

Where to find vintage luggage (old & gently used) pieces

Garage Sales – Tedious, but, sometimes you can call ahead to find out if they have any old luggage they’re getting rid of.

Estate Sales – This is code for a garage sale, but usually by families of a deceased rich person who are trying to sell a house full of their expensive belongings.

Vintage luggage is a very popular collector's item. Most of these never move again after they are bought.
Vintage luggage is a very popular collector’s item. Most of these never move again after they are bought.

Consignment Stores – You’ll find more carry-on, handbag-type items here, but they’re still cheap.

Thrift Stores (especially Salvation Army & Goodwill) – A great treasure trove if you go on a regular basis and scope out new finds. When people move, they get rid of lots of old stuff here, including the luggage they used in the late 60s.

eBay (or another auction site) – A haven for old luggage. A used Gucci goes for $45, a 4-piece red luggage set goes for $25, a pink late 70s suitcase goes for $4.99 and white vintage round hatbox pieces go for $12. Shipping can be $15 or more for larger items but it’s still very worth it.

Flea Markets – People who sell vintage items at flea markets often find their merch at the above-mentioned places, so this is only an option for lazy (or rich) ladies.

Neighbors – Neighbors (especially the retired ones) are often willing to give or sell you old, unwanted items they’ve had in their attic for years. Chat ’em up sometime. Everyone has a truckload of old possessions they would give away to a happy, grateful owner.


Luggage Cleansing 101

Any stains or gross smells can usually be tackled by giving your new bag or luggage a good cleaning rub down and airing it out in the sun for a day or two.

The first thing you probably want to do is put vacuum out the contents of your bag (if you’re replacing the lining, do this after you rip the lining out.) There are lots of little particles of dirt and lint that will be at the bottom and between creases.

Most handbags and luggage (except leather) can be cleaned, both inside and out, with a warm cloth dampened with mild soap. It’s not necessary to get it soaking wet, you just want to lightly wipe it down. Let the solution sit on heavily used areas like straps and handles. Air-dry it for a day outdoors if possible, or near an open window where it can get a lot of air circulation.

Old fashioned luggage: The more you have the cooler it looks in the stack!
Old fashioned luggage: The more you have the cooler it looks in the stack!

For plastics, use damp, soapy sponge and remove any soap residue with a damp cloth. For extra sheen, spray it with a silicone wax and buff it.

For leather, get a cream leather cleaner from any shoe repair shop and apply it with a soft cloth. In the case of suede, brush it gently with a suede brush to remove any dirt.

If you have dirt or other spots that look embedded in the leather, take it to a professional dry cleaner. Always follow up any leather cleaning with a leather conditioner to replace the leather’s natural oils.

You can also try steam-cleaning smaller, fragile items by holding it over a shallow pan of boiling water for a few minutes. (Just a few, you don’t want any adhesive to come loose.) Dry it completely before putting it away in your closet.

If you’re facing actual chunks of mildew, first brush off the items somewhere outdoors, where the spores won’t scatter through the house. Then sponge it lightly with a mild soap and water solution. Air dry.

If bits of mildew remain, sponge the items lightly with rubbing alcohol, then again with water, and let dry. Mildew loves damp, tiny closets with no little circulation. If this sounds like your closet, store your item somewhere where it can get some air.

Bleach out Stains & Funky Smells

If your item or lining is white, you can by using a watered-down solution of chlorine bleach, which is the ultimate homemade stain & weird-smell buster.

For colored fabric, combine 1/4 teaspoon of bleach for colored clothing (oxygen, not chlorine bleach) and 1/4 cup of three-percent hydrogen peroxide (the kind used for medicinal purposes, not for bleaching your hair). Then, with a clean cloth, gently rub the stain until it’s gone. Don’t forget to air dry.

Bad smells call for desperate measures. After cleaning it with a damp, soapy cloth, leave a car freshener in there for a week. You can also try a light mist of anti-bacterial household Lysol spray. As a last resort, use the infallible French method-give it a good douse of perfume.

Replacing the Zippers

Zippers are frustrating and tricky. They come in a variety of sizes, #5 being the most common for lightweight accessories and #8 or #10 used for most large bags. You’ll be able to find a variety at your fabric store.

Old fashioned suitcases from the 1940s.If your zipper doesn’t work and nothing seems to be wrong with the zipper teeth, you probably need a new zipper tab (a.k.a. “slider”). And old slider that is worn down won’t do its job anymore.

To replace the slider: Take off the top stop (on the side of the zipper where the slider is) with pliers and remove the slider by sliding it up. Take your replacement slider and thread it onto the zipper the opposite way you removed the old slider. Then, put your new top stop on.

If the teeth on your zipper are separating after the zipper is closed, your slider probably isn’t getting close enough to the zipper teeth. Try using pliers to pinch the tab (from top to bottom, to flatten it barely) so that the tab holds the zipper teeth closer. If this doesn’t work, replace the tab or the entire zipper.

If you’re replacing a metal zipper, consider replacing it with a plastic zipper. Plastic zippers are easier to zip than metal zippers, and they are less likely to break. Zippers last longer when they are kept clean. A light coating of bee’s wax or paraffin on the teeth will help.

Professional Zipper Replacement Costs:

Buckle: $8
Main Zipper: $17 and up
Pocket Zipper: $12 and up
Replacing the Interior

If the lining is so dirty you don’t even want to try cleaning it, you can replace it altogether with some easy steps. You can always have a professional do the deed, but if you’re short on cash, get a glue gun.

With a tape measure, measure out the inside dimensions of your suitcase or item. Measure out a template on newspaper and see if it fits the entire area you want to line. If it doesn’t quite cover in some areas, get more newspaper and do it again. Tape together 2 sheets if necessary. Then go to a fabric store and find the material you want to line your item with, anything from red vinyl to pure white silk to leopard-print satin (you probably need less than 1 yard).

This will cost $2-$10, depending on what you get. Dollar bargain bins always have remnants for cheap. If you get a really thin fabric, be sure to put down a layer of canvas first, so it stands up to wear and tear that we’re sure you’ll provide. Cut your fabric to your template and add a half-inch to fold the edge under.

Cut the old lining out, but if it’s intact around all of the edges, leave a half-inch fringe so you can use the flap to glue your new lining to. If the old lining is ripped away from the edges at some places, just rip it all out.

Inspiring for the collector, imagining what these old fashioned suitcases will look like restored.
Inspiring for the collector, imagining what these old-fashioned suitcases will look like restored.

Use fabric glue to glue down the fabric around the frame and edges, tucking the edges under for a clean finish. To make sure it doesn’t poof out around the edges, put some fabric glue between the crease before you fold the edge (to bind the two layers together before you glue the edge down). You can also just use a staple gun if you don’t care how it looks on the inside.

For small tears or rips in the lining, a simple zig-zag stitch with some matching thread (or metallic thread if you’re crazy) can hold things together.

Some vanity cases have small mirrors inside, which may have water spots and replacing. Find the right size and pull out the old one, using a razor blade if necessary. If you don’t want to use that space for a mirror, stick a band sticker there or use a permanent marker and do some art.

Paint & Polish the Luggage

Like the shape but don’t like the color? Need to give your luggage bags or suitcases a little modern-day kick?

Use a funky stencil and paint to redesign your hardshell luggage. Sometimes something as random as “petit four” in hot pink lettering (means small, frosted cake in French) can totally transform your late 70s Samsonite to a chic travel carrier. If your item is soft cloth or leather, use fabric paint.

If your item is made of a hard material, be sure to use a decorator’s paint and add a final finishing spray to seal it afterward. Or paint the entire thing.

Spray paint will do an even-looking job unless you’re doing detail work. Sprays come in cool glitter, stone, pearly, crackle, glow, and suede finishes. Be sure to cover any metal parts or handles you don’t want to be painted with painter’s tape. Sand it lightly with sandpaper beforehand for maximum adhesion.

Stamp Your Luggage to Personalize It

You can also use decorative paint pens, which come in many varieties these days and stamp your item with some personal, freestyle art. You can also use iron-on artwork from your computer if you’re working on canvas. A girl we talked to used fast-drying shiny, silver nail polish to paint around the edges of her red vintage hatbox luggage case.

Work in a garage, balcony, porch or even sidewalk (somewhere safe). Try to keep these materials away from inside your home. Lay out all your materials before you begin your project.

If you want to make margaritas, do it before you pick up that staple gun. If you’re not taking a trip for a while, there are other ways to put that funked-out piece of luggage to use. Put it in a wooden crate or cylinder pedestal and make it into a nightstand or a coffee table. Put old letters, photographs, and artwork in them in hiding it under your bed for storage. Find hatboxes to stack up and then put a vintage phone on top, next to your bed.

Or fill it with lots of goodies and send it to someone you love as a gift.

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2 thoughts on “Travel Chic: How to Clean Vintage Luggage

  1. I was happy to find this info on cleaning vintage luggage. No luggage made today equals the charm and originality of it, in my opinion.

    BUT, a word of caution! You wrote: “For colored fabric, combine 1/4 teaspoon of bleach for colored clothing (oxygen, not chlorine bleach) and 1/4 cup of three-percent hydrogen peroxide (the kind used for medicinal purposes, not for bleaching your hair).”

    Noooooo……! The oxygen-but-non-chlorine bleach, by which I gather you mean Oxiclean and/or similar products, shouldn’t be mixed with other household cleaning products. Multiple sources clearly state this online.

    In fact, it can be quite dangerous not to look up any potential mixture of household cleaning products. Bleach and vinegar, for example, create toxic fumes.

  2. Thank you this has inspired me I have saved a lot of suitcases that where going to end up landfill. I had to save them.

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