A Suitcase Full of Research

My current work-in-progress is a historical fiction series set in 1929 Kansas City. In researching the era I’ve found lots of material on Capital H- History, such as Prohibition and the Pendergast political machine, but far less information on the details of everyday life. I want to know things like: What did housewives fix for dinner? How much did it cost to ride the streetcar? Where and how often did people buy groceries?

Both kinds of research are necessary in order to write a satisfying historical novel.

The history of luggage was a recent focus of my research. I was writing a scene in which a woman walks from a train station to a house about a mile away while carrying her suitcase. In order to picture this accurately I needed to know what her suitcase probably looked like.

A Google search led me to a helpful Smithsonian article, “The History of the Humble Suitcase”. I concluded from the article that my character would have carried a suitcase made of heavy cardboard bound by metal rivets with a leather handle. An image search provided pictures of cardboard cases. These details allowed me to finish the scene and move on with my work. Sometimes that’s all I can do.

This time, though, I caught a lucky break.

Last week I had the opportunity to examine two cardboard suitcases up close. My husband’s grandmother died last March at age 101, and we were in Iowa helping clean out her house. These suitcases were exactly the type of luggage my fictional character would have used. Here’s what I learned:

  • The cardboard was durable, not flimsy or prone to tear, but prolonged exposure to moisture would warp it.
  • The cardboard was stamped with designs inside and out.
  • The handles were wire and cloth wrapped with leather.
  • Buckles, locks, and rivets were metal.
  • Though made of paper the cases were not lightweight.

When I edit the scene in which my character lugs her suitcase across town, I’ll have a much better understanding of her movements. Genuine sensory details will improve the writing immensely.

Some days I really love my job.

7 comments

  1. Glad you were able to find something in the family. Somehow personal stuff makes it more valuable. I remember several of those types of suitcases along with a variety of old trunks in our farmhouse. My favorite trunk (where I stored all my art supplies and toys) was heavy thick cardboard and was covered with cotton batting and then covered with material. It sat at the edge of my bed and my friends and I used it for a seat. It was almost comfortable. http://www.suzanklassen.com

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