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What Is a Gladstone Bag?

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  • Written By: Paul Cartmell
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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A Gladstone bag is a small suitcase that is built around a rigid metal frame and is able to open into two equally sized pieces. Leather is commonly used for the body of the case, and leather lanyards and a clasp are used to tie the pieces together. The bag was created in the mid-19th century in the Westminster region of London, United Kingdom. Gladstone bags are also known as doctor’s bags because of the popular use of this item by medical doctors.

J.G. Beard is credited with inventing the Gladstone bag and naming it in honor of the four-time 19th century British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Beard, a leather trader, was an admirer of Gladstone and knew of his love of travel, so Beard named the bag after Gladstone. This type of bag became a fashionable accessory to carry throughout the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century.

Doctors often carried the bags, and some still do because of the large amount of room it has for medical equipment. Hinges allow the two pieces of the suitcase to be fully opened, which allows the user access to the entire area of the bag. External pockets provide extra storage space. High-quality leather allows the sides of the bag to collapse and bend around the items inside.

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Originally made of leather, Gladstone bags can be made from other materials. Some manufacturers create their designs using waterproof cotton materials for use during outdoor activities. Other materials that can be used include wool knitted into the shape of a Gladstone bag and attached to the rigid frame. Many time, the frame is built by a craftsman who specializes in this trade.

Murder is often associated with the Gladstone bag because of its links to many fatal crimes committed in Victorian-era London. For example, Patrick Mahon committed a murder in 1924 in the U.K. that became known as the Gladstone Bag Murder. Police discovered the bloodstained clothes of Mahon’s mistress, Emily Kaye, in a Gladstone bag. This discovery led detectives to Kaye's home and her body.

Literature and movies were responsible for increasing and prolonging the popularity of the bag after its initial creation. Works by authors including J.D. Salinger and Oscar Wilde made reference to Gladstone bags. Movies popularized the view of the suitcase as a prop used by murderers, particularly Jack the Ripper.

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lighth0se33
Post 4

I know a lady who sells makeup for a living, and she carries her samples in a Gladstone bag. She sells her stuff at makeup parties held in customer's homes, so she has to do a lot of traveling.

She told me at a recent party that her waterproof bag helps protect delicate makeup powder from moisture. Many of her products would be destroyed if they got wet.

When she opens her bag to show the guests her products, it folds all the way down to reveal a neat stack of lipstick, foundation, blush, eyeshadow, and other makeup. She can fit one sample of each type she is responsible for marketing in there.

wavy58
Post 3

My son's Halloween costume came with a Gladstone bag. He wanted to go to a party as a doctor, so I ordered him the full get-up from an online costume store.

Inside the bag was a stethoscope, tongue depressor, and fake syringe. He commented on how cool the bag was because it could hold so much more than what came in it.

He told me that he wanted to use it as his trick-or-treat bag, and I thought that would be cute. I think some of the neighbors gave him extra candy because of his inventive bag.

OeKc05
Post 2

@seag47 – Yes, they are used as purses. My mother carries one, and I have seen many on sale at department stores.

However, the kind made for use as purses don't open up as wide as the actual Gladstone bags. They do have a hinge, but they don't open as wide as a lion's mouth.

My mother likes her Gladstone purse, because she can fit her glasses case, her cell phone, and several other things down inside of it. She even carries snacks and bottled water in there sometimes.

Every Gladstone purse that I have seen is more of a handbag, though. If you want to sling it over your shoulder, you will have to make your own purse strap.

seag47
Post 1

Does anyone know if Gladstone bags were ever used for purses? My grandmother had one at her house, and though I always used to play with it, I never knew why she had it.

She would put things in it for me to discover. She hid stuff like decorative buttons, pretty fabric, and even candy and gum down in there. It was a little treat bag for her grandchild, and I always loved unhinging the big jaws of that black leather bag to find wonderful things.

It amazed me how much stuff she could fit in the bag. It would make a great purse for me, because I never have enough room for everything I like to carry in mine. If I could sew a strap onto it, I might use it as a purse.

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