How Do I Choose the Best Antique Steamer Trunk?

Elizabeth West

An antique steamer trunk can be used for a coffee table, storage, or a collector’s piece. While many trunks from a bygone era are referred to as steamer trunks, only the shorter flat-topped ones from around 1880-1930 were actually meant to go on board steam-powered ships and trains. Choosing the best one will depend on the size of the space allotted, its purpose, and how much you want to spend. Good reproductions are available at a lower cost than antiques and won’t need any restoration.

Antique steamer trunks usually have details like metal straps and buttons.
Antique steamer trunks usually have details like metal straps and buttons.

The antique steamer trunk was originally a shortened version of the common flat top trunk, designed to fit under berths in ships or seats on a steam locomotive. They are sometimes referred to as cabin trunks, which is good to keep in mind when searching for them as they may be listed that way. They are usually made of wood, sometimes covered with leather, with metal straps and buttons and a paper, fabric, or wood lining.

If you are a collector searching for an antique trunk, look on the inside for a maker’s label. Many old trunks will not have one, but if you find it take pains to preserve it, as it will add to the value of the piece. Any original papers or fabrics that are in reasonable condition are worth saving. Restoration should be performed by someone who has experience in preservation techniques. There are companies that will both sell and restore an antique steamer trunk.

A large flat top antique steamer trunk works great as a coffee table and is useful for storage. Trunks with curved tops are beautiful but are better for storing blankets and out-of-season clothing in bedrooms. If an antique steamer trunk is used in a child’s room, the lock should be disabled so a child cannot become trapped inside.

You will need to measure the space where you will put your antique steamer trunk. It's a good idea to take the numbers with you on your search. When you find a trunk that is in your budget and appeals to your taste, you can be sure it will fit. Look it over carefully to make sure there are no pests or damage. You can clean an old trunk with a mixture of hot water, gum turpentine, and linseed oil, and should polish the wood carefully. Metal can also be sealed to prevent rust.

An antique steamer trunk can be expensive, but if you find one that is in decent shape you might be able to buy it as is for less money. Furniture stores are a good place to find a reproduction. Larger trunks are sold as coffee tables and end tables. They have the added advantage of storage and don’t need any restoration work.

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