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.
Originally made of leather, Gladstone bags can be made from other materials.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.