Part of Wx4's The Past Less Traveled series...................................................................................................................................................................................Grab Bag


"SMASH your baggage, sir?"

Our story opens in front of the Grand Central Depot on Forty-Second Street, and the speaker was a bright-faced boy of fifteen, arrayed in a suit which had seen its best days long since. The person addressed was a nervous, elderly gentleman, who had just emerged from the depot, carrying in his hand a valise of medium size.

He eyed the boy with a wondering look, as he replied: "Why should I want my baggage smashed? I can smash it myself if I want it done."

"It ain't fit work for a gentleman like you."

"Nor for anybody else, in my opinion. Is that your business?" continued the elderly gentleman.

"Yes, sir, I'm a baggage smasher - purfessionally."

"It's a queer business, on my word. How do you make it pay?"

"The gentleman as has his baggage smashed pays me."

"Why, I'd as soon pay you for sitting on my hat."

"I'll do that cheap," said the boy, with a laugh. "But I guess you don't know what smashin' baggage is."

"I thought I did, but perhaps I am mistaken." "It's just carrying it for you wherever you want to go.'

"Oh, that's it!" said the gentleman in a tone of relief. "That sounds better. If you had talked English I would have understood you sooner. Well, you can carry my valise if you want to."

– Opening to Horatio Alger's book, A New York Boy (1890)

The Nearly Serious Side of Baggage Smashing
Baggage Smashing as Entertainment

The article below from the July 1, 1912 edition of the San Francisco Call relates the trying experience of a group of California State Railroad Commissioners who took it upon themselves "to discover how baggage smashers smashed their trade." Their visit was allegedly so trying that they refused to discuss it afterwards.


above, below: Newspapers.com

The old gentleman had cause for skepticism. By 1890, the sobriquet "baggage smashers" had been around for half a century, or more, and as the name implies, its practitioners held a well earned general reputation for wanton destruction of luggage. But, by then the term had evolved sufficiently to gain a slight measure of respectability beyond its more nefarious side, for it had become the default nickname for railroad and steamship company baggagemen. The old fellow's confusion was understandable, given that he had grown up in an earlier era, when the term described the activities of thieves.

(graphic above from The World on Wheels and Other Sketches, 1874)

Until well into the 20th Century, travel of any distance could be an arduous task of lengthy duration that involved several uncoordinated cross-town transfers. Travelers tended to pack extensive wardrobes for the long run in large wooden trunks, which were theoretically designed to hold up under the depredations of the dreaded baggage handlers. Empty trunks sometimes weighed upwards of 100 pounds, as a consequence. The basic wooden box might be reenforced with all manner of fittings and cladding made of iron, leather, tin and/or barrel staves, held together with many yards of rope or leather strap. Corners made of iron were requisite, because it was the corners that received most of the punishment of unloading. Full, a trunk might scale out at 300 pounds so the path of least resistance at unloading points was simply to let gravity do the work. Depending upon the conveyance, this could represent a free-fall of five feet, or more. Even the highest quality trunks featuring iron frames only held up for so long.

The ultimate inability of trunks to withstand repeated assault created tremendous opportunities for the criminal element, given that there was no such thing as a baggage check and luggage tended to be deposited willy-nilly over receiving platforms. Thus entered the baggage smasher. As far as can be determined, he term first appeared in the press in 1842, as far as can be determined, when the New York Daily News described baggage smashers as of two sorts. The worst of the bunch were, "young boys… who congregate about the railroad and steamboat depots, for stealing". After finishing off an unattended and already weakened trunk, the junior hoodlum would rummage through its contents, then scram with the loot. The other sort was the freelance baggage porter, who would offer to transport luggage and simply make off with it - the fear of Horatio Alger's gentleman.

Theft became somewhat less of an issue as the craft gradually fell under direct employment of transportation companies, but the massacres of baggage persisted unabated. Should a train baggageman detonate a trunk at the foot of some unfortunate soul, the railroad company now took the rap. Some old timer baggage smashers later recalled the early days with fondness as a kind of sport, where they could test their accumlated skills against the science of trunk design.
As might be expected, apocryphal stories of their exploits abounded. Trade journal Expressman's Monthly repeated several of the more universally known tales in 1895, accompanied by a philosophical reasoning of how, in modern times, such activities were no longer countenanced:


Baggage smashing was always an amusing concept, as long as the victim was the other guy. It was never so significant enough to the American lifestyle to command a full length film, but the activity was subject of several orphan (now lost) one-reeler silent comedies prior to World War I, including The Baggage Smasher starring Fatty Arbuckle and Chester Conklin (1914), and (again) The Baggage Smasher of 1910 filmed by the Lubin. Manufacturing Company, as seen in the ad immediately above. Note that the Lubin ad gives no cast of players, who are now unknown. Another big name to appear as a baggage smasher was Harold Lloyd in a Hal Roach comedy entitled Luke Lugs Luggage, where baggageman Luke is chased by a goat. Lloyd is at center in below scene from the film, courtesy Internet Movie Database. Many Lonesome Luke films can be found on YouTube, but this one is an orphan.

Although smashing baggage seemed a natural for Vaudeville skits, scant mention was made in industry literature. At above top is an image of a postcard advertisement for Mallia & Bart's act, The Baggage Smashers, certainly the most successful of these, for it toured the Northeast for at least the following 18 years after opening in late 1909. One reviewer described the act as, " Two men and a woman in an eccentric comedy acrobatic act ... with a lot of rough-house comedy and some clever tumbling. Did fair as an opener." Another described it as of "one-bow" quality. It was so obscure that we have as yet to learn the principal's first names. As it is, the postcard is the only evidence we have personally encountered of the act's existence outside of a scant few newspaper and trade reviews. (That's what was once called a "truck horse" folded up on the hand truck.)

Even Walt Disney's Goofy got into the act late in the game in 1941's "Baggage Buster". That term found practically no circulation before or after. The above image was clipped from a magazine ad.


THE BAGGAGE SMASHER.

"I look in vain in the literature of the day," said a middle aged man, "for a story of the baggage smasher, such as were current thirty or forty years ago, which used to interest me very much. Who that is old enough cannot recall the story of the baggage master and circus man's snake? The circus man's trunks, it will be remembered, had been at one time and another pretty roughly handled, and so one day he got a rather flimsy trunk and put in it a boa constrictor twenty-two feet long, and he marked on the outside of the trunk: 'Don't break! Boa Constrictor inside.'

"Oh, I have just been waiting for somebody to ship a boa constrictor by this line,' said the baggage smasher, and he grabbed the trunk by one of the handles, intending to toss it over his head, but he yanked with such sudden energy that he pulled the handle off. Then he kicked the trunk over the other end up and grabbed it by the other handle, lifted it and dropped it and smashed it wide open, and there was a snake in it, and the snake came out and uncoiled himself, and when he coiled himself up again he was around the baggage smasher, and -
"The baggage smasher never checked any baggage after that.

"Another story told of the tribulations of a traveler whose trunks had been smashed, and how finally he filled a big trunk with dynamite and marked it 'Handle With Care! Dynamite!'

"Dynamite-!' said the baggage smasher, with scorn, and he pulled the trunk down from the top of a high pile and let it fall on one corner, and -
"He never returned.

"Then there was a story about the angered traveler who placed upon the corners of his trunk patches of some material so elastic and springy that if you dropped the trunk hard it bounded into the air thousands of feet. This trunk came to a station on the summit of a great load of trunks, and the baggage smasher seized it by the handle, braced one foot against the load, and pulled the trunk off and let it fall upon one corner, and -
"It never came back. And the owner sued and recovered for the loss of his trunk.

"It might not be easy in a paragraph conclusively to assign reasons for the decline of the trunk story. Certainly the baggage smasher is as powerful as ever, and surely he cannot have Lost in the comparatively brief period of thirty or forty years that fine sense of humor that once prompted him playfully to drop a trunk and break it wide open. It seems more probable that he has shared with the rest of mankind in that steadily advancing refinement of methods which has marked our progress in recent years; that he is not less humorous, but only less boisterous, than he was; and it may be, too, that the fact that trunks generally are made stronger than they were has had something to do with it.


Modesto News, 12-3-1912 - Newpapers.com
Being a defender of the faith, Expressman's Monthly might be forgiven for its characterization that baggage handling had become a kinder and gentler affair, but it was quite evident that the depredations actually were continuing largely unabated.

Neither trunk manufacturers nor the railroads seemed to have all-encompassing answers to the problem. The round-roofed steamer trunk, invented in the 1880's, mitigated crushing through stacking, but otherwise was no hardier than the rest in resisting repeated impacts with baggage platforms.

Invariably, wags came up with all manner of "solutions". A most notable one was The Missionary Trunk, which purportedly sported spikes on its corners in the theory that the trunk would do more damage to its surroundings rather than the other way around, thus inspiring baggage smashers to clean up their behavior for fear of losing job and limb. According to a very suspect chronicle which circulated the news wires, the inventor "put his invention to a most thorough and satisfactory test" on an eastbound trip out of Chicago to New York City. The the trip's box score claimed that, in the process, the trunk "had killed four baggage smashers, wounded - for the most part seriously - seven more, injured eleven platforms, six cars, and two express wagons, and evidently caused the discharge of thirteen porters. The trunk itself was wholly uninjured..." In summary, "Throughout the entire journey the trunk fulfilled most gloriously the expectations of the inventor..."

The scourge of baggage smashing continued on well into the 20th Century for lack of a workable cure. For instance, a 1903 San Francisco Times editorial proclaimed that, "The conclusion has been reached that baggage smashing must be discouraged. That highly autocratic individual known as the baggage smasher is to be subjected to a restraining influence. How it is to be exercised nobody has the faintest notion...He has been suspected of an alliance with trunk manufacturers, but the suspicion is a libelous reflection on the smasher. It may be possible to teach him the virtue of moderation, but we are inclined to believe that he is wedded to violence and that he cannot be divorced."

Remediation still eluded the industry eleven years later, when the Seattle Post Intelligencer ( as quoted in Railway Journal) commented:

Even as late as the 21st Century, baggage smashing received a due nod by toymaker Lionel, which marketed its catalog #789, a remake of the 1958 era American Flyer "Baggage Smasher." Remarks its promotional, ah, flyer: When trains pull in, Billy the Baggage Smasher has his work cut out for him! Our observation is that at a suggested retail price of $129.95, the customer's bank account received a real work out, as well.

Below. Our inspiration for this article came from the 1930's Southern Pacific Company photo slipped to us by J.R. Signor of one of its newfangled baggage elevators. Perhaps it is because baggage smashers were left to operate them that they reputedly were breakdown prone. Click on the image for thoroughly unreliable further elucidation.


After years of timorous procrastination the railroads of the country have screwed their courage up to the point where they propose to cope with the baggage smasher. The Pennsylvania is the first to announce that no more trunks are to be shattered, and that employes will be held responsible. Whether or not the railroads can make good remains to be seen; but in any event the contest between them and the baggage smashers, with the public in the role of an interested spectator, will be worth watching.

The tyranny of the baggage smasher has been a long and a severe one; he has ruled and ruined by right of might for lo these many years, while the people have cried out uncomforted. He is one of the rare survivors of undisciplined force, a being of malignant destructiveness, whose talents defied all efforts to turn them to constructive purposes. Even when the railroads were giving rebates and passes they admitted the injustice of the baggage smasher, but pleaded their helplessness, while occasionally paying damages.

Trunk makers tried to check the devastation of the baggage car giant, but made no great success. The contest was soon like that between the cannon makers and manufacturers of armor plate. As soon as the ingenuity of the trunk maker evolved a trunk that was considered unbreakable, the baggage smasher found a way to throw it out of the baggage car that would result in its being split from end to end. Years of this tussling left us just where we began, only that in the old days the trunks were cheap, and now they are expensive. And the skill of the smasher always seems to be one lap ahead of the trunk maker.

The baggage smasher will not give up without a struggle. He has inherited a vicious obstinacy and a sense of vested interest in the demolition of trunks which will inspire him to tenacious efforts. Realizing that this is to be a definite engagement, that his very existence and his rights of wreckage depend on the outcome, he will bring every resource and artifice at his command into play and fight to the bitter end. In this instance at least the railroads have our sympathy and such moral courage as we dare display.

(note: Out of mercy to our dear readers, we have engaged in paragraphing of the above text.)

Preparing for the worst: This photo from Library of Congress displays all manner of improvisations intended to withstand the concerted efforts of baggage smashers. History tells us that this likely was a losing exercise. (click on the image for an enlargement.)

One would guess from hindsight that any railroad attempt to divest itself of responsibility by pleading "helplessness" in controlling its employees must have met considerable derision, particularly in the courts. Ironically, it may have been the strengthening of trade unions in the early 20th Century that played a key role in corraling baggemen antics, because union contracts had come to specify the details of correct behavior in great detail. Union reps had little foundation for argument should a baggage handler be caught violating "the contract" flat footed.

Ultimately, it may have been the passing of an era, rather than the direct efforts at remediation, that put an end to the baggage smashers' glory years. The Post Intelligencer editorial appeared in 1914 at the height of railroad passenger service in America, but at a time when the automobile was already significantly infusing its way into passenger counts. The competition was so lop-sided that the outcome of the competition was pretty much settled by World War I, even if it was not comepletely evident to people of the time.

A significant outfall of the newly dominant form of transport was in the way people packed, since automobiles essentially were self-service. Few drivers or autos were physically equipped to handle 300 pound steamer trunks, hence the more versitile suitcase - around since the 1880's - began to hold sway. If nothing else, suitcases took the sport out of smashing baggage, thereby giving baggage smashers little recourse but to reluctantly following respectable ways.


Fashionable people who have spent the summer at the watering-places or at the sea-side, but have now returned to the cities, assert that the baggage-smasher has become more destructive than ever. The baggage-smasher is indeed a terror. In fact, there are two of them: the one who flits from station to station and dumps your poor dumb trunk with force enough to drive piles in a government breakwater, and the one who loiters around the depot watching for his chance to shatter your baggage. The depot baggage-man is the most culpable of the two species. In his long and dark career of smashing trunks, he has evidently knocked the hoops off his conscience, and there is no remorse brave, foolish, or reckless enough to tackle his heart-strings and play on them. -Texas Siftings, November 3, 1888; quoted in Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities by William S. Walsh, page 78 (1892)

In an associated matter, not long ago, Wx4 Staff was thrilled to find a suitcase on Amazon that weighed less than seven pounds, thus creating minimal impact on the airlines' current 50 pound checked bags weight limit rule. Despite their flimsy nature, these conveyances have held up superbly over the course of several vacations. In our minds, this represents a nearly nonpareil advance of civilization.


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typical steamer trunk