Immigrant's Trunk

CMC 72-683; CD95 707

Height: 51 cm, length: 92 cm, width: 48 cm; CMC 72-683

This trunk is decorated in the Mennonite German tradition with birds and flowers. Around the handles is a geometric design with traditional motifs. The trunk also has a painted inscription, gemacht im jahre 1865, "made in the year 1865". When the trunk was acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, curators learned that it had travelled with a Mennonite family from Germany to Saskatchewan, then to Mexico and back to Saskatchewan.

It was only very recently that closets became a standard element of residential architecture. Small houses all over the world had barely enough room for their occupants – which often included domestic animals. There was certainly no "wasted" space for hanging clothes. You can see why the trunk, in a stunning variety of shapes and sizes, became the accepted storage facility.

Trunks were useful for another reason as well. Moths eat wool clothing with devastating effect, leaving great holes in places impossible to repair. A trunk, unlike a closet, could be sealed. If you added cedar or camphor (insect repellents discovered relatively early), you could store clothes for a long time without damage.

In times of immigration the trunk really came into its own. Not only could a family pack its worldly goods in one or two trunks, but the trunk could then serve as a piece of furniture in their new home. And finally, since trunks had flat surfaces, they were often painted or decorated in motifs that reminded the family of a life gone by or a new life to come.

Text: Phil Tilney