A Globe-Trotter suitcase is unique in the world because of the baseboard used to form its body. Made of 14 sheets of paper and glue, it is compressed under pressure into a vulcanised material that is lightweight yet extremely sturdy.
It is a process that was invented in the 1850s and has rarely been copied due to the difficulty and expense of replicating it. Today, there are very few imitators of Globe-Trotter and the company closely guards the source of its production. Although there are few that would want to go through the process of recreating a Globe-Trotter, they could start to do so if they could find an appropriate source.
During my visit to the Globe-Trotter factory in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, I watched a suitcase being made from start to finish.
The board is the only item not made in the factory – everything else is woven, printed or shaped on site. Although a suitcase can theoretically be made in a few hours, the leather corners of the case have to be soaked, pressed, left to dry and then pressed again – which takes five days. Unless pre-pressed corners happen to be available for a particular style, the construction time is therefore 5-6 days.
Around the factory there is an interesting mix of old and new machinery. Unlike some factories that boast of old machinery but would rather have new – they just can’t afford the investment – Globe-Trotter has only retained pieces that are functionally superior.
There is a Victorian guillotine, for example, that is used to cut the linings of the cases. Its iron weight creates a much sharper, reliable slice than a modern equivalent. The presses for those leather corners (above) are also iron and have WW2 stamps on them (Globe-Trotter made military equipment during WW2 and was therefore allowed to retain machinery that would otherwise have been melted down). And sewing machines dating from the 1920s are used to stitch together the four layers of leather in the suitcase handles.
“I’ve tried four times over the years to find a modern machine that could do the same job,” says Jeff Vaughan, MD of Globe-Trotter. “The last time I even spent £25,000 on having one specially commissioned. But they all failed. So now we buy them on the secondary market whenever we can, and keep them all for parts.”
The actual making of a suitcase is fairly simple, with the board being moulded into shape and then set around a wooden frame. Corners and some exterior sections are riveted together by eye, the lining is carefully cut and glued in, and then a metal strip is wrapped around the exposed edges. The addition of the handles and internal straps completes the job.
As with many English factories, expertise has been increasingly brought in-house. Handles used to be made by Wellwyn, a local operator, before it went bust, as did the wooden frames. The latter are now made by a Globe-Trotter carpenter, who also made many of the worktables around the factory.
One final, interesting fact. The board retains a small amount of moisture when it is first used, in order to help it mould into shape. That moisture will gradually leave the suitcase (hence all the linings being made from breathable materials). As the moisture leaves, over a decade or so, the suitcase becomes stiffer and stronger. My Globe-Trotter then, despite being six years old, has its best years to come. Nice to know.
Photos: Luke Carby