Covered Wagons to Carry-on: Packing in Perspective
Sabrina Rojas Weiss
Some of us type out and print elaborate checklists before we pack for a trip– be it several months-long or just for a weekend– and meticulously organize our belongings in special compartments. Some of us fly by the seat of our pants, tossing things into our duffel bags, standing on stubborn suitcases to get the zippers closed, and reaching the airport only to remember we forgot to pack underwear. Either way, we all have it much simpler than the travelers that came before us, including those from a couple generations ago. A New York Times article from 1920 described how “the average woman who goes on tour these days with ‘real clothes’ for all occasions uses only three trunks where some time ago she would have had six.” This pared down baggage still included a hat trunk that could fit six to eight hats and seven pairs of shoes.
The next time you find yourself in that struggle to avoid checking an extra bag, take a break and be thankful you didn’t have to pack for these journeys in history:
In 1498, the anonymous author of Information for Pilgrims Unto the Holy Land advised that anyone making the trip from Venice to Jerusalem needed to bring along these items: a feather bed, a mattress, a pillow, two pairs of sheets, a quilt, bread, cheese, a bag of chicken feed and a cage for six hens.
The kind of pilgrims who traveled from England to New England in the mid 17th century had to haul over a lot more, including all their own food for the boat ride, the farm tools they’d need to settle down and weapons to protect themselves. In 1630, Rev. Francis Higginson published a list that included this suggested apparel: “1 Monmouth Cap, 1 Wast-coat, 1 Suit of Frize, 2 Paire of Sheets. 3 Falling Bands, 1 Suit of Canvas, 3 Paire of Stockings, 1 Paire of Blankets, 3 Shirts, 1 Suit of Cloth, 4 Paire of Shooes, 1 Course Rug, 7 Ells of Canvase to make a bed and boulster.”
For families who caught “Oregon Fever” in the mid-19th century, packing was a life-or-death matter. In their 4 x 10 ft wagons, they squeezed in “200 lbs of flour, 150 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs of coffee, 20 lbs of sugar, and 10 lbs of salt,” as advised by guidebook author Lansford Hastings, plus anything they’d need to cook and eat the food in, as well as extra shoes for the 2,400 mile journey on foot, and a change of clothing and linens. If they were lucky, they had space for a friendship quilt, made by their friends back home. Every extra item meant extra weight for the oxen, so the early miles of the trail wound up littered with treasures that the travelers thought better of along the way.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the well-heeled passengers of the last century’s luxury ocean liners. No one’s found anything quite as valuable as Rose’s “Heart of the Ocean” diamond, but a recent traveling exhibition of recovered Titanic artifacts showed off just how fancy the jewelry got in first class, including a particularly poignant charm necklace with a four-leaf clover and a diamond engraved with the words “This Be Your Lucky Star.” Did it work?
Jewelry is not one of the items recommended in a list given to nurses heading off to Germany during World War II. The letter, shared with Slate by the daughter of one such nurse, suggests bringing “plenty of lipstick,” two dozen pairs of stockings, a scout knife, a musical instrument (optional) and “a few yards of some gay material with which to brighten up her quarters” as curtains. We’re glad to know they had priorities.
What’s on your packing list?
Sabrina Rojas Weiss has been a staff writer and editor for VH1, MTV, TV Guide, Bars.com, Manhattan Magazine and Manhattan Bride. She is currently pursuing a freelance career based out of Brooklyn, New York.