Looking at it from the lens of the present, wheels on luggage seems like the most practical improvement one could make to luggage—a veritable sliced-bread moment for the industry. Yet wheels didn’t appear on luggage until the 1970s, and when they finally did, it was entirely thanks to the airline industry.
Prior to the advent of air travel, people didn’t have to lug their suitcases very far thanks to the ubiquity of porters. Whether you traveled by train, bus, or boat, there was always someone nearby to help load and unload your unwieldy suitcase. With the rise of air travel, however, passengers spent an increasing amount of time lugging their suitcases around, and the number of travelers at a given airport always exceeded the number of porters (if the airport even had them) available to move those suitcases.
Then in 1970, Bernard Sadow, president and owner of U.S. Luggage, was stuck in customs with a pile of heavy suitcases after returning from a vacation in Aruba. While standing and waiting, a worker moving some heavy equipment around the airport went gliding by with the equipment on a heavy-duty wheeled skid. That was a crystallizing moment for Mr. Sadow as he realized the solution to the world’s luggage handling problem was wheels. A few prototypes later, he was pitching his “rolling luggage” to buyers at Macy’s.
The story of rolling luggage doesn’t end with Mr. Sadow, however. Sadow’s suitcases featured four wheels at the four corners of the suitcase on the long side (you pulled it along, as seen here, more like a wagon and less like a two-wheeled furniture dolly). In 1987, a pilot for Northwest Airlines, Robert Plath, created his own wheeled suitcase while tinkering at home: a suitcase that had only two wheels at the bottom corners and a long handle that the user towed behind them upright instead of laying flat. Plath called the design a “rollaboard” and sold modified suitcases to his fellow airline workers.
People saw pilots and flight attendants whizzing through the airport with their fast-rolling suitcases in tow, and suddenly Mr. Plath’s rolling suitcases were in high demand. Shortly thereafter, he left his job as a pilot and founded Travelpro International, a company focused exclusively on two-wheeled luggage with telescoping handles. The market was quickly flooded with imitators and soon nearly every piece of luggage manufactured included wheels.
Image courtesy of Briggs & Riley.