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Things that Matter: The call of the open trunk

Like a train whistle piercing the night or the blast of a steamship horn on the river, an empty trunk lures the would-be traveler to dream of faraway places.

At the end of the 19th century, any such travel was difficult. Wealthy travelers packed a small “steamer” trunk (no taller than 13 inches) for access during the journey and one or more large “box” trunks for everything they might need at the destination, where a traveler might spend a month or more. Servants were employed to handle the bulky trunks.

By the early 20th century, travel for pleasure became more democratic, no longer just for the wealthy. Middle class working folk began to embrace the idea of the “holiday.” A booming tourist industry urged travelers to see America as a patriotic duty, and the idea of a summer vacation getaway was born.

La Crosse, situated on the Mississippi River, was (and still is) ideal for starting either rail or steamboat travel — and a perfect place for George Herken to set up his trunk factory in 1884. In 1909, Herken introduced newly invented “vulcanized fiber” to La Crosse. He advertised it as a trunk covering stronger and more durable than leather.

Herken’s Trunk Factory produced all sizes of custom-made luggage. This trunk, built between 1909 and 1922, is a prime example of the high quality, custom-made trunks that were Herken’s specialty.

By the late 1920s, with better roads and more cars, the needs of travelers changed. Such large trunks fell out of favor, replaced by smaller, more manageable bags. Large trunks were relegated to attics and storerooms, crammed with outdated treasures, full of memories too important to throw away.

This trunk is one of the objects that will be featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact, Where History Meets Art,” on display from Feb. 26 through April 16 at The Pump House Regional Art Center. It will be displayed alongside a new piece created by artist Kim Vaughter as a response to the history of the Herken trunk. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Public History Program and the La Crosse County Historical Society.

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