How To Determine The Age of An Antique Steamer Trunk

Ever since I did a research deep-dive on my mysterious ancestor George Roderic McClellan (1848-1912), I have been curious to learn more about his time spent in Denver, Colorado in the 1870s. I had discovered that he was a co-owner of the F. W. Gromm trunk manufacturing company in Denver from 1873 until a fire destroyed the store in 1875. Read more about George R. McClellan and the Gromm factory fire in my article: The Disappearance of George McClellan: Success In Denver Turns To Smoke.

I learned that George R. McClellan formed a business partnership with trunk maker Frederick William Gromm for the Denver Trunk Factory in December 1873 in the following newspaper article:

Advertisement of the Denver Trunk Factory, announcing the new partnership of Frederick W. Gromm and George R. McClellan. Daily Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colo.) 6 Dec. 1873, p. 1.
Denver Trunk Factory in 1874 Denver City Directory, p. 101.
Gromm & McClellan in 1874 Denver City Directory, p. 122.
1875 Denver City Directory, p. 290.

Since I love wandering antique shops and fairs, I thought it would be fun to see if I could locate and buy a Gromm trunk for myself. My ancestor George R. McClellan was only a co-owner of the business for two years from 1873 until 1875, whereas Gromm went on to become a very successful trunk manufacturer for the rest of his life until his death in 1924. I guessed the odds of locating a McClellan-era Gromm trunk from 1873-1875 (especially since most of their inventory was burned in a fire in 1875!) would be very slim, so I was happy to search for any trunks manufactured by F. W. Gromm between 1873 and 1924.

Where to Locate An Antique or Vintage Trunk?

I went online to search for any Gromm trunks that were for sale. I searched sites like Craigslist, OfferUp, eBay. I found some questions about Gromm trunks posted on http://www.collectorsweekly.com which offered tidbits of Gromm’s history. While some online sellers will ship furniture across the nation, I was not interested in paying a hefty shipping fee, so I kept my search within a day’s drive so that I could pick up the trunk in person. I found a listing on Craigslist that was a month old, and emailed the seller if it was still available. Luckily, it was, and I took a day trip down to Portland, Oregon to pick it up. The seller unfortunately did not know any details about the history of the trunk, so the details of how the trunk ended up in Oregon from Colorado are lost to time. He also had no idea how old the trunk was, so I would have to perform some historic detective work in order to estimate its age.

I bought the trunk for $50 and brought it home. It was definitely showing its age – the leather cracked, metal rusted, lock broken, handle torn, and even a small splatter of white paint was on the exterior. But I still thought it was a pretty cool find, it just needed a little bit of cleaning up.

Cleaning The Streamer Trunk

First, I wiped down the exterior with these microfiber cloths to remove the years of dust and grime. I also placed several of these charcoal odor absorber bags into the trunk and let them sit for a few days with the trunk’s lid closed. Even after several days it was still not smelling great, so I pulled out this heavy-duty charcoal bag and gave that another week, after which the smell was much improved!

I was not looking to restore the steamer trunk, but the leather was so dry that I thought a good place to start would be to condition the leather. A horse supply company nearby (who deals in a lot of leather goods) recommended I check out Chamberlain’s Leather Milk products, making sure to do a small test first. I picked up this two-pack of Chamberlain’s Leather Milk Cleaner and Conditioner. After testing both products on a small section of the trunk, I was really impressed by the conditioner. The cleaner I was a little nervous about, considering that the layer of leather wrapped around the trunk was extremely thin and dry – I think if the leather was thicker and not caked in as much dirt, I would have been braver to apply it all over. But instead I decided to just stick to an application of the conditioner.

Here’s the trunk after the leather conditioner was applied – a definite improvement, but still very much a cracked and worn steamer trunk!

After inspecting the white paint stain on the trunk’s lid, I tried to lift it with a bit of concentrated leather conditioner, and was able to get a little bit lifted (although it left a lighter white paint haze where I rubbed). I decided to leave the remaining paint spots as was – at over a century old, this trunk can show its age!

Photograph The Trunk and Search for Readable Clues

Search your trunk all over, both inside and out, for any manufacturing or handwritten labels whose history can be researched for additional clues as to the origins, manufacturer, and age of your trunk. There were two substanial clues in writing on the Gromm steamer trunk I picked up: an exterior lock with a manufacturing label (which was a new discovery that I made upon bringing the trunk home, it was not included in the Craigslist ad), and an interior label with the trunk maker’s details (which was transcribed on the Craigslist ad simply as “Gromm trunk, Denver, Colorado” and which I discovered had more details only after purchasing it).

Clue #1: The Lock

This clue was pretty subtle, since the lock was broken and hanging down, I did not even notice at first that there was writing on the lock. The exterior brass lock on the trunk reads:

YALE

YALE & TOWNE MFG. CO.

STAMFORD, CONN.

U.S.A.

The Wiki site Vintage Advertising & Company Histories has an entry for the Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company. The company was known as Yale Lock Manufacturing Company between 1868-1883, and it’s name changed to Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company between 1883-1963. The headquarters of the company was Stamford, Connecticut between 1869-1948 and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between 1948-1966.

So, the name of the company (Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company) places the trunk lock between the dates of 1883-1963, and the location of the headquarters (Stamford) dates the lock to no later than 1963. And since I already knew that F. W. Gromm died in 1924, that placed the window of this trunk’s age between 1883 and 1924. Could I narrow it down further?

Clue #2: The Label

Inside the trunk is a label which reads:

ESTABLISHED 1873

[ink blot: F]. W. GROMM

TRUNKS AND SUIT CASES

[ink blot]32 FIFTEENTH ST., DENVER

The label unfortunately is covered in an ink stain on the left side which blocks out the “F.” in “F. W. Gromm”, as well as the first portion of the address.

Therefore, I next searched for known addresses of F. W. Gromm’s trunk company to help further identify when the trunk was manufactured.

Searching Google Books for Gromm Advertisements

Google Books is a great resource to quickly search for old advertisements – it is not as comprehensive as subscription-based newspaper sites, but I like to start a research project with Google Books for some quick starting points. I came across the following addresses for Gromm’s company through this method:

The Western Magazine, May 1880: “Trunks and Valises: F. W. Gromm, manuf’r of and dealer in trunkls and valises, 404 Lawrence St.”

“F. W. Gromm, trunk manufacturer, doing a wholesale and retail business in that line here for many years, has his factory at 1219 Sixteenth street, and a branch at 1810 Araphoe street. The main factory occupies the whole of three basements under the Brunswick Hotel. The Arapahoe street place is used for the manufacture of boxes and frames for trunks, and for fittings. His salesrooms, in which he does quite a retail business, are at 935 Sixteenth Street. He employs a considerable number of hands in the factory, and has on hand a very large stock, indeed, is turning out about 225 trunks every month, besides sample cases – the latter of which are a specialty with him. He manufactures all grades, from the cheapest to the costliest, and is making a seasoned wood trunk that finds favor wherever it is on sale. Mr. Gromm’s trade extends through Colorado and the neighboring States and Territories. He has been continuously in business in Denver since 1873. He started in a small way, but has built up a business that makes him the leading trunk manufacturer of Denver.”

The City of Denver and State of Colorado (1890), p. 124.

The Concentration of Wealth, Its Cause and Cure Plea for the Labor Exchange, 1897: F. W. Gromm, Trunk Manufactory 935 16th St., Next to Curtis St., Denver. Trunks made to order. Repairing promptly done. The oldest trunk house in the state. Established in 1873.
The Business Woman’s Magazine Nov. 1903 p. 83: “F. W. Gromm Trunk Factory 935 16th St.”

Trunks, Leather Goods, and Umbrellas, August 1906, p. 199: F. W. Gromm is now located in his new store on Curtiss street, in Denver, which is said to be one of the finest stores in the West.

Unfortunately, none of the above-listed addresses were for FIFTEENTH ST. in Denver. So more searching was required!

Searching City Directories

The Denver Public Library has the annual Denver city directories beginning in 1873 digitized in a fantastic online database: Denver City Directories. City directories are a great resource for both genealogical research, as well as for historical research on company history. A city directory typically includes an alphabetical list of city residents, providing both the address for their place of employment as well as their home residence. It is then followed by a business directory which listes the city’s businesses, usually by industry. The directories were also published with the support of advertisers, so if you are researching the history of the manufacturer of your steamer trunk, this is a great resource to locate ads created by those companies.

Although Gromm had been in business since 1873, the Yale lock could not have been made prior to 1883, so I began the search of Denver city directories in 1882 (since the publishing of city directories sometimes overlapped a year) and ending in the year 1924 (the year of Frederick W. Gromm’s death). The Denver Public Library’s collection of Denver city directories was incomplete, so I also used Ancestry.com’s city directory collection.

NOTE: This was a time consuming process!! But as a historian, this kind of detail-oriented research is what I love!

Entries in the Denver City Directories for Frederick W. Gromm from 1882-1924 (listing his occupation, followed by his work address, followed by his home address).

  • 1882. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 404 Lawrence, residence 464 Arapahoe.
  • 1883. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 404 Lawrence and 243 16th, r. 464 Arapahoe.
  • 1884. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 267 16th, r. 464 Arapahoe.
  • 1885. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, travelings bags and valises, 267 1th, r. 464 Arapahoe.
  • 1886. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, traveling bags and valises, 267 and 186 16th, r. 464 Arapahoe.
  • 1887. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, traveling bags and valises, 1219 16th, r. 1812 Arapahoe.
  • 1888. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, traveling bags and valises, 1219 and 935 16th, r. 1812 Arapahoe.
  • 1889. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 323 14th.
  • 1890. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 1219 16th, r. 323 14th.
  • 1891. Gromm, F. W., trunk manufacturer, 935 16th, r. 323 14th.
  • 1892. Gromm, F. W., trunks and valises, 1219 16th and 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1893. Gromm, F. W., trunks 1217 16th and 935 16th, r 1655 Downing av.
  • 1894. Gromm, F. W., trunks, 1219 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1895. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1896. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks and traveling bags, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1897. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1898. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1899. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1900. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av.
  • 1901. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1902. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 1655 Downing av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1903. Gromm, Fred. W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 811 E 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1904. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 811 E 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1905. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 811 E 17th av.
  • 1906. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 935 16th, r. 811 E 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1907. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 1517 Curtis, r. 811 17th av.
  • 1908. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 632 15th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1909. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 632 15th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1910. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 632 15th, r 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1911. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks 632 15th, r. 811 17th av.
  • 1912. Gromm, F. W., manufacturer of trunks, bags, and suit cases, 632 15th (Phone Main 1922), r. 811 17th av.
  • 1913. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 632 15th, r. 811 17th av. [available at FamilySearch.org]
  • 1914. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 632 15th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1915. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 632 15th, r. 811 17th av.
  • 1916. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 526 16th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1917. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 526 16th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1918. Gromm, Frederick W., trunks, 526 16th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1919. Gromm, Frederick W., trunk manufacturer, 526 16th, r. 811 17th av. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1920. Gromm, Frederick William, trunk manufacturer, 526 16th, r. 1739 Clarkson.
  • 1921. Gromm, Fred W., trunk manufacturer, 526 16th, r. 1544 Gilpin [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1922. Gromm, Frederick W. (Louise S.), trunks, 526 16th, r. 1544 Gilpin. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1923. Gromm, Fred W. (Louise S.) trunk manufacturer, 526 16th, r. 1544 Gilpin. [available at Ancestry.com]
  • 1924. Gromm, Frederick W. (Louise S.) h 1544 Gilpin [available at Ancestry.com]

Bingo! These city directories helped to narrow down with great specificity the date of my trunk between 1908 and 1915. It also confirmed that the address was indeed 632 15th St., since the label on my trunk was smudged by ink and therefore the”6″ in “632” was unreadable. But by performing such a through compilation of every year, I could also rule out the possibility that there were any other years in which his address was located on 15th St. in Denver.

F. W. Gromm, Trunks and Suit Cases, [smudge]32 FIFTEENTH ST., DENVER – confirmed to be 632 Fifteenth St.
1912 Denver Directory for F. W. Gromm at 632 15th St.

Look for Stylistic Clues

The historic paper trail got me pretty far to help me date my steamer trunk, but what if your steamer trunk doesn’t have any written labels to serve as clues? Take note of the physical materials used on your trunk, and its design and patterns, and try to see if you can locate historic catalogs, which offer drawings or images of trunks on sale throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the catalog Trunks, Leather Goods, and Umbrellas (August 1906) that included F. W. Gromm’s shop, there were numerous high-quality images of all different types and styles of trunks and steamers.

The very first advertisement was for Henry Likly & Co. of Rochester, NY selling an “Ultra Light Weight Steamer” which looks in appearance quite similar to the Gromm steamer trunk I purchased: the shape and size, rivets, metal stripping, leather straps and leather wrapping, etc.

Henry Likly & Co., Rochester, N.Y.

This catalog from 1906 helped to provide a clue that my Gromm steamer trunk was en vogue as a style, which I can now definitely date was manufactured between 1908 and 1915. My ancestor George R. McClellan was long gone from the Gromm business by that date (and also long gone from his family by that date too, learn more about his disappearance at The Disappearance of George McClellan). But what a fun and interesting research project!

Good luck researching your historic steamer trunk! Let me know what historic records helped to clinch your “Eureka!” moment!

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