The Iowan

Packed With Wisdom

Collector Marvin Miller has a trunkful of expertise about the history
and creation of trunks.

By Stephanie Finnegan

In the musical classic A Star Is Born, Judy Garland sits on the apron of the stage and warbles how she was “born in a trunk, in the Princess Theater, in Pocatello, Idaho.”

That very witty and biographical melody about being nomadic and always on the move could just as easily be applied to collector Marvin Miller. Miller grew up in a traveling military family and moved eight times before he graduated high school in Atlanta, Ga. And quite prophetically, his early trunk-packing days might just have predicted his current status as an expert vintage and antique trunk collector and restorer.

“The moving around actually helped get me interested in antiques at an early age, because while living in Germany, my parents became interested in collecting antique clocks and other items. We would go to large flea markets and shops, and I started learning some about antiques at the age of 10. Then, while in high school, my parents opened their own antiques business in Atlanta. I assisted in many ways, including refinishing, delivering, keeping the shop, and attending auctions,” the knowledgeable collector recalls.

With a pair of parents who were cuckoo for clocks and fervent about furniture, it was no surprise that young Marvin followed suit. He gravitated to collecting easily and enthusiastically: “At the age of 10, I collected marbles, and I wish I still had my collection. Somewhere in all the moves we made, they were lost. While in school, I started playing trumpet and developed an interest in antique musical instruments after buying a rare double-belled althorn, which I still own today. I collected a variety of instruments, including bugles, cornets, and other brass instruments.”

Perhaps because of his personal pedigree of hitting the road time and again, when Miller first encountered an antique trunk, it held an instantaneous allure to him: “I believe the first item I bought myself was a flat-top canvas-covered trunk with wood slats, from about 1900, and I paid about $10 for it. I refinished it and used it as a coffee table. I really didn’t intend to start collecting them, but I did plan to buy more to refinish and sell. But when I started finding more unusual antique trunks, such as a beautiful Jenny Lind style, I was hooked and my collection started to grow.”

Because he had learned to restore and refinish furniture alongside his father, the Indiana-based collector didn’t hesitate to bring home the first trunk and set to work bringing it up to snuff. This ability to repair, combined with his personal, studious nature, allowed him to study and learn about the history of trunk manufacturing in America and in Europe, and permitted him to purchase items that other people would have discarded or dismissed.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in history, and researching the history and development of the trunk industry in the United States has been exciting for me. At first, I simply wanted to find out more about the trunks I bought, but very little information was readily available. So, I have used any way I can to learn more about trunks and the makers, including finding and reading the old trunk catalogs, newspaper articles, ads, and trunk patent files. I’ve learned a great deal about trunks and also more about American history in the process,” Miller explains. “It would take a full chapter to cover this topic, but basically, most early travel trunks were rather small so that they could be carried by horseback or on early stagecoaches. As the railroads spread across the States and more people traveled, the demand for trunks grew; so did the number of trunk companies and the size of trunks. By the 1880s and 1890s, when most people traveled by train, the size of many trunks became very large, including the huge, round-top Saratoga trunks. Small trunks were still being made, but the larger-size trunks were becoming even larger and more popular.”

Celebrityhood and critical darlings of years gone by were also honored in the development of the trunk industry. Beloved Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, who was known as “the Swedish nightingale,” was the inspiration for an entire cottage industry of furniture, clothing, accessories, and trunks: “In the 1850s and ’60s, one very popular-style trunk was made, which we now call the Jenny Lind trunk. Jenny Lind traveled across America from 1850 to 1852, and many items were named for her. By the 1870s, larger round-top and barrel-top trunks were designed, as well as large flat-top styles.”

With the expansion of the United States’ geographical borders, and the rise of manufacturing and technology, the trunk business was equally impacted. “During the late 1800s, many styles, including large dresser trunks, wardrobe trunks, and heavy-duty salesman’s sample trunks, were being made by many companies. Since many new businesses were starting, they needed salesmen to travel across the country, showing their merchandise to store owners and other potential customers,” explains Miller. “The Sample Trunk business became a very large segment of the trunk industry through the early 1900s, and many trunk labels include ‘Sample trunks a specialty.’ These were flat-top trunks, with heavy-duty hardware, made in a variety of sizes, but most were rather large.”

As with most collectibles and antiques, there is a wide range of prices depending mostly on the rarity, style, and condition of the item. Miller, who runs a part-time business restoring, selling, and appraising trunks (www.ThisOldTrunk.com, Marvin@ThisOldTrunk.com), has words of wisdom for folks who want to try their hand at this growing avocation: “While you may have to look around a while to find the right trunk for you, nice, unrestored trunks can still be purchased in the price range of $100 to $200, or less in some cases. If you want a good-quality restored trunk, which has been professionally restored inside and out, the prices usually start at about $600 and up. Expect to pay higher prices for more unusual or rare trunks, of course. Small trunks and toy or doll trunks can also be found with prices starting around $100, but rare and elaborate examples can cost as much as the full-size trunks. I would advise collectors to avoid buying trunks that are in poor condition, have rusted-out metal, or are missing parts, as they can often be difficult and costly to repair. If you know the trunk is very rare and can be restored, then it may still be worth buying. But a trunk in very good, complete condition is usually a much better investment in the long run. ‘Complete’ means that all of the hardware, latches, and locks are present, as well as the interior tray or compartments.”

A former U.S. Air Force finance officer, and a worker in the healthcare finance field for the past 25 years, the expert has a keen eye for the monetary value of a trunk, and advises potential like-minded investors to do their homework before buying. “If you are uncertain about the value of a trunk or the true age and rarity of a trunk, I suggest you get a couple opinions from qualified collectors or restorers,” Miller elaborates. “I’ve heard many stories from folks who have been given a lot of bad information, such as being told a trunk was an authentic Civil War trunk, when, in fact, it had hardware that was patented in the 1880s or later. So, be cautious and check out the information with others or ask the seller for proof or documentation of the age.”

Sometimes a purchase can gain value because of its own personal provenance or history. Miller shares, “Ownership by a well known or famous person will always enhance the value, but those examples are quite rare to find. Other items on a trunk, such as early ship or railroad labels, can make the trunk more interesting and add to the value.”

For collector and connoisseur Marvin Miller, there’s never a stigma about “emotional baggage”: finding just the right trunk and displaying it in his home is a welcome and heartwarming feat. 

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