Of course, luggage has existed since people started moving around. For most of history, it was far more common for people to travel on foot or with a pack animal than to have wagons or carts that could sustain the weight of a trunk or chest. So there are only a few traveling chests or even images of traveling chests from Europe before around 1800. Mostly, people used baskets, sacks and bundles, either carrying them on their backs or heads, on sticks, or strapped onto a packsaddle on a horse or donkey.
The direct antecedents of the traveling chest seem to be from China. The leather-covered wooden box in Image 2 is an example of a Chinese travel box — you can see the raised slots where it could be affixed to a pack saddle. You can also see the use of iron as corner reinforcement and in the hardware.
In Europe, travel trunks bore a resemblance to the kinds of chests that were used as storage inside the home. Unlike trunks for travel, though, storage chests were typically made of heavy wood and could be carved or painted rather intricately, features which wouldn't have suited a travel trunk. In a c. 1590 portrait of Anthony Mildmay, for example, we see a chest with a barrel-shaped top and iron straps that suggest it was built to be heartier than a typical storage chest (image 3). Chances are, trunks like this would have served double duty — as luggage when traveling and as storage when at home. Mildmay was relatively well-traveled for the era, having traveled to Antwerp on official business as a Member of Parliament (he would later spend a year in France).
In that era, it was common for trunks to have domed lids like Mildmay's (image 4), since this helped protect them from water damage, but they came in many different shapes and sizes. Diderot and D'Alembert's 1786 edition of the Encyclopédie included an entry on coffretiers-malletiers-bahutiers. Coffretiers, they wrote, were artisans who either were malletiers (makers of traveling trunks, suitcases, etc.) or bahutiers (makers of coffers, caskets and other stationary trunks). In the accompanying engravings (image 5), you can see some of the variety of travel chests already available.
In the 1830s, a provincial young Frenchman named Louis Vuitton traveled — on foot — from his hometown to Paris, more than 400 km away (since he was on foot he probably had only a cloth bag or bundle wrapped around a stick, à la 'hobo'). One of the odd jobs he struck up in Paris was as an apprentice layetier, a kind of manservant who would pack trunks for well-to-do travelers (Seriously, I totally want someone to pack for me. How do I sign up?). Vuitton must have really known how to pack a trunk, because he soon caught the attention of Napoleon III, who hired him to be layetier to his wife, Empress Eugénie.
His tenure and skill in this field gave Vuitton considerable expertise in travelers' needs. In 1854 he opened his own trunk-making firm in Paris. His first trunks were lightweight and airtight, with flat tops to facilitate stacking. They were wooden frames covered in gray "Trianon" canvas.
Louis Vuitton trunks were soon very popular and, like today, oft-copied. The company had to keep changing its signature pattern due to copycats. The trademark brown and beige stripes debuted in 1876; twenty years later, the "Monogram" pattern was unveiled, with that familiar "LV" monogram plus four-lobed flowers 'borrowed' from the Japanese visual culture that was so fashionable in the late-19th century.
By 1913, the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysées in Paris was the largest travel-goods store in the world.
Monsieur Vuitton had founded and developed his brand during one of the most active eras for imperialist expansion, a time when Europeans were traveling more and further than ever before. It was also the first transportation age, when railroads and steamships changed the way people got where they were going — no longer did one's belongings have to fit on a pack-saddle or be light enough to be pulled by horses on a cart. Vuitton's experience as a royal layetier also gave him crucial insight into the pragmatic (and perhaps the romantic) desires of the traveler, and certainly made him an authority on glamor and luxury (After all, Empress Eugénie modeled herself after Marie-Antoinette.) Interestingly, the Goyard company's history is very similar, with François Goyard also moving from the provinces to Paris, apprenticing with a layetier and starting his company just a few years after Vuitton. Right place at the right time.
Last year, Louis Vuitton collaborated on a beautiful coffee table book called Louis Vuitton: 100 Legendary Trunks. It contains an official history of the company, along with some incredible archival photos, of which images 1, 6, 7 and 8 are examples.
Images: 1, 6, 7, 8 Courtesy of Louis Vuitton; 2 Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 Nicholas HIlliard portrait of Anthony Mildmay (c. 1590) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, via Wikipedia; 4 The Bunratty Castle Medieval Collection; 5 Lüder H. Niemeyer and Antiquariaat Langerveld.