by Richard Davies
Walk up to the reception desk in any hotel today and ask for its luggage label, and you will receive a puzzled expression. Luggage labels, also called baggage labels, are long gone. However they used to be a small but eye-catching part of the so-called golden age of travel from approximately 1900 to the mid-1960s.
We are primarily talking about hotel luggage labels as hotels, particularly the so-called 'Grand Hotels', led the development of these small labels. Hotel chains and many of the world's most notable hotels produced luggage labels, which today remind us that travel wasn't always about budget airlines, overbooked hotels and security line-ups.
Don't think of luggage tags - the small and unremarkable tags where you add your name, address and flight number before boarding a plane. Luggage labels were a form of advertising that hotel staff would apply, using a sticky gum, to the suitcases and trunks of travelers arriving at their establishment. Back in those days, suitcases were rigid affairs, which made it easy for bellhops or concierges to stick on their label.
For the hotel, they were free advertising. For the traveler, they were a badge of honor if you stayed in prestigious hotels or visited fashionable places, or if the suitcase showed you were a seasoned traveler. Is there a more fascinating travel accessory than a well-used classic brown leather suitcase plastered with luggage labels of hotels from Lake Como to Paris?
Once a label had been applied to a suitcase, it was not coming off. Therefore the vintage luggage labels that exist today were never stuck on a trunk or a case. Perhaps the guest asked for extra labels after a particularly good vacation or tipped the bellhop generously in order to obtain a handful of particularly beautiful ones. No matter how the labels survived intact, there is now growing interest in original luggage labels by travel-loving collectors.
Labels fell from favor as soft luggage started to replace rigid suitcases, and as the grand independent hotels were bought up by chains with centralized marketing departments.
Luggage labels from 1900 to the 1960s were closely aligned to the travel posters of that era, even sharing the same designs sometimes. Whereas vintage copies of beautiful travel posters are often now priced at more than $1,000, original luggage labels have remained more affordable. It's possible to buy original hotel luggage labels for anywhere from $5 to several hundred depending on condition, hotel, illustrator, scarcity and style.
There are several important illustrators who contributed immensely to this area of graphic design. Dan Sweeney was an American illustrator who provided artwork for books, posters, magazines and luggage labels for the Hong-Kong & Shanghai Hotel group. Italian graphic artist Mario Borgoni was known for his art nouveau labels and posters.
As well as the Internet, original luggage labels might be found at antique shows, flea markets, car boot sales, and rare bookstores with decent ephemera sections. Be mindful that reproductions do exist and that sticker books of luggage labels are also easy to find.