Trunk Treasure: Modern technology holds the key to antique trunk restoration

I must confess my trunk adventure was unplanned. It began with a yellow rummage sale sign at my old neighbor’s place. I was in the neighborhood and wanted to stop in to say hello before I left. When I saw the trunk on the lawn, it was project at first sight.

While my friend was busy with a customer, I was drawn to examine the late 1800s camelback trunk.

Though in a condition that many would pass by without a second thought, the craftsmanship and potential of this camel-back trunk was apparent to its new owner. Photo courtesy Tracy L. Schmidt.

While it was barn-fresh in dirt, rust and musty stench, that didn’t stop me from opening the lid. What the inside revealed was indeed a treasure. Almost all of the original elements were in great condition.

The lids were present and their colors rich; the tray was intact and still attached. However, the outside was a bit different situation, as there were two non-period replacement hinges and no key. However, the large size of 37 inches wide by 21 inches deep and 30 inches high and the good condition of the alligator-patterned tin caught my fancy.

Its fancy trim and compartments – to my estimation – made it of Saratoga grade (the largest, fanciest trunks made at the time). I mulled it over for about two seconds: Did I want to restore this trunk? Should I leave it as it was? Would it haunt me as a regret if I walked out the driveway without it?

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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Even with broken leather strap handles and a rusted lock without a key, this trunk shows enough potential to warrant restoration.

I knew the answer to the final question was yes so I bought the trunk knowing that the answer to the first two questions would reveal the truth when I cleaned it up.

As I hauled out the Murphy’s Oil Soap and scrubbed the oak slats, washed off the grime and rust with a soft toothbrush, my brain began to collect the clues. I saw the remnants of the original copper paint. I saw the craftsmanship that someone else put into making the trunk. I saw the name written in pencil and stamped all over the inside (Robert T. Schneider) and I could not help but be inspired: I had a new project.

Camel-back trunks came into popularity in the 1870s. Interestingly, the trunk’s rounded-dome design was borne out of utility, not out of aesthetics. Makers created the design to prevent trunks from winding up at the bottom of the baggage pile when their owners were traveling.

Large trunks with multiple compartments and elaborate hardware were used by their wealthy owners to transport hats, dresses and other garb of the time. There was often a large compartment for hats in the trunk. The inner scenes on a trunk were not gender specific. A masculine alligator–tinned trunk might have included elaborate pastoral scenes inside.

Camelback trunks were primarily bought as-is without being made specifically to order. After seeing this trunk, I am confident there may have been exceptions.

antique trunk rusted lock

Even with broken leather strap handles and a rusted lock without a key, this trunk shows enough potential to warrant restoration.

The day after purchasing the trunk, I began by removing the old paper from the inside using a mix of fabric softener and water. I sprayed and scraped the bottom of the trunk, then the wooden elements of the tray and lid.

Several days later, I went back to my trunk, sanded it down and wiped out the dust. Those hot summer days with safety glasses and a Niosh mask are always a challenge to work through, but my vision of the completed trunk kept me going.

I sealed the sanded wood with polyurethane, then closed the lid and began the restoration work on the outside. I sanded the oak slats and stained them. I sealed the metal with rust preventer; the fumes are really bad with this stuff, so it was back to the mask and safety glasses to accomplish this task.

Diligent scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap revealed the beautiful condition of the oak slats.

Finally, I arrived at the fun part of the project: reconstruction. I decided to use original colors so I painted the body black, the alligator-patterned elements copper and every single hardware element was detailed with a child’s art paintbrush and Testor’s model paint in silver chrome.

The outside was completed. I was happy to take a break and look for wallpaper to finish the inside. I also was able to locate replacement handles online.

One night a few weeks later, while I was doing my usual online auction rounds, it came to me: What if I could find a key for this trunk?

Locally that would never happen, but maybe, just maybe, online I could find one. I came across a seller on eBay. He explained that many old locks have the key numbers on the housing; if a person could find that number, the odds improved for finding a key that would work in the lock. There were no guarantees given, but there was a chance.

The restored, heirloom-quality camelback trunk.

I tried two keys out. The first time I tried what should have been the correct key it didn’t work. I decided that I would go back and try it one more time after the next key didn’t work. The key went in and I twisted it a little harder. The mechanism turned over and the trunk locked!

I was just thrilled that it worked. How amazing is it that this old late 1800s trunk and key were united through the technology of today? In the past, the odds of solving this dilemma would have been obsolete.

My quest for the key led me in turn to the trunk’s final treasure. While searching for a lock number, I happened to notice something reflecting in the light. A single word written in the same hand as the gentleman’s name appears on the inside cover of one of the trunk’s tray compartments.

The motifs on the lids of this trunk are all pastoral and family-related. There are two lovely young girls with a dog and a woman doing needlework in a chair. The word “believe” was written on the panel with the woman. It is as if this man left a message for his wife to believe in the promise depicted in the scenes on the trunk as she set out on her journey.

Outside view of the beautifully restored, fully functional 1800s camel-back trunk.

I hope this trunk brought them together in their life journey and I hope this restored trunk lasts well into the future. I know for sure the journey this trunk shared with me is invaluable. The relationship that inspired this trunk, the journey through the centuries to reunite its purpose . . . I believe.

Tracy L. Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Publishing & Creative Services, LLC,  is a freelance author, editor and indexer. She has more than 14 years experience in the field of antiques and collectibles and is currently working as an auction cataloger. Tracy may be reached at tleaschmidt[at]

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