Friday, October 10, 2008


Suddenly this afternoon “train cases” popped into my head. I don’t know why, except maybe I got a whiff of Sea Breeze, that sort of witch-hazel astringent. Here are the ingredients: Glycerin, Ethanol/SD Alcohol 40, Camphor, Eugenol, Butylene glycol, Sodium benzoate, FD&C Blue #1, Water, Clove oil, Eucalyptus oil, FD&C (or D&C) Yellow #10, and Peppermint oil. It was my mother’s standby for travel. We five camped in a folding trailer with only a small tank of water welded to the front which my father used for shaving unless it was frozen. (Sometimes we traveled in winter.)

In those days there was no AC, so in summer the windows were all open, and we drove back roads. Probably not that different from travel in early trains, only cinders were missing from our faces and hair. My mother and I rubbed dirt off our faces with Sea Breeze on cotton squares and then packed cotton into our hair brushes and saturated it with Sea Breeze so that when we brushed our hair, it picked up dust. Not only cleaner, but cooler.

We each had our own train case but strangely, I remember her dark green one better than I do my own. In fact, I can’t remember what mine looked like nor exactly what was in it. I Googled to see if that would jog my memory and was staggered. Train cases, which used to be a neat little box with a handle in the top, are now three-story roll-arounds with pull-out sections!

I think I stopped using a train case when backpacks came into fashion. In my bio of Bob Scriver I spent some time discussing the difference between hard-sided boxes and soft bundles, like backpacks, which is what Native Americans used except for parfleches, which were rawhide envelopes something like suitcases. There’s a different psychology between a box and a bundle. A box is a shell, like a house. You can’t tell what’s in it. It is protected. A bundle is more a part of you. It can change shape. It is “gathered up” but still vulnerable. I notice that the newest thing in “wallets” is a hard-sided click-shut sort of clamshell. Is that a reflection of our need to guard money? I remember little bags of silver dollars when I first came to Montana. Weighty. Bulky. These new clamshells only hold bills and checks, flat and smooth.

I must have carried my own lipstick, the memorable Tangee that changed color “to suit one’s complexion” after you put it on. I suppose it must actually have been responding to body temperature. Hairbrush and toothbrush and toothpaste, of course. The lid had a mirror on the inside but I don’t remember looking at myself much -- maybe to apply mascara, the cake kind in a little red box like watercolor paint. Judy Dixon went to Charm School and taught me about that little jar of Mum with a daisy on top. A train case was supposed to be a sign of being grownup, but I seem to remember toys in there. Still, they were a lady thing. Maybe most women kept their hair stuff in there: rollers, curlers, driers. My mother and I never did “do” our hair. Mine was curly anyway and brushed into sausages over a finger until I was nearly in high school. Hers waved nicely and was always just brushed back.

Not only haven’t I thought of a train case for a long time, I can’t remember what ever happened to it. Years ago, even before the present airplane protocol, I began simply dropping the basics into a ziplock bag and throwing that into a gym bag with some rolled clothes. The last time I flew was when I went back to Portland to drive the U-Haul of furniture to Valier. Driving the truck was easier than squashing myself into a passenger seat and barely surviving on 60% of the oxygen needed for life.

Once REAL travel was on ocean liners where “fitted” trunks had a little compartment or drawer for everything, which was possible because people had predictable generic things. “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” One of my favorite sequences in the Harry Potter movies is when the werewolf teacher has resigned and is leaving: all his belongings pack themselves into their proper places where they fit exactly! For airplane travel, a hard train case doesn’t really work unless it fits under your seat. It’s easier to lift and squash something soft overhead.

There’s a very VERY thorough count-down for train cases at
They recommend using a fish-tackle box. Not a bad idea. But the real action seems to be with vintage train cases, either as-is or funked up with paint or decoupage. One advantage of the old ones is that they are sturdier: the new ones tend to have one latch while the old ones had two. The disadvantage is that airport security makes locks problematic. And then there’s the musty smell of old stuff. Unless you always had a supply of Sea Breeze in there and like the methol/camphor/clove/eucalyptus aura.

I asked my cousin if she had a train case when she was young. She said she just took it to Good Will recently. It was part of a set her husband gave her before they were married. She said her mother had one that in her later years she used to stash her art supplies. Such a simple little ubiquitous box, it has gone many places in some of our lives.

Maybe we underestimate these small bits of our “material culture” that shift around as there are major changes in the world. Not just obvious changes like petroleum-based transportation and the way we could carry so much “stuff” with us when it was cheap. But also subtle assumptions about things like gender and families. I remember having a train case, being proud of it, sitting for the weeks of travel with my feet on it, but not where it come from nor where it went.


Whisky Prajer said...

My mother's train case (circa 1960) is one of my most coveted possessions. It now has a new designation: the "book suitcase."

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I love it! A gender-crossover suitcase!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Your "train case" sounds much like what we called a "cosmetic kit". The one that came with the suitcase set that my extended family gave me as a high school graduation present was like a miniature suitcase. Years ago, I converted it to a travel office--holding business-sized envelopes full of bill-paying-related materials and office supplies (stapler, transparent tape, hole punch, stamps, pens & pencils) to allow me to keep bills paid while living in temporary digs while finding a house in a new city (Seattle, Wichita, Panama City FL, Albuquerque) or when I was working away from home, living in apartments (southern CA, northern CA, central CA, Seattle, Pennsylvania).

My late mother's cosmetic kits were taller, with inset divider tray. Mom's "best" one now holds some of her important papers. Both cases reside in my den closet. Who could let such treasures get away?
Cop Car

Chas S. Clifton said...

My mother had a "train case" as part of her luggage when I was a kid, yet we never took a train anywhere.

Now that my wife and I use Amtrak whenever feasible, I can see their usefulness in their original role, if you are traveling all day or overnight.

But meanwhile we have shifted to soft luggage, so she gets by with various zippered pouches tucked into her large bag.

Anonymous said...

I would love to know where I could get a train case again. I use to love the one my mother had but of course, didn't hang onto it. I know exactly what you mean, I don't want a "makeup case" or one with alot of expandable compartment, but just one open hole with maybe elastic pockets along the sides. Ahh the good old days.

Unknown said...

I actually have one for sale on ebay right now, but I have to admit that I won't be sorry if it doesn't sell. I love that old thing!LOL

Train Cases said...

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