The Triumph Of The Roller Bag
The world is enjoying a travel boom. The International Air Transport Association expects 7.8 billion passengers to travel in 2036, nearly doubling the 4 billion air travelers who flew in 2017. What is causing the growth in travel?
Growing world trade, low-cost flights, long-range, high-capacity aircraft, on-line booking and aggressive promotion by many destinations, (Game of Thrones tours is only the latest phenomena) are among the reasons. For travelers, there are thousands of lodging choices, including local favorites, leaders like Hilton and Marriott and options like Airbnb. Obviously, rising income helps as well.
But there’s another reason fueling world travel growth—the now-ubiquitous roller bag, a simple invention that changed the world. Walk the streets of London, Madrid, Tokyo or New York, and you’re sure to hear the click-clack of the roller bag. Whether dragged over city streets, pushed down airport moving sidewalks, up subway escalators or thrown unceremoniously into overhead luggage racks, the roller bag is the companion of millions. In 2017, the world luggage market was valued at $19.4 billion dollars, which is expected to rise to $23.1 billion by 2022.
Single-handedly (because that’s all it takes to drag one) the humble roller bag has empowered millions of travelers. Along the way, the roller bag has wheeled away thousands of hotel bellmen and porters, except perhaps in Venice, where even the roller bag must be lifted over the steps of the city’s bridges. The roller bag has also eliminated short taxi jaunts, and emptied aircraft luggage compartments in favor of less expensive and faster access as carry-on luggage.
Ramps, curb cuts, escalators and elevators have made much—but not all—of the world safe for roller bags. I successfully lugged a large roller bag from Atocha Station over Madrid’s cobblestoned streets to the nearby AC Carlton Hotel. There, I encountered three steps down, with no ramp. Suppressing the urge to throw the bag down the steps (no doorman or porter was in sight) I lugged the heavy bag over the steps and dragged it to the elevator.
Every day in central Madrid I encountered literally dozens of people dragging a roller bag. Where did it come from?
The late Bernard Sadow, who died in 2011, is credited with the invention of wheeled luggage. In 1970, Mr. Sadow was traveling in Puerto Rico with his family, lugging two heavy suitcases. At San Juan Airport, he saw a porter use a wheeled luggage rack to effortlessly move other luggage. When he returned home, he feverishly tinkered, attaching wheels to suitcases.
Sadow tried for months to interest stores in carrying his invention, without success. Finally, a Macy’s executive decided to take a chance on the wheeled suitcase. For a brief moment, the rest was history, with Sadow getting United States patent 3,653,474 for "Rolling Luggage" in 1972. But the patent was broken by competitors within a couple of years. Now companies large and small offer their own versions of wheeled luggage.
The idea gained wings in 1987, when Northwest Airlines 747 pilot Bob Platt thought of standing a wheeled suitcase on its side and adding a retractable handle. Originally sold to airline personnel, the “Rollaboard” marked the beginning of the luggage company Travelpro.
Since then, many designers and companies have jumped into the fray. A dizzying variety of roller bags are now available, varying by price, size, hard or soft exteriors, material, and whether they boast built-in shelves, USB ports and a battery for charging phones, tablet stands, built-in laundry bags and so on. And of course, there’s the two or four-wheel question.
The journeys of the roller bag need not take it to the airport. You can roll one down the street, to the bus stop, the train station, to a college dorm room or from one hotel to another down the street.
The roller bag has liberated millions of travelers, particularly women and older people, from being slaves of heavy luggage. But who doesn’t appreciate an ultralight roller-bag, like these ten models that each weigh under five pounds?
Late at night in Bilbao, Spain, I watched a young woman intently window-shop, staring at a display of roller luggage. Was she dreaming of a new bag and the freedom of travel it can bring with it? After all, when we say someone has “baggage” weighing them down, the image conjured is not that of a lightweight roller bag.
It’s often said we sent a man to a moon in 1969 before we put wheels on luggage. The barrier may have been social acceptance. Lugging heavy suitcases was seen as “man’s work.”
So what took so long for such a simple concept to take hold? “Men will never accept suitcases with wheels,” Sadow was told, as doors were slammed in his face. “It was a very macho thing,” Sadow said. The triumph of the roller bag may have put an end to that notion for good.