Historical Treasure: Trunks full of dreams

Submitted photoStaying in the family: Trunk collection on display in the Origins exhibit of the Vigo County Historical Museum. 

The Vigo County Historical Museum is preparing to open in the Vigo County History Center at 929 Wabash later this year. The new exhibit “Origins: Our Cultural Heritage” features different cultural groups that immigrated to the area. Items on loan from community members as well as artifacts from the Museum’s collection help tell these stories.

Along with hopes for a prosperous future along the Banks of the Wabash, what else did our ancestors bring with them to Vigo County? How many of us still have items from the ‘old country’ in our homes today?

Maybe a frayed woolen shawl or a copper kettle. Perhaps a family Bible, a set of silver, tools of the family trade, a treasured vase, richly embroidered linens, or a delicate perfume bottle. And what about the trunks they came in?

Our Historical Treasure this week is the Museum trunk collection on display in the Origins exhibit.

At the turn of the 19th century, each steerage passenger was typically allowed 100lbs of baggage for free, and trunks filled with personal possessions accompanied every emigrant on their journey.

Generally constructed of a sturdy wood reinforced with metal corners and strapping, usually covered in leather, trunks had to withstand both oversea and overland crossings.

The Vigo County Historical Museum’s display of immigrant and travel trunks evokes thoughts of hard choices that had to made.

Some emigrants read guide books suggesting what to bring; those coming to join family members may have been given explicit instructions. Many items were obviously very personal; sentimental rather than practical. Even children carried small trunks filled with prized possessions.

The trunks themselves were used as pieces of furniture or for storage once the immigrant journey was over and the homestead established.

Some were plain and purely functional while others were beautifully decorated on the exterior and interior (the museum has examples of both). The trunk later may have doubled as a new bride’s trousseau; or be placed in an attic as a repository for family heirlooms that had become obsolete yet too significant to a family’s story to be discarded.

The immigrant trunks on display at the museum are now empty but looking at them gives you a sense of those who once filled them with the hopes and dreams of life in a new country.

The Vigo County Historical Museum will open at the new History Center at 929 Wabash Avenue this summer. Volunteer applications are now being accepted. Follow Vigo County Historical Society and Museum on Facebook or join the mailing list online at www.vchsmuseum.org to stay up to date on the progress.