A short history of hotel luggage labels- 1 Origins and the early types (1850-1900)

by Joao-Manuel Mimoso

Beginning an essay on a subject of indeterminate origin is a tricky business. I will, quite arbitrarily, begin this tale in 1851 -year of the Crystal Palace Exhibition which, to some authors, marks the origin of tourism as we know it. By this time hotel owners were in the habit of ordering a copper plate engraving with an image of their establishment which was then used to illustrate a number of paper items (such as trade-cards, bills and letters) that were needed for the running of their business. The card at right, for a French hotel in Marseilles, dates from about this time.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most creative and graphically appealing hotel trade-cards of the time did not come from old bastions of European tourism like France, Italy or Switzerland, nor from the United States where the concept of the Grand Hotel may arguably be said to have its roots, but from Belgium. Around 1839 a new technology had been developed in Brussels by which it was possible to produce prints of a very high quality on a treated stock that, after hand polishing, had a china-like gloss whence its French name "cartes porcelaine" ("china-cards").
This type of card became the rage of the day in this part of Europe and soon every business owner was ordering his own trade-card, often printed in black but at times also using gold, rose, green or blue. The geographic area of production of these "china-cards" spread to include the whole of Belgium, Holland, NW Germany and several print-shops in England. Unfortunately the white polishable compound was lead based and, in time, it was recognized that it poisoned the laborers. After 1865 the "china-card" had all but disappeared from its country of origin.
At the time of their demise, the "china-card" had left this part of Europe with a tradition of hotel publicity ephemera that often exhibited (as does the example at right) all the characteristics that luggage labels would one day have: a view of the hotel building encircled by a colored frame bearing the name of the establishment, that of its owner and the address. The Belgians did not invent the trade card, which is actually much older than Belgium itself, but they experimented in new graphic solutions and had a definite role in the establishment of what would be the XIX century hotel luggage label graphic standards.
Now, we all know that people like to keep souvenirs of their travels. At the second half of the XIX century travel was not for the masses, as it would be a century later, and the lucky few would like to show to the world a mark of places visited and difficulties overcome. Just like the backpackers of today who emblazon their knapsacks with badges of places visited, so must the travelers of old have decorated their luggage with local mementos including the names or images of the hotels where they stayed. Actually the suggestion was already there because luggage dispatched by ship or train would be labeled with the name of the port or station for where it was bound (as can be seen in several of Tissot's travel related paintings) and he who had a well labeled trunk was a man of means and, possibly, of adventure.
When was printed the first hotel luggage label? No one knows and possibly no one ever will! A study of old travel scrapbooks shows that in the 1880s people used to make passable hotel labels out of cut letterheads and other printed paper items that included the image (or then just the name) of the hotel. Some of these make-believe labels are not distinguishable from authentic labels of the time and one can actually argue that they must indeed be considered true labels since that was the intention of the post-processing to which they were subjected. Very often this cutting and adapting of other printed ephemera was likely done by the hotel personnel, so as to be able to satisfy the requests of patrons who wanted pasteable souvenirs of the establishment. The example at right was made by stamping the name of the hotel on a plain print of the building made for a different purpose.
The oldest true label in my collection is for the Grand Hotel de Dunkerque in Brussels and can be dated to the period from 1873 (when the hotel reopened in the buildings of the Leopold Baths) to 1877 (date after which, neither the hotel, nor its owner are mentioned in Belgian almanacs). The image of the hotel building is similar to the images found in the Belgian "china-cards" of a few years before (down to the characteristic miniaturization of people and vehicles) but it is printed on a very light stock and the corners have been cut off to avoid the ripping of the label when the luggage rubbed against other objects. I acquired this label for the equivalent to $1 in a bookshop in Lisbon, where it was found folded in half amidst a bunch of old travel papers, and am thus sure that it has not been meddled with in modern times. It must be one of the very earliest examples of luggage labels and given the history of "china-cards" it is only fitting that this was printed for a hotel in Brussels.
The earliest firsthand report on hotel luggage labels that I know of, is a reference to a long trip in the French and Italian Rivieras, in the winter of 1885-86, during which a traveler's luggage was labeled at the Hotel Royal in San Remo and nowhere else. Yet, this bit of information should not be misinterpreted: the fact that labels were not affixed at other hotels means only that porters were not yet generally instructed to label a guest's luggage. The conclusion that other local hotels did not, at the time, have luggage labels is not supported by the data available. In the 1880s hotel luggage labels were, in fact, used in at least Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, France, Ireland, England, Italy and Spain and both this wide range of countries and the fact that labels had, by then, evolved graphically in a specific way prove that they were not a very recent affair.
By the mid 1880s three main graphic types had developed, all of them based in much earlier trade-card types. The most common and representative early type of hotel label depicted a line drawing of the building printed in black on white or colored paper, as in the label for the Hotel Clerc, at right above.. During the 1880s this type of label started incorporating a lithographically printed red frame and assumed the general aspect that (with varying colors and modernized settings) would subsist well into the XX century. The earliest elliptical red-framed label in my collection was printed in Germany and is reproduced at right.
Another recurrent type of hotel luggage label had only lettering and eventually some geometrical decoration and it too derives graphically from a common solution in trade cards. By the 1880s such labels were being lithographed in two colors and one particular type using a frame in the shape of a buckled belt would also become a characteristic and lasting design. The "belt-labels" were used in many products and the origin of the idea to adapt it for hotel use is a mystery but the earliest example I know is illustrated at right, dates from the mid 1880s and comes from Germany.
A third type of hotel label that was in use by the mid 1880s (for instance by the aforementioned Hotel Royal in San Remo) represents the hotel symbolically by a coat of arms. Such "heraldic" labels seem to have been the last to have come into play but can in fact trace their ancestry to the medieval road signs that identified an inn by some graphical indication through which an illiterate person could "read" the name of the establishment ( the London "Swan With Two Necks", for instance, would have a sign -and a card- showing a double headed swan).

During the 1890s the graphics of labels evolved little but their appeal was notoriously increased by the use of glossy finishes, a wider palette and, at times, three and more simultaneous colors to a label, including golden shades. By the end of the XIX century practically all hotels, large or small, that were listed in traveler's guides could emblazon the luggage of guests with their labels. But the winds of change were a-blowing: a new, fresh, universal style had made its appearance and Art Nouveau graphics would soon be seen in all kinds of paper items, including hotel labels. Posters, on the other side, were covering the walls of towns and soon a family tie would be established between them and hotel labels that would radically change the appearance of the latter and mark the onset of their Golden Age...

Read Part 2 of this text by clicking here.

Lisbon, Portugal

  • first uploaded: Nov23, 2002
  • last reviewed: Jan 01, 2003