The Samsonite Corp., which produces Samsonite luggage, began in Colorado in March of 1910 as the Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company. Owner and operator Jesse Shwayder began the company with $3500 of his own money.
The first year of business took most of his $3500 in seed money. He borrowed money to keep going, and soon the company began to be profitable. His brother Maurice joined the company in 1912, and both brothers travelled through the region to help boost sales and keep the business afloat. A few years later, brother Sol also joined the company, with brothers Ben and Mark coming on board in 1923.
Soon, specialization ensued, with Mark working on sales, Ben and Maurice focusing on the manufacturing process, and Sol functioning as company attorney. In 1912, the Company incorporated and moved to larger offices that same year. In 1917, they sold $76,000 worth of luggage every year throughout the Western United States. Mail order soon began to allow people throughout the country to order this high quality, sturdy luggage.
A brand that means “quality and durability”
The Shwayder Brothers first call their product “Samson” after the biblical character of the same name. The suitcases indeed were very durable and could take a lot of knocking about. In 1916, the brothers took a picture that would become the face of the product; the four brothers and their father stood on a plank that was positioned on top of one of the suitcases, a total weight of more than 1000 pounds. The caption read, “Strong enough to stand on.” This memorable picture was instrumental with direct mail advertising and promotion for the next several years.
The Shwayder brothers produced their first nationally advertised suitcase in 1918. It was advertised in the window of Macy’s department store with a half a ton of sugar resting on top.
By 1924, Shwayder Trunk revenues were more than $300,000 a year. Their manufacturing facilities eventually expanded to include more than 500,000 square feet of space. By the late 1920s, revenues were more than $1 million a year.
The 1929 stock market crash caused Shwayder Trunk’s sales to decrease by more than 50%, but ingeniously, the brothers managed to ride out the storm by manufacturing other products. The Shwayder Trunk Company therefore became known as Shwayder Brothers, Inc. to reflect the diversification.
By the 1930s, Samsonite luggage sales had rebounded and the Shwayders continued to improve on existing lens designs and also to invent new products. Samsonite luggage featured very strong handles, with rayon linings, wood frame construction, secure locks, and fiber finishes. In fact, Shwayder Trunk had developed its own covering for Samson suitcases that would withstand rough handling and be tough enough to deserve the name.
In 1939, the Samsonite suitcase was born when Jesse gave their latest unique design that name. Its tapered shape, leather binding and vulcanized fibre covering became the standard for the industry.
In the 1940s and again during the 1950s after the Korean War, the Shwayder brothers briefly converted their factories to produce for materials and then resumed selling Samsonite luggage after, selling more than $7 million worth of products in their first postwar year of 1946. They were also able to take all the manufacturing knowledge they had learned during the war years and apply it to production methods for their own products, so that they not only had precise and therefore less expensive manufacturing methods, but also knew of synthetic materials that could be used for their own products. Their first “ultralight” luggage was produced in 1956, which used magnesium and injection moulded plastic instead of wood frame construction. By the 1960s, they were also producing products like up scale folding furniture and had introduced the popular toy Legos.
By the 1960s, Jesse Shwayder’s son, King, was guiding the company and continued to make it a name to be known in moulded luggage and attaché cases. It also expanded worldwide into countries like Belgium, France, Germany, Belgium, Mexico, and the Netherlands.
In the 1970s, the Shwayder family relinquished control and ownership of the company, selling to Beatrice Foods in 1973. It had mixed success with that company and eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the early 1990s. However, it quickly rebounded and posted sales of nearly $500 million worldwide.
After its initial absorption, it regained its independence in 1995 when it was again reorganized as a publicly held independent Denver-based Corporation, the Samsonite Corporation.
Today, brands sold from the Samsonite Corporation include Samsonite, American Tourister, Lark, Lacoste small leather goods and bags, and Timberland bags. In July 2007, finance investor CVC Capital Partners acquired Samsonite for $1.7 billion.