The Suitcase With Wheels Turns 40

Travelers around the world today are pulling suitcases with wheels.

ByScott Mayerowitz
October 01, 2010, 5:31 PM

Oct. 4, 2010— -- It seems like such a simple concept, but when Bernard Sadow decided to put wheels on a suitcase 40 years ago, it was a revolutionary idea.

"At this time, there was this macho feeling. Men used to carry luggage for their wives. It was like the natural thing to do, I guess," Sadow said.

Sadow changed all that. Today, every traveler seems to be pulling or pushing a suitcase on wheels. We are used to everybody, from the youngest kids to the elderly, making their way through long airport terminals with bags rolling behind them.

It was more than 40 years ago when Sadow, his wife and two kids were coming back from a vacation in Aruba, changing planes in Puerto Rico.

"I ended up carrying two 27-inch cases, packed to the brim because we had the kids with us. And they were very heavy," Sadow told ABC News.

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As he was lugging the bags across the airport, a man went by with a piece of heavy machinery on skids, skids with wheels under them.

"He was pushing it along effortlessly. I said to my wife, 'That's what we need on luggage, we need wheels,'" Sadow, now 85, recalls.

After the trip, Sadow -- who eventually became president and owner of U.S. Luggage -- went to his Fall River, Mass. factory and started experimenting with wheels.

His first prototype had four steel trunk coasters fitted under a suitcase. A piece of rope was attached so the bag could be dragged. It looked like a dog leash. A few tweaks and he took a model to New York to try and sell it to the big department stores.

"Everybody I took it to, threw me out -- from Sterns, Macy's, A&S, all the major department stores," Sadow said. "They thought I was crazy, pulling a piece of luggage."

Finally, Jerry Levy, a vice president at Macy's, got to see the bag.

"He walked around his office with it," Sadow said. "He had to foresight to realize what it was."

Levy called in Jack Schwartz, the original Macy's buyer who had rejected the bag a few weeks earlier. The order: buy it.

In October of 1970, a mannequin appeared in Macy's, pulling luggage on wheels.

"The people accepted it immediately. They could see what it was doing. It took off. It was terrific," Sadow said.

Suitcases With Wheels are Now the Norm

U.S. Luggage applied for a patent in 1970 and it was approved in 1972. But other luggage makers soon went to court and eventually got the patent broken. It took another 20 years to get rid of the dog-leash style straps and include a retractable handle.

Today, virtually every luggage manufacturer makes a suitcase with wheels, although some do it better than others.

"I think it was a pretty huge change to how people traveled," said Richard Krulik, the current CEO of U.S. Luggage and Briggs & Riley Travelware. "It's made everything much faster-paced and more mobile."

Travelers are now more independent and are able to easily take their bags from a plane to a car to their hotel room without help.

"It's almost strange to imagine luggage that doesn't have wheels," Krulik said.

Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major airline who writes a popular blog about flying, calls the rolling bag "the best thing to happen to travel."

"To me, it's weird not to see somebody not rolling a bag," she said.

There is one catch.

"Because people can manage their bags on wheels, they overstuff them and they can't manage them when they're not rolling them," Poole said. "If they hadn't been able to roll it through the terminal, they probably wouldn't have packed it that heavy."

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