When the railway came to Turkey in 1870 it brought with it French train travel terminology: train, gare, perron, chef, locomotive, rail, compartiment, wagon, billet, valise and etiquette, all terms still in use in Turkish today. When I was in legal practice in the 1960s I published studies of tourism economy and law, based mainly on foreign sources.
Among the dry, academic topics I occasionally found light relief in references to hotel labels and emblems that used to be stuck on suitcases. Let me begin by describing them. These luggage decorations bore a picture and sometimes, but not always, had a layer of dry glue on the back. To stick them on required either applying paste from a glass pot, or brushing water over the dry glue. The labels varied in size from 5 to 15 centimetres. Some were circular, but most rectangular. They were hardly ever square.
They always bore the hotl’se name, but not necessarily its picture. Instead there was often a scene from the city where the hotel was situated, or a natural feature associated with it, such as a lake, mountain or sea shore.
I have never come across a photograph on these labels. They were always graphic designs in poster style by an artist. Today not even the most luxurious hotels indulge in this means of advertising. The demise of the hotel luggage label cannot be a question of cost, because luxury hotels continue to distribute free ephemera like cards, brochures, postcards, headed writing paper and envelopes, and menus for their various restaurants. No, it is because luggage labels have gone out of fashion.
In my childhood, in the 1930s, this fashion was enjoying its golden age. Labels flourished on suitcases and hat boxes, the most expensive of which were made of pigskin ranging from light yellow to a pale tobacco brown.
Today leather suitcases are no longer used by even the most aristocratic travellers. The best you can hope to see is a leather briefcase, and even those cost a tidy sum.
Probably travellers no longer wish to stick labels on their expensive luggage. Yet through to the mid-20th century it was possible to see luggage adorned with labels in Istanbul’s luxury hotels (of which there were no more than a handful). In cheap and medium-priced hotels, however, they were a rarity. If a passenger with such a suitcase was not a foreign tourist but a Turk, then you were certainly in the presence of a sophisticated traveller.
When a cartoonist wanted to depict a traveller, he showed someone in knickerbockers carrying a suitcase covered in hotel labels. This type of suitcase was to be found in wealthy homes.
Particularly people who had somehow found the chance to visit Europe but might never get another opportunity would place their well labelled suitcase in a prominent position in their room, as a nostalgic reminder of the luxurious, sophisticated and civilised West.
Curious as to why leather luggage had gone out of fashion, I spoke to my friends Baron and Baroness von Slavik. This interesting couple whose world views represent the 19th century but who travel with all the vigour of the 20th century, told me that first of all leather luggage has become extremely expensive, and so is no longer ordinary but extraordinary. Moreover, leather luggage is extremely heavy. Railway stations no longer have porters to carry heavy luggage from car to train, and when flying weight limits make it impracticable. What is more, luggage is not treated carefully at airports.
To return to the labels, I wondered where and when they were first introduced. The International Hoteliery Association had no idea and there was nothing about this in any books. The only evidence I had was the labels themselves. Although the history of hoteliery in the West, unlike Turkey and the East, can be traced back to the Roman Empire, the modern hotel concept is a product of capitalism and industrialisation. Hotel labels, meanwhile, are closely related to the development of printing techniques and the rise of commercial art.
Colour printing was a primary factor in the birth and development of the poster, and the graphic arts flourished accordingly. Major artists like Toulouse-Lautrec were drawn to the poster partly as a medium which was seen by tens and hundreds of thousands of people rather than by a privileged few, as in the case of an oil painting. Masterpieces of poster art were the result.
Against this background we can roughly place the reign of the luggage label between the 1890s and 1939.The period known as the Belle Epoque, which the West as a whole and France in particular enjoyed to the full, is epitomised by luxury hotels and restaurants with crystal mirrors, manicured parks with orchestras, balls, skating rinks, music halls, operas and garden parties.
This also marked the rise of ‘popular art’, with theatre and opera posters, advertisements for trains and sleeping compartments, department stores, and luxury hotel labels.
The fashion lasted until the Second World War ushered in a new era, in which horse drawn vehicles were replaced by armies of cars, low rise buildings by skyscrapers, tail coats by denim jeans, and violins by electronic instruments. During the war luxury hotels either closed down or served as headquarters for first German and then American and Russian commanding officers, so there was no question of printing labels.
And by the time the war was over the world of leather luggage and hotel labels had been forgotten.The style of the pictures imparts the mood of the period from which they date. For example, one showing the Lido in Venice has the name and picture of the hotel in the background, centre stage being reserved for a fiery sunset, here given precedence over the scene of sunlit canals which one might have expected. Perhaps this is a foretaste of the moonlit nights when the orchestras of Venice made the city ring with exuberant sound.
Luggage labels all reflect a war-free world: peaceful, carefree, tranquil, uneventful, untroubled, and offering entertainment galore. Hotels in winter resorts stand against a white quilt of snow, their shutters and steep roofs radiating warmth.
In summer resorts hotels like small palaces with flowers, blinds and awnings stand on the edge of a blue sea stretching into the distance and dotted with sailing boats. Fashionable cars of the time, tourists in knickerbockers, and porters in green aprons are depicted on the winding roads in front of the hotel. All is in harmony.
There are no sharp points slashing through the sky, no four-lane traffic jams on motorways, no shoving city crowds. Who would want scenes like that preserved on their luggage anyway? Gentle, idyllic scenes are what the traveller wanted and what the artists provided.