Flat Top Trunks: Flat top trunks are just what the name implies; a trunk that is flat (or slightly curved) on top. These trunks were box construction and usually had tray(s), but no extras. These were probably the most common and therefore; usually the least expensive. They came in all sizes, from doll size on up. I have had one that was about 42" in length. (example below)
Dome Top Trunks: As the name implies, this trunk has a dome or curved top. These are often referred to as camel back, round top, hump back or the fancier saratoga/brides trunk. These trunks run the gamut from very plain, to very ornate. These trunks usually had covered compartments in the lid and a tray(s) in the bottom that had various compartments. Many times the tray would house a hat box and a parasol compartment.
Saratoga or Bride trunks were generally larger and more ornate than other dome top trunks. They had many compartments and trays, some having secret areas behind the compartments for valuables. (example below)
Half or Hat Trunks: These trunks come in a variety of styles, but were only about half the size of a regular trunk. These trunks are great to collect or display because they don't take up as much space as its larger counterpart. (example below)
Jenny Lind Trunks: These trunks are easily recognized by their "figure 8", "loaf of bread" shape or their curved keyhole shape. They were generally leather covered with iron bands around them and brass buttons to affix the bands. The more exquisite ones had brass bands, brass buttons, and brass locks along with nicely detailed compartments inside. These trunks were named for the Swedish singer of the same name, Jenny Lind, who made a concert tour in America in the early 1850's and carried trunks of this shape with her. (example below)
Oak Slat Trunks: Unlike most trunks that were built with a secondary wood like pine for the body and a hard wood such as oak for the slats, this trunk's entire body is covered with oak slats. Oak slat trunks were made by only a few U.S. Companies. The most popular oak slat trunk is the Excelsior Trunk. The only patent that I can find related to Oak Slat Trunks was given to Jonathan Smith Eaton of Roxbury, MA who obtained an "Improvement In Trunks" patent on January 7, 1868. It was patent #72988, the object of which was "to construct a trunk in such a manner as to combine great strength and durability, with economy in manufacture, and elegance in external appearance; and the invention consists in covering the frame of a trunk with narrow strips of wood, laid in close proximity to each other, all around it's top and sides." Over a year later on October 26, 1869, Jonathon S Eaton obtained a "Design For Covering Trunks" Design #3,727, which stated his objective was to "produce a cheap imitation of trunk patented by me January 7, 1868. The trunk then patented was covered with strips of wood. This construction makes a very superior trunk, but expensive. Now, as the style is desirable, I have found that a paper covering, in imitation of my patent trunk, would be desirable also." You can follow the links I've created in the patent and design numbers above to view the actual patents in PDF files on "Google". Due to their short production, unique construction and beauty, Oak Slat Trunks are among the rarest and most sought after trunks today. Oak Slat Trunks were also made by a number of trunk makers including Martin Maier, Clinton, and the El Paso Slat Trunk Company. (Some Oak Slat trunk examples below)
Louis Vuitton Trunks: These trunks are named for Louis Vuitton, who started manufacturing trunks in Paris, in 1854. These are high end trunks and usually very high priced. For more information, please check the Louis Vuitton website or one of the dealers that specialize in these trunks. (example below).
Doll Trunks: These trunks were miniature toy versions of the larger trunks being used in the mid to late 1800's and into the 1900's. Doll trunks came in the same shapes as the larger trunks and were also decorated like the larger ones. As with larger trunks, many had ornate trays, compartments, and decorations. (examples below)
Specialty Trunks: Much of the popularity of trunks is the many varied styles. Most of the ones listed above were for general travel or storage, but when other needs arose, trunks were built to fit those needs. Some trunks, such as Taylor trunks, were built for tools or musical instruments and were known to be heavy duty trunks. The front of a Theater trunk opened and revealed drawers, a mirror and extra trays that would have been used for costumes and make-up for theater troupes. Wardrobe trunks generally would have set on end and when opened would have drawers on one side and hanging space on the other. (examples below)
Trunks were made in varying shapes and sizes and from many different materials over the course of hundred's of years. They began as very primitive cases covered in animal hides and improved in both their design and ornamentation in the late 1800's.
With the advent of the railroad and the move to settle the west coupled with worldwide travel via ships, the number and variations of trunk designs changed significantly. Some of these styles are represented below.
Trunk makers became common and often copied each others styles. There were manufacturers who specialized in trunks but most cities had blacksmiths who built trunks as a sideline business.
I like to think of trunks as todays suitcase or overnight bag. People used trunks to store their personal belongings and they basically lived out of them as they traveled.
Trunks like most other things came in varying levels of quality. From the basic flat top trunk to the popular Jenny Lind trunk to the ornate Saratoga or Brides trunk to the rare oak slat or Louis Vuitton trunk.
There are several people who have done extensive research on trunks and their history and they are much more knowledgeable than I am. Check Marvin Miller's web site "This Old Trunk" for information on trunk history and his research. You can also find information in Linda Edelstein and Pat Morse's book "Antique Trunks".