The History of the Humble Suitcase

Modern luggage has been constantly reinvented during its short 120-year history

Daniel A. Gross

United stateroom trunk

When Phileas Fogg decides to circle the globe in Around the World in 80 Days , the 1873 novel by Jules Verne, he doesn't take a suitcase. “We'll have no trunks,” he says to his servant Passepartout, “only a carpet bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you. We'll buy our clothes on the way.”

At the time, the suitcase as we know it today hardly existed. In Verne's day, proper travel required a hefty trunk built of wood, leather, and often a heavy iron base. The best trunks were waterproofed with canvas or tree sap, as steamships were a reigning mode of travel. Without this protection, a suitcase in the hold of a heaving, leaky ship would probably have been wet within a few hours, and crushed by sliding trunks within a few more.

When the suitcase finally did catch on at the end of the 19th century, it was quite literally a case for suits. A typical suitcase came equipped with an inner sleeve for storing shirts, and sometimes a little hat box on the side. But even in the early 20th century, the “dress-suit case” was only one of countless styles of container that travelers could buy, from steamer trunks to club bags to Eveready portable wardrobes. These were boom times for the baggage business.

Which, of course, probably seems like an utterly useless fact. Most people care about containers much less than they care about the things containers contain—the pairs of pants, the paperback books, the miniature bottles of shampoo. But the history of the suitcase spans every major transportation revolution since the steamship. And this means that suitcases carry a lot more than spare socks and underwear—they carry in their design a subtle history of human movement.

Pullman porters

It's a good thing Phileas Fogg didn't take a trunk, because dragging one from steamship to railroad to carriage to hot air balloon would have ruined his rapid pace. Trunk-laden travel was becoming increasingly illogical as long-distance transportation grew more common and diverse. Up to that point, tourism had begun a decidedly upper-class phenomenon, and the rich could rely on an army of hired hands to carry luggage. In the 18th century, young European elites on the Grand Tour had often traveled with several servants in a coach filled with trunks and furniture. There wasn't sufficient incentive to revise an inconvenient design while rich travelers simply relied on railway porters and hotel bellhops. (Indeed, when Fogg meets an Indian princess along the way, he buys luggage for her, and the pair is soon carried to their steamship by palanquin—basically a chair with handles that's lifted with human labor—with “their luggage brought up after on a wheelbarrow.”)

But the late 19th century marked a pivot point in the history of transportation: it was the beginning of mass tourism, of travel for travel's sake (as opposed to, say,  pilgrimages to Jerusalem or migration to industrial mill towns.) Humans had long traveled for the sake of curiosity and exploration, of course, but by 1900 or so, hotels in Switzerland were recording millions of overnight stays per year, and a summer day could draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to British beaches. Travel wasn't just for the wealthy anymore.

An early "suit case"

Suitcases began as an afterthought in the luggage and leather goods business, but they soon became the very symbol of travel. An 1897 wholesale price list included the words “suit case” only twice in a 20-page list of luggage types. In a 1907 T. Eaton & Co. catalog, trunks took up a full page while suitcases share a page with club bags and valises. In a 1911 United Company catalog, however, around 40 percent of the advertisements were for suitcases. (It's worth pointing out that these catalogs were from North America, where migration required people—and not just the wealthy—to carry their own belongings far and often).

Early suitcases (usually called “suit cases” or “suit-cases”) were lighter and more portable than trunks, but they were still bulky by today's standards. Leather, wicker or thick rubbery cloth was stretched over a rigid wood or steel frame. Corners were rounded out using brass or leather caps. Such suitcases tended to have roughly the proportions of a hardback book: flattened and easy to carry, with a handle on the long side. Until steamship travel declined during the mid-20th century, many were advertised as waterproof. Lightweight models were often marketed specifically to women.

As trunks went out of style, suitcases took on not just practical but also cultural significance. By the 1920s, suitcases featured in books such as  The Hardy Boys  and such films as  The Woman in the Suitcase , as a literary symbol for both mobility and mystery—perhaps filled with gold, photographs, or simply a stranger's possessions. During the Great Depression, farmers who worked fields away from home were called “suitcase farmers.”

Suitcases still had a ways to go before achieving their present form, though. With the rapid expansion in automobile travel during in the 1920s, and a more gradual expansion of air travel a couple decades later, suitcases found new applications but also new kinds of competition. A 1933 business report written to President Franklin Roosevelt by Hugh S. Johnson, an administrator in the National Recovery Administration, put it this way: “With the increase in the use of automobiles, it has become easy to utilize simple cardboard containers secured at little or no cost, in the back of the automobile in lieu of luggage.” Suitcases, in other words, had to get lighter and cheaper if they wanted to compete. The robust wood, steel, and heavy leather suitcase gave way to cardboard and plastic models that emphasized “modern” materials and convenience.

Think back now to the suitcases you can buy today. Many feature large pieces of rounded hard plastic (a practice which seems to have started  in the 1960s ), or are built with synthetic fabrics stretched over minimalist alloy frames. Zippers have largely replaced clasps, and few suitcases are specifically waterproof. Perhaps most importantly, suitcases come in two distinct sizes—“carry-on” or “check-in”—both of which tend to come with wheels.

Various traveling luggage.

Essentially all these developments came in the last half-century or so, particularly with the onset of mass aviation. Unlike transportation by automobile, which takes a traveler from door to door, a long flight can require half a mile of walking during check-in, layovers, and arrival. And while a ship's hold or luggage car could store large amounts of luggage regardless of shape, an airplane's stowage areas have specific proportions and size limits. The suitcase had to adapt, as a 1970 patent by Bernard Sadow explained:

Whereas formerly luggage would be handled by porters and be loaded or unloaded at points convenient to the street, the large terminals of today, particularly air terminals, have increased the difficulty of baggage handling. Thus, it is often necessary for a passenger to handle his own baggage in an air, rail, or bus terminal. Further, where the passenger does handle his own luggage, he is often required to walk very great distances.

the wheeled suitcase

Sadow's patent, as you might have guessed, was the crucial innovation of the wheeled suitcase. 1970 may seem remarkably recent for such a useful development. (A wheeled trunk was patented in 1887, and a wheeled suitcase in 1945—those initial models simply didn't catch on). We have to remember that aviation had only recently become truly widespread, though: in the two decades before the patent, flights had increased their passenger totals by  ten times , from 17 million in 1949 to 172 million in 1969. That was also the year that set records for the most hijackings in a year, with an astonishing 82—a fact which contributed to increasingly strict baggage checks that funneled passengers through longer lines on the way to centralized security checkpoints.

Luggage design remains tightly linked to aviation. Carry-on luggage (which, by the way, was transformed in 1987 with the wheeled “Rollaboard” bag and its now-ubiquitous collapsible handle) conforms to the dimensions of the airlines with the smallest storage area. When new weight restrictions for checked bags kicked in during the 2000s, meanwhile, practically every luggage manufacturer released new lightweight models to stay competitive. These suitcases tend to be vertical instead of horizontal, because of their wheels, and relatively stout and thick, because of airline restrictions on suitcase dimensions.

There's an irony to the shape of these modern suitcases. They've come a long way from the flat and stackable “dress-suit case,” shaped like a big hardback book. Today's luggage instead fits the rough proportions of a big shoe box—and this gives it almost the same shape as those unwieldy trunks that Phileas Fogg preferred to leave at home. A century of revolution in transportation, in other words, seems to have brought us back to the hefty trunk shape that the first suitcases replaced. Just as we might pack and re-pack our belongings to fit our luggage, we make and re-make our luggage to fit our built world.

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Daniel A. Gross | | READ MORE

Daniel A. Gross is a freelance journalist and public radio producer based in Boston.

Vintage Dancer

1940s Vintage Men’s Bags History

1940s Fashion History · Mens Fashions History

1940s Men’s Bags and Briefcases

Did men carry bags in the 1940s? Yes, but that isn’t to say they were man purses. Men who went to work at an office and needed to transport documents used briefcases — flat leather bags with a zip-top or two straps that bucked over to the side. They had small handles on top to carry them. These designs had changed little since the Victorian era.

1940s Vintage Men’s Bags History, Vintage Dancer

1946 Briefcase Bags

1948 mens briefcase bags and travel bags

1948 Men’s Briefcase Bags and Travel Bags

1943 men's utility bag- for anything

1943 Men’s Utility Bag – For Anything

Men who were traveling for a weekend or carrying items while sporting (hiking, hunting) could use a large soft leather duffel bag. These bags had one long strap to sling over a shoulder or across the body. They had two buckle straps to keep the bag closed, and were small enough to be out of the way yet big enough to carry extra clothes and toiletries.

1943 duffle bags sport bags gym bags hiking bags mens 1940s

1943 Duffel Bags

1944 mens travel or sport bag satchel duffle bag hiking hunting weekend travel

1944 Men’s Travel or Sport Bag

There were also specialty bags such as binocular cases, which had a long shoulder strap that made carrying certain items easier.

1942 binocular bag

1942 Binocular Bag

For such things as keys, a wallet, cigarettes, handkerchief, and other essentials that women used handbags for, men simply carried them in their suit and trouser pockets.

School children, teens, and some collage students used bookbags or briefcases for their needs.

1940s Vintage Men’s Bags History, Vintage Dancer

1946 School Bags

1944 briefcase school bags

1944 Briefcase School Bags

1940s Vintage Men’s Bags History, Vintage Dancer

Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.


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The past on wheels: Moscow's old public transport (PHOTOS)

Moscow a 1954 MTB-82 trolleybus.

Moscow a 1954 MTB-82 trolleybus.


travel case 1940s

Electric trams appeared in Moscow in 1899, but the most popular of the first models was created in 1908. It was the model ‘F’ (‘Fonarny’, “The one with a lantern”), a motor carriage produced in St. Petersburg. The name comes from a special build-up with glass units on the roof. It served to let additional light from the street inside the carriage and was commonly called a ‘lantern’. The chassis of the ‘F’ was wooden with a steel coating. The carriage had no doors and passengers often hopped on and off while it was going through turns at minimum speed. The ‘F’ also operated with a motor engine with several attached modifications and was only taken out of service in Moscow in the 1950s.


travel case 1940s

The ‘RVZ-6’ was a special case: This successful model had spread all over the USSR and was in use for decades, but it was still considered really exotic in Moscow. The reason was that the capital had chosen the ‘Tatra’ trams (see below) instead of this one. The ‘RVZ-6’ was designed in Riga in the Soviet Republic of Latvia. From 1960, its mass production had continued for practically 30 years - the Latvian engineers did everything to update the construction. The ‘RVZ-6’ had a light body made of aluminium sheets riveted together. Also, it had a driving system with pedals, which was quite unusual for trams. As Moscow underestimated this model, it was only used there in 1960-1966 and then, all eight carriages were given to Tashkent in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.

‘Tatra T2’

travel case 1940s

The ‘Tatra’ tram was inspired by a U.S. model and produced from the 1950s in Czechoslovakia under a license. A modified ‘Tatra T2’ first appeared in Moscow in 1959. It was the beginning of a new era in the history of Moscow trams. It was much more convenient than any other Soviet model: the driver had a comfortable seat and the carriage was equipped with resilient wheels, instead of full-metal ones - the ‘Tatra T2’ passed through the streets without making a loud noise. All the carriages of this modification also had an improved winter heating system. On top of that, the recognizable design of the model didn’t resemble any other trams. The ‘Tatra T2’ was taken out of service in 1981 and replaced by the next generation - the ‘Tatra T3’, which wasn’t less successful.


travel case 1940s

The first buses that appeared in Moscow in 1922-1924 were imported from England, but Soviet engineers quickly designed a local model. This was the ‘AMO-4’, named after the AMO plant (“Automobile Society of Moscow”). The name of the model also actually stands for bus chassis and had two body modifications. The second had a fourth door at the back, so it could be turned into an ambulance. The chassis was improved, too: It was made of boards instead of beams and became more flexible, so the bumpy Moscow pavings didn’t wear it out too fast. 


travel case 1940s

In the 1930s, the AMO plant was renamed in honor of Iosif Stalin, so its new common abbreviation was ZIS (‘Zavod imeni Stalina’, “Plant named after Stalin”). After this, engineers designed a new bus called ‘ZIS-8’. It was based on an American bus model, which was significantly altered: the construction was made simpler and the front brakes were made more reliable. Like the ‘AMO-4’, the ‘ZIS-8’ had a small window to display the route number above the windscreen. At the sides of the window there were two lamps showing the color code of the route to make it recognizable from a distance - an idea borrowed from the tram system. The ‘ZIS-8’ had turned out to be convenient and easy to produce, so it was used in other cities of the USSR and even made for export. ZIS then began to design many bus modifications.


travel case 1940s

One of the next greatest hits among Moscow buses was first designed in 1962 at a plant in Likino-Dulyovo, Moscow Region. It was called ‘LiAZ-677’ and was actually used all over the USSR. Appearing in 1967 in Moscow for the first time, the ‘LiAZ-677’ was in operation until the 2000s. This bus had a flexible suspended span based on pneumo cylinders, so people started calling the ‘LiAZ-677’ a ‘lunokhod’ (“lunar rover”). The motor was placed in the front part of the chassis and the exhaust gas pipe went under the floor - this construction solution also heated the compartment. However, as this system got old, it started filling the bus with the smell of the exhaust gas. The ‘LiAZ-677’ is also remembered for its shaky motion and specific sound of its worn parts, which resembled the tinkling of empty bottles.


travel case 1940s

The ‘Ikarus’ buses from Hungary were very popular in the USSR. They started appearing at the end of the 1960s, but only the biggest models were operating in Moscow. One of them was the ‘Ikarus-180’ - the first stretch bus in the Soviet Union. It just had 37 seats, but could carry 169 passengers in total, thanks to its two-section construction. The center of the ‘Ikarus-180’ made the Soviets nickname this model ‘garmoshka’ (“accordion”) or a “vacuum cleaner”. Also, its diesel engine was a sensation on the back of other Soviet buses that had petrol fuel-hungry motors. Later, the ‘Ikarus-180’ became the basis for the improved ‘Ikarus-280’ model.



travel case 1940s

Moscow saw its first trolleybuses in 1933. The model was called ‘LK’ after Lazar Kaganovich, who was the man behind the idea to equip Moscow with electric transport. The first trolleybuse of the capital had a wooden chassis covered with metal. It had two doors that opened manually by the driver and the bus conductor. The ‘LK’ was comfortable for passengers: there were padded seats with heaters and baggage nets. At the same time, the driver’s cab had no heater and the wooden chassis made terrible creaks during motion. In any case, this new type of transport gained a lot of popularity over the years.


travel case 1940s

Appearing in 1939, the ‘YaTB-3’ was the most unusual of Moscow’s trolleybus models, as it was a double-decker. It was the Soviet equivalent of an English model bought for the capital of the USSR in 1937. It fit 100 people inside, but wasn’t easy to operate. All trolleybus cables had to be raised a meter higher and the trolley poles (power collectors) of the usual models often lowered. The ‘YaTB-3’ was uncomfortable for tall passengers, because the ceilings of both decks were very low. Also, it was only possible to ride the second deck sitting down - extra standing passengers could alter the center of gravity, which threatened the steadiness of the bus. The number of these trolleybuses slowly declined until 1953, when they were finally taken out of service for good.    


travel case 1940s

The ‘MTB-82’ first appeared in Moscow in 1946. It was quite different from previous models. For example, it had a universal chassis that could be used as a trolleybus, tram or bus. Its chassis was made of aluminium and covered with the same metal, so it didn’t make any creaks and was considerably lighter in weight. The doors didn’t have to be opened manually, as they had the pneumatic drive. Additionally, all the parts could be repaired easily. The ‘MTB-82’ could carry 100 people like the ‘YaTB-3’ and it also had problems with its size: it was wider than all the other trolleybuses, so the drivers often hit passing vehicles and lampposts.This is why the production of the ‘MTB-82’ was eventually stopped in 1961, but it was in operation until 1972, when it finally was taken out of service. In fact, nowadays, any trolleybus is a part of history - in 2020, Moscow stopped using this type of public transport and, in September of that year, a museum route was opened.

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travel case 1940s

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Miu Miu canvas and leather bucket bag, $2,050

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Miu Miu is one of the buzziest brands in fashion right now, and for spring and summer, the Prada Group label has delivered bags that are perfect for a jaunt to Malibu, Newport Beach or Manhattan Beach. This canvas and leather bucket bag has a front leather lettering logo, adjustable leather handle, a linen lining, gold-tone hardware and leather drawstring closure — all adding to the bag’s charm.

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Celine sunglasses, $440

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Animal prints are everything right now, and the message you’ll send wearing these women’s squarish-frame sunnies from Celine is that you’re fashionable with a slight wild side. Along with Leopard Havana, the sunglasses also come in three subdued color options: light pink, black and white. All come with a crossbody pouch.

Palm Angels PA 4 sneakers, $620

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For Italian fashion brand Palm Angels’ spring and summer collection (pieces generally range from $300 to $4,500), the vibe is once again all about the City of Angels — and for good reason, right? Just check out the new styles of the brand’s PA 4 kicks that feature palm trees stitched on the sides.

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Cult Gaia swimsuit

Cult Gaia’s Celia one-piece swimsuit should be tucked into your luggage for a trip to Palm Springs or St. Barts. The swimsuit, which comes in black and a matcha-looking color called tea, has a high-thigh cut, low back and wired neckline. Sizes range from XXS to XL.

Tumi Extended Trip Expandable 4 Wheeled Packing Case, $950

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Unless you’re flying private, you know how it goes at the luggage pickup: Figuring out which black bag on the conveyor belt is yours. Stand out with this lightweight Tumi suitcase in halogen blue that has a recycled polycarbonate shell, an integrated TSA lock and a dual-compartment zip pocket. You can monogram it as well as buy it in other colors: hunter green, black, navy and red.

Saint Laurent Rive Droite mini speaker, $80

Saint Laurent Rive Droite Lexon Mino Mini Speaker

Instead of earbuds, play the new Beyoncé album poolside, with this portable speaker from French brands Saint Laurent Rive Droite and Lexon. The Mino mini speaker works via Bluetooth and is compact, rechargeable and comes in a bright colors: mustard, Majorelle blue, bright red, fuchsia violet and aqua.

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Marques Harper is a deputy features editor at the Los Angeles Times. He previously covered fashion for the Austin American-Statesman and media and culture for the Roanoke Times. A native of New Jersey, he has a B.A. in English from Rutgers University and an M.S. in digital media management from the University of Southern California.

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U.S. issues travel warning for Israel with Iran attack believed to be imminent and fear Gaza war could spread

By Debora Patta , Tucker Reals

Updated on: April 13, 2024 / 12:38 PM EDT / CBS News

Tel Aviv  — Israel is bracing for a worst-case scenario that U.S. officials believe could materialize within just hours — the possibility of a direct attack on Israeli soil by Iran in retaliation for a strike almost two weeks ago that killed seven Iranian military officers. Iran has vowed to take revenge for Israel killing its commanders, who were hit by an April 1 strike on the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital.

Two U.S. officials told CBS News that a major Iranian attack against Israel was expected as soon as Friday, possibly to include more than 100 drones and dozens of missiles aimed at military targets inside the country. Sources have told CBS News the retaliation could include attacks carried out both by Iranian forces, and proxy groups around the region that it has been funnelling additional arms to for weeks.  

The officials said it would be challenging for the Israelis to defend against an attack of that magnitude, and while they held out the possibility that the Iranians could opt for a smaller-scale attack to avoid a dramatic escalation, their retaliation was believed to be imminent. 

Asked Friday how imminent he believes an attack is, President Biden responded, "I don't want to get into secure information, but my expectation is sooner than later." The president urged Iran not to move forward, saying his message to Tehran was: "Don't."

Tehran has not indicated publicly how or when it will return fire, so it's unclear how far Iran's leaders will go. If they decide to carry out a direct attack on Israel, there's fear it could blow Israel's ongoing war against Iranian ally Hamas up into a much wider regional conflict.

With the Iranian retaliation expected at any time, the U.S. State Department on Thursday warned Americans in Israel not to travel outside major cities, which are better protected from incoming rocket fire by the country's Iron Dome missile defense system. The latest guidance noted that travel by U.S. government employees in Israel could be further restricted with little notice as things develop in the tinderbox region.

"Whoever harms us, we will harm them," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Thursday as he visited troops at an Israel Defense Forces airbase. "We are prepared … both defensively and offensively."

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On Saturday, all U.S. embassies in the Middle East were put on high alert and required to hold emergency action committee meetings. Diplomats in Lebanon and Israel were specifically told not to travel to certain areas within those countries.

Sima Shine, a security expert and former official with Israel's national intelligence agency Mossad, told CBS News it was a dangerous moment for the region, and the "most worried" she has been. She said anxiety over an all-out war was likely just as high "on both sides, in Israel and in Iran."

If Iran does choose to strike Israel directly, it could involve a complex missile and drone attack similar to the one Iranian forces launched against a Saudi oil facility in 2019 .

"They will try to do it on the military or some military asset," Shine predicted. "But the question will be the damage. If there would be many injured people, killed or injured … I think it has the potential for a huge escalation."

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U.S. "really trying to avoid war"

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"This is part of the dialogue that I have with my counterparts within the region, to include the Israeli chief of defense, who I talked to yesterday," said Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., adding that the U.S. military was "doing things not only to prevent a war, but at the same time, one of my primary things is to make sure all the forces in the region are protected."

"My role, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is to plan and prepare," Brown said. "That's one thing we do very well."

Brown's Israeli counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, "completed a comprehensive situational assessment on the readiness of the IDF for all scenarios," Israel's military said Friday. 

"The IDF is very strongly prepared, both offensively and defensively, against any threat," Halevi was quoted as saying in the statement. "The IDF continues to monitor closely what is happening in Iran and different arenas, constantly preparing to deal with existing and potential threats in coordination with the United States Armed Forces." 

The IDF said the visiting U.S. general, Central Command chief Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, was taking part in the IDF's situational assessment.

The dilemma for Iran, said Israeli expert Shine, is to figure out how to deliver its promised response to Israel's attack in Syria, but in a way that does not lead to further escalation. Likewise, Shine said Israel could choose to show restraint when it responds to whatever Iran eventually does.

If either side gets the balance wrong, the consequences for the region, and even the world, could be dire.

Weijia Jiang, David Martin, Margaret Brennan and Olivia Gazis contributed reporting.

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Debora Patta is a CBS News foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg. Since joining CBS News in 2013, she has reported on major stories across Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Edward R. Murrow and Scripps Howard awards are among the many accolades Patta has received for her work.

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EAPA Case 7818: AMVC-Midwest LLC aka Midwest Livestock Systems, LLC (Notice of Determination as to Evasion, April 9, 2024)

WASHINGTON— On April 9, 2024, CBP issued the notice of determination as to evasion for EAPA case 7818 filed by Hog Slat, Inc., against U.S. importer AMVC-Midwest LLC, also known as Midwest Livestock Systems, LLC (Midwest Livestock), for evasion of AD/CVD orders A-570-947 and C-570-948 on steel grating from China.  Specifically, evidence on the record indicates that Midwest Livestock misclassified steel gratings as farrowing crates and gestation pens.  CBP has determined that there is substantial evidence of evasion of AD/CVD duties by Midwest Livestock and, therefore, CBP issued a formal notice of determination as to evasion and has taken enforcement actions.

In light of CBP’s findings, CBP will:

  • CBP will suspend or continue to suspend the entries covered by this investigation, until instructed to liquidate.
  • For those entries previously extended in accordance with Interim Measures, CBP will rate adjust and change those entries to type 03 and continue suspension until instructed to liquidate these entries.
  • CBP will continue to evaluate Midwest Livestock’s continuous bonds in accordance with CBP’s policies.

For additional information on CBP and EAPA, please visit the  EAPA Homepage . If you suspect an importer of duty evasion, CBP encourages you to submit an allegation through our  online portal .

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The suburb of Severnoye Chertanovo: industrialised housing comprised 75% of all Soviet housing stock by 1991.

Moscow's suburbs may look monolithic, but the stories they tell are not

At the end of the 1950s, the Soviet Union began the largest experiment in industrialised housing in history. Owen Hatherley visits three of Moscow’s resulting mikrorayons , where the majority of Muscovites still live today

T he public square just off 60 th Anniversary of October Street in the Moscow suburb of Novye Cheryomushki (“New Cherry Town”) is a very ordinary, if unusually placid, place. Trees, playgrounds, benches, mothers pushing prams and the odd middle-aged boozer circle around a small statue of Lenin . Beyond them, the four-storey apartment blocks look a little worn.

The sense of quiet torpor here is fitting given that Russians call their suburbs “sleeping districts” – not much more than cubicles to come home to at the end of a day’s work. Yet Novye Cheryomushki is certainly one of the more attractive places to sleep, and live, with low-rise buildings, lots of social facilities, and a metro station nearby. It is also the common ancestor of every mikrorayon (“micro-district”) in Moscow; the forefather of nearly every suburb in the capital and far beyond.

For the centre of Novye Cheryomushki bears witness to an extraordinary architectural competition between seven blocks of flats. Each of these seven blocks, built in 1958 at record speed, employs a different prefabricated construction system, usually of concrete panels slotted into place like toy building blocks. Each was assessed on expense and speed of construction, and then one lucky block of flats, codenamed “K7” , was chosen as the winner.

Novye Cheryomushki’s ‘winning’ block, K7, was replicated all over the Soviet Union.

K7’s reward was to be replicated in the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, all across the Soviet Union. Thus began the largest experiment in industrialised housing in history, where homes would become mass-produced commodities like cars, fridges and TVs. Industrialised housing comprised 75% of all Soviet housing stock by 1991 – this is where the overwhelming majority of Muscovites live; not in the Tsarist-Stalinist oligarchgrad within the inner city, nor the hipster enclaves of Chistye Prudy or Gorky Park. These suburbs may look monolithic, but the stories they tell are not.

The programme was necessitated by the housing catastrophe that the Soviet Union faced by the 1950s. The Russian Empire was 80% rural in 1917, but under Stalin the fastest and probably most brutal industrial revolution in history was forced through between 1929 and 1940 . Moscow filled with rural migrants fleeing a famine-ridden countryside to work in the new factories. Many lived in barracks, basements, tents, even trenches. This housing crisis was barely under control when the war compounded the problem, with the Third Reich’s war of extermination against the USSR making millions homeless.

However, attempts to redress this under Stalin were almost whimsical. Grandiose, richly decorated apartment blocks were built lining wide, Haussmannesque boulevards; enormous resources were diverted into skyscraping luxury hotels, or grace-and-favour flats for artists and bureaucrats. The first independent act of Nikita Khrushchev after becoming General Secretary on Stalin’s death was to force through a decree “On Architectural Excess”, demanding industrialised construction rather than bespoke masterpieces as a means of solving the crisis.

The solution began just to the south of Moscow, in the former village of Cheryomushki. Vast neoclassical apartment blocks still line the main roads here – talking about living in one of these Stalin-era apartments , architectural student Konstantin Budarin says “they fulfil my idea of dignity”, with their high ceilings and grandeur. However, the money for the more flamboyant features clearly soon ran out – decorative pilasters stop half-way up or are outlined in brick; grand archways lead to scuzzy courtyards.

Research institutes were introduced around Novye Cheryomushki metro station in the 1960s to try to avoid it becoming a ‘dormitory suburb’.

The contrast between the Stalinist boulevards and the first parts of Novye Cheryomushki is striking. Around Akademicheskaya metro station, the apartment blocks are lower and simpler, and the inbetween spaces are full of fountains and benches rather than afterthoughts behind grand facades. When first built, Novye Cheryomushki also featured an abundance of public space and public buildings: health centres, creches, schools, cinemas, libraries, theatres and clubs.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how huge a social advance this was for Muscovites; not only in the sense of amenities, but also in that a private life was now possible, after three decades where the majority had been living in cramped communal flats, one family to a room or worse.

Initially, each mikrorayon was planned with all of this included, all to equally standard designs. An instant prefabricated community on this scale had not been attempted anywhere in the world, and visitors flocked to see it. Shostakovich composed an operetta titled after the district , satirising Muscovites’ desperate desire to move there; it was adapted into a colour film in 1963. Built in the year of Sputnik, it seemed to suggest the Soviet way of doing things – an egalitarian, centrally planned, mass-production economy – was getting results.

And a certain nostalgia for those days still pervades – we visited on Mayday, when residents were enjoying the day off and public billboards were stuffed with Soviet-nostalgic paraphernalia, or posters for the upcoming Victory Day (though that sort of bombast felt rather incongruous in this easy, sociable space).

The Central Economic Mathematical Institute’s Möbius strip sculpture.

Each mikrorayon was meant to have a factory, an institute or both; the risk that they would become dormitory suburbs was realised early on, and here, at least, it was partially prevented. Around the Novye Cheryomushki metro station are several research institutes, moved or founded here in the 1960s.

Cheryomushki was not just a “sleeping district” but a hub of the USSR’s scientific-military-industrial complex: the centrepiece was the Institute of Scientific Information of Social Sciences Library, the Soviet equivalent of the Library of Congress, reached from the street by a concrete bridge over a (long-since drained) lake. Adjacent is the tower of the Central Economic Mathematical Institute, one of the drivers of the Soviet central planning system – a glass grid by architect Leonid Pavlov with a colourful Möbius strip sculpture set into the middle floors.

The shift of the urban economy from production to speculation has invaded this carefully arranged space in recent years and smashed up its order, with a dozen 30-storey towers with pitched roofs crashing into the open space around, creating a looming, claustrophobic feel; the sense that planning has been abandoned here and it’s everyone for themselves.

Indeed, Moscow’s suburbs have faced extreme levels of “infill” development in the last 10-15 years, with immense towers shoved into the parks and gardens of the mikrorayons, throwing flats into darkness and obliterating the communal amenities. One new tower is even crammed into the small square between the Central Economic Mathematical Institute tower and the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences Library, blocking out its light.

The latter suffered a catastrophic fire in January , described by the head of the Academy of Sciences as the academic equivalent of the Chernobyl disaster. Over a million priceless volumes were damaged. The fire was ascribed to an electrical fault, but given the intensity of development around it, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to suspect foul play. You could easily imagine the original attempts at making this something more than a suburb being erased in a decade or two, as it is turned into a commuter district like any other.

Novye Cheryomushki’s pioneering status makes it a little different from the Soviet norm. That begins a couple of stops south on the metro, at the mikrorayon of Belyayevo , developed from the 1960s onwards. This really is a quintessential “sleeping district”. From hereon, the original notion of self-contained districts with their own identity was watered down as a numbers game took over.

The “winning” square panel at Cheryomushki is extended here into long slabs, tall towers and squat maisonettes – unrelieved by any variation or individuality whatsoever, without an obvious centre, and with relatively sparse social facilities compared to its predecessor.

Green space in the Belyayevo suburb.

Off the main road, where they survive, the green spaces are Belyayevo’s saving grace; enclosing schools , ponds and park benches. This seems like a place where it would be great to be six – there’s loads of free open space and playgrounds to play in – and a boring place to be 16.

Belyayevo has, though, become a minor cause celebre after the Moscow-based Polish architect Kuba Snopek submitted it to Unesco as a potential entry on the World Heritage list , on the basis that most of the “Moscow Conceptualists” – artists and thinkers such as Boris Groys, Dmitri Prigov and Ilya Kabakov – lived and worked here in the 1970s.Their famous 1974 “ Bulldozer Exhibition ”, broken up by police, took place in one of Belyayevo’s empty spaces.

The idea of listing the district is, of course, akin to one of the Conceptualists’ knowing jokes: to argue that the true “hipster” district of Moscow, the real “arts incubator”, was a mundane concrete suburb. Nonetheless, it is still part of the capital with all its draws, its centre reachable easily from the Metro.

Indeed, one of Belyayevo’s resident artists described taking his young son to the historic centre of Moscow for the first time, and getting an unexpected response: “It’s dark and scary here, can we go back to our Belyayevo where everything is green and open?’

Severnoye Chertanovo

There are thousands of Belyayevos, but there is only one Severnoye Chertanovo. You can tell something is different as soon as you get off the metro here; while the stations in Belyayevo and Cheryomushki are as standardised as the housing, Chertanovskaya station is a return to the strange, opulent dreamworld created under Moscow during the Stalin era. Architect Nina Alyoshina’s hall is a moodily-lit expressionist cathedral that speaks of arrival at somewhere special, not of departure to the centre.

Outside, apartment blocks spread around a large lake. Half of these are standardised in the Belyayevo mould, but the other half are mid-rise buildings arching around artificial hills and valleys, connected by glazed skyways. Looking closely, you can see they’re also made of standardised panels, but arranged in such a way to give variety to the buildings; this is the first of the mikrorayons where you can really speak of “architecture” rather than just engineering.

The suburb of Severnoye Chertanovo: ‘You can tell something is different as soon as you get off the metro.’

Photographer Yuri Palmin has lived in Chertanovo for 18 years – first in what he calls the “bad”, standardised blocks ; then in the more prestigious, bespoke blocks opposite. He points out that the area not only looks unlike the other mikrorayons, it has a totally different layout. Rather than the interchangeable units for nuclear families, there are “42 different kinds of single and double-level flats, with winter gardens in the ground floors” within these long complexes .

This was a late attempt under Brezhnev to show that “developed socialism” could have room for different kinds of families and lives: “a sign of hope, a training ground and a lab”. After getting the population out of overcrowded, subdivided communal flats and into purpose-built apartments with their own front doors, the planned economy could finally move from “quantity” to “quality”. Except that this transition never happened on a large scale, and the standardised apartment blocks were being rolled out to the edges of Moscow up until the end of the 1980s.

Chertanovskaya metro station: ‘A return to the opulent dreamworld of the Stalin era’

It is often assumed that standardisation was ended by the capitalist “shock therapy” that was applied to Russia’s planned economy in the early 1990s. Yet new apartment blocks built into the interstices of the mikrorayons since then are still industrialised; still pieced together from concrete panels – albeit with silly decorative roofs to give a shallow impression of individuality. Even the Orthodox church built near the lake in the late 1990s is standardised in its thin, tacky application of old Russian details.

What has changed, however, is two things: space, with communal areas now regarded as parcels of land ripe for development, and speculation, with a vibrant property market in the capital generating fortunes for a few and insecurity for most.

Dominating Severnoye Chertanovo today is a 40-storey monolith called Avenue 77 . According to Palmin, this giant apartment block limits light for many residents here for much more than “a few hours in summer”. It tries to break up its enormous grid of standardised flats via a Koolhaas-like “iconic” shape, but nobody could be seriously fooled; this is form following speculation, an image of public space and equality being crushed by speculation.

In the 1990s, when looking at the apparently interchangeable districts produced by Communism, critics didn’t see, or ignored, the libraries, the childcare centres, the parks and the treatment of housing as a basic and free human right; and instead saw merely those huge, inescapable, interchangeable monoliths – the slabs upon slabs that always strike the casual viewer driving from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport to its centre. These critics argued that this monumental uniformity was the greatest possible indictment of the system: a rigid plan that assumed everyone wanted the same thing, while giving them a mass-produced product that few really desired.

The assumption was that the free market would result in variety, liveliness and complexity. What actually happened was a property boom that took over Russia’s three or four biggest cities, and a grim decline everywhere else.

Dominating Severnoye Chertanovo today is a 40-storey monolith called Avenue 77.

And how did they build for that boom? In Moscow’s city centre, some specially-commissioned edifices speak of the rarefied or outre tastes of the new elite – but in its suburbs, the main change was simply that apartment blocks became bigger, longer and more careless of public space. They were still, though, built via the methods that the newly privatised construction companies had learnt well in the “good old days”.

The ideals of Novye Cheryomushki may have died, but its methods and techniques remain – having managed to make some people very wealthy. Moscow suburbia is not so much the remnants of a great experiment, perhaps, but suburbia like any other suburbia – a place of dreams and boredom, great ideas being implemented and then slowly crushed.

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