the cultural background to the plebeian ‘trunkmaker’





The noun trunkmaker designates one whose business is the making of trunks—trunk denoting a box for carrying clothes and other personal necessaries when travelling.

Because trunks were usually lined with paper or linen, trunkmaker was often employed with allusion to the use of the sheets of unsaleable books for trunk-linings.

Such an allusive use of trunkmaker occurs in the following extract from Laconics: Or, New Maxims of State and Conversation. Relating to the Affairs and Manners of the Present Times. In Three Parts (London: Printed for Thomas Hodgson, 1701)—The True-Born Englishman (1701) is a satirical poem by the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731):

Scandal is a never-failing Vehicle for Dullness. The True-born English Man had died silently among the Grocers and Trunk-makers, if the Libeller had not helped off the Poet.




In Chapter XIII of My Autobiography. Incidental Notes and Personal Recollections, published in The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation (London: R. K. Burt and Co.) of 30th September 1871, the English author and antiquary John Timbs (1801-1875) offered these interesting cultural perspectives with regard to the word trunkmaker—here, bourne denotes the ultimate destination:

I may here relate a circumstance associated with the locality, No. 74, St. Paul’s Churchyard […]. The “Trunkmaker” was a phrase common in the last and present century, as the bourne to which unsaleable books were commonly consigned as waste paper by their unfortunate publishers. Lord Byron, in his “Ravenna Journal,” notes, with caustic humour: “After all, it is but passing from one counter to another, from the bookseller’s to the other tradesman’s—grocer or pastrycook. For my part, I have met with most poetry upon trunks; so that I am apt to consider the trunkmaker as the sexton of authorship.” Now, No. 74, St. Paul’s Churchyard, was the house of business of one of this fraternity, whose pretty daughter was long commemorated in the toast, “All round St. Paul’s, not forgetting the Trunkmaker’s daughter at the corner.” His death was recorded, under the date of the 18th of November, 1750, as “Mr. Henry Nickless, master of the famous Trunkmaker’s shop at the corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, worth twenty thousand pounds.” The Trunkmaker also figures in Hogarth’s print of “Beer.” The first-floor of No. 74, St. Paul’s Churchyard was in 1826 […] the office of the well-known publisher Sir Richard Phillips. The shop continued to be a trunkmaker’s until a recent date.




John Timbs mentioned the following passage from a diary of the English poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)—as published in the Second Volume of Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life (London: John Murray, 1830), by Thomas Moore:

Ravenna, January 4th, 1821.
“I was out of spirits—read the papers—thought what fame was, on reading, in a case of murder, that ‘Mr. Wych, grocer, at Tunbridge, sold some bacon, flour, cheese, and, it is believed, some plums, to some gypsy woman accused. He had on his counter (I quote faithfully) a book, the Life of Pamela, which he was tearing for waste paper, &c. &c. In the cheese was found, &c., and a leaf of Pamela wrapt round the bacon.’ What would Richardson 1, the vainest and luckiest of living authors (i.e. while alive)—he who, with Aaron Hill 2, used to prophesy and chuckle over the presumed fall of Fielding 3 (the prose Homer of human nature) and of Pope 4 (the most beautiful of poets)—what would he have said, could he have traced his pages from their place on the French prince’s toilets (see Boswell’s Johnson 5) to the grocer’s counter and the gipsy-murderess’s bacon!!!
“What would he have said? What can anybody say, save what Solomon said long before us? 6 After all, it is but passing from one counter to another, from the bookseller’s to the other tradesman’s—grocer or pastry-cook. For my part, I have met with most poetry upon trunks; so that I am apt to consider the trunk-maker as the sexton 7 of authorship.”

1 Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was an English novelist. His first novel, Pamela (1740-41), entirely in the form of letters and journals, popularised the epistolary novel; he experimented further with the genre in Clarissa Harlowe (1747-48).

2 Aaron Hill (1685-1750) was an English dramatist and miscellaneous writer; he flattered Richardson by abusing Pope.

3 Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was an English novelist.

4 Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was an English poet.

5 Byron refers to the following footnote in the Third Volume of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Second Edition – London: Printed by Henry Baldwin, for Charles Dilly, 1793), the biography of the English lexicographer and author Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) by James Boswell (1740-1795):

A literary lady has favoured me with a characteristick anecdote of Richardson. One day at his country-house at Northend, where a large company was assembled at dinner, a gentleman who was just returned from Paris, willing to please Mr. Richardson, mentioned to him a very flattering circumstance,—that he had seen his Clarissa lying on the King’s brother’s table. Richardson observing that part of the company were engaged in talking to each other, affected then not to attend to it. But by and by, when there was a general silence, and he thought that the flattery might be fully heard, he addressed himself to the gentleman, ‘I think, Sir, you were saying something about—’ pausing in a high flutter of expectation. The gentleman provoked at his inordinate vanity, resolved not to indulge it, and with an exquisitely sly air of indifference answered, ‘A mere trifle, Sir, not worth repeating.’ The mortification of Richardson was visible, and he did not speak ten words more the whole day.

6 This is a reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes, 1-2:

(King James Version – 1611)
Vanitie of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanitie of vanities, all is vanitie.

7 The noun sexton designates a gravedigger.




John Timbs mentioned Beer Street (1751), by the English painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764); published as a pair with Gin Lane, Beer Street contrasted the health and productivity benefits of beer-drinking with the vice of gin-drinking.

This is the detail from Beer Street that John Timbs mentioned—image: Wikimedia Commons:

detail from Beer Street, by William Hogarth


And this is the description of that detail, from Hogarth Moralized. Being a Complete Edition of Hogarth’s Works (London: S. Hooper, 1768):

On the right, is a city-porter, supposed to have just set down his load, in order, to recruit his spirits with a heartening draught. This load Mr. Hogarth has humorously made to consist of a parcel of books, consigned to Mr. Pastem, the trunk-maker, in St. Paul’s church-yard; as, (on account of their subjects, and, execrable performances) being fit for nothing but waste paper. The books in sight, are in folio, as follow; Lauder, on Milton 8, Modern Tragedies, vol. 12. Hill, on Royal Societies 9, Turnbull, on Ancient Painting 10, and, Politics, vol. 9999.

8 An Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns in his Paradise Lost (1750), by the Scottish literary forger William Lauder (died 1771)

9 A Dissertation on Royal Societies (1750), by the English apothecary, botanist, playwright, actor, novelist and journalist John Hill (circa 1707-1775)

10 A Treatise on Ancient Painting (1740), by the Scottish philosopher and theologian George Turnbull (1698-1748)

3 thoughts on “the cultural background to the plebeian ‘trunkmaker’

  1. This is fascinating – thank you! I found this page while searching for information on the trade of trunk-making, and was unaware of its connotations to those who wrote as a profession.


  2. Thank you for this fascinating information. I stumbled upon it via a strange route.
    I have a forebear, Caleb Swinnock, who was a bookbinder in the 17th century. His name was featured on a copy of a page perhaps, from a pamphlet, which mentions ‘A Guide to Scattered Flocks or, a Closet Companion for such as want the Comfort and Benefit of Church Communion’ … and at the bottom it advertises ‘London, and are to be sold by Caleb Swinnock at the Sign of the Trunk in St Paul’s churchyard, 1684’
    I looked up the Sign of the Trunk thinking it to be a business and although I couldn’t find out anything about the business… I did find this page that I found most interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.