The mystery of the suitcase with wheels: how believing that it was 'for girls' delayed its invention decades


  • The wheeled suitcase was invented in 1972 but previous similar ideas did not catch on because they were only aimed at women

  • The writer Katrine Marçal reviews stories of innovation with a feminist perspective

  • Concludes that gender stereotypes retard technological progress

There have been several economists and researchers who, for years, have wondered about the mystery of the suitcase with wheels. Why, if the wheel has been around for millennia and modern suitcases since the end of the 19th century, was it that humans weren't able to put them together until barely fifty years ago?

Katrine Marcal is a Swedish writer and journalist who, researching for her latest book, developed a new theory: wheeled suitcases were not popular before because they were considered a feminine object. A real man could carry his suitcase by the handles and without the need for training wheels to help him.

Marçal, 38, has been studying the relationship between economy and patriarchy. In her first book, 'Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?', she explored the invisibility of women's work in classical economic thought. In 'La madre del ingenio', published last year and recently translated into Spanish, she reviews the history of innovation from a feminist perspective.

Through several examples - the walker, the Teflon pan and even the electric cars— concludes that gender stereotypes delay, sometimes for hundreds of years, technological progress.

THE NEWSPAPER OF SPAIN talk to her by videoconference on her visit to Spain to promote.

QUESTION. How did you discover that the popularization of the suitcase with wheels was delayed for so many years because it was considered feminine?

ANSWER. He had heard about the mystery, how it was possible for us to send a man to the moon before we put wheels on suitcases. I was looking at a bunch of examples, which is what you do when you start writing a book, and I found pictures of women carrying wheeled suitcases long before 1972 [la fecha en la que el inventor 'oficial', el estadounidense Bernard Sadow, registró su patente].

From there, it didn't take too long. There are quotes from Bernard Sadow saying that there was resistance to the product because of its gendered nature. I interviewed some travel journalists of the time and they confirmed it for me. It wasn't difficult, it just amused me to realize that no one had seen it before. This shows that we are not used to looking at innovation from a gender perspective. As soon as you do it you realize things like this.

Q. How had other thinkers solved the mystery? The book cites Nobel laureate in economics Robert Shiller and researcher Nicholas Taleb.

R. Previous explanations spoke of group pressure: if people do not carry suitcases with wheels, nobody wants to be the first. Others have said that we tend to look for solutions to very complex problems, like going to the Moon, and forget about things as simple as putting wheels on suitcases. And there are also those who maintain that not many people traveled by plane until after the 70s, so they assume that the suitcase could only succeed from then on. And I believe that this is partly the case, but that there was also gender resistance.

***

Sadow, the official inventor of the rolling suitcase, was a Massachusetts gentleman who worked as a vice president at US Luggage in the 1970s. By then airports had bellboys who handled luggage for money. One day, returning from a trip, Sadow did not want to look for buttons and loaded himself with his suitcases. He watched a man moving a machine on a wheeled pallet and got his big idea. The patent dates from April 4, 1972.

While writing her book, the Swedish journalist didn't just see old photos of women carrying suitcases on wheels. He also discovered advertising in the British press from the 1940s for a similar product, something like a "portable buttons", aimed essentially at women. "But it was a very niche product and too cheap for English women that did not prosperMarçal writes. "That a product for women could make life easier for men was not an idea the world was ready to conceive at the time."

Others reports on the 'mystery' have collected more versions of the suitcase with wheels before 1972, such as that of a German lady in the 40s, that of another American man in 1947 and that of a Yugoslav painter in the 1950s. But the definitive test for Marçal is the statements of the official inventor.

In one of the few interviews he gave, Sadow said that no department store chain would buy his idea because no man wanted to carry suitcases with wheels.

"At the time, there was a masculine spirit," Sadow said. "Men used to carry their women's luggage. It was… the most natural thing, I guess."

After the wheeled suitcase, Marçal dedicates a chapter to cars. It says that Bertha Benz, Karl Benz's wife, the creator of the first vehicle with a combustion engine, was the first person to make a long trip with her husband's invention, despite the fact that later the belief was installed that women were not trained to drive cars.

From this assumption came the market division by engine type. At the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars not only existed, but accounted for more than a third of the market in Europe and the United States. But due to their characteristics they ended up being 'for girls'.

"Cars that ran on gasoline were unreliable. Difficult to start and very noisy (...) they were virile machines for traveling at full speed, cars that could take you far from home. It was the adventurer's car. And adventure, like we already know, it is for men", writes Marçal. "Soon the idea arose that the electric car was more 'feminine'. It was perceived as the most natural successor to the horse-drawn buggy."

Henry Ford's own wife, Clara Ford, drove an electric car.

"It was a little luxury room on wheels, a motorized lounge where she could welcome her friends while they took a leisurely ride around the city. Clara Ford's vehicle did not have a steering wheel, but she steered the vehicle from behind, using two tillers (...) The car had built-in vases for flowers and space for three ladies to travel comfortably. Charging stations for electric cars soon began to spring up in the business districts of America's big cities so wealthy women could charge their car while they shopped."

The advertising of the electric cars of the time gives a good account of this description made by the author.

***

QUESTION. Is it the fault of the patriarchy that today we do not all drive electric cars?

ANSWER. It was not the main reason. There were problems with the batteries and other aspects. But, ultimately, there were cultural factors that caused it. And one of those factors was sexism: the assumption that a car that was slower, safer and more comfortable was necessarily a car for women. And that if it was for women, men wouldn't want it.

Under this assumption, two markets were created: one for men, gasoline, and another for women, electric. It didn't make much sense, because cars were expensive and families could only afford one.

Q. Did you know about this case before writing the book?

R. I knew that electric cars had been with us for some time. I don't remember how I got into it, but I found it interesting and thought it was strange, because there is so much talk about electric cars now. I thought this story should be more widely known.

Q. What is the perception of electric cars today? Elon Musk has masculinized them, hasn't he?

R. Yes, now they are very masculine. In fact, today more men than women drive electric cars. That's partly because they're so expensive. I also think it has to do with marketing. The Tesla is a very masculine car, it doesn't have room for flowers like before.

Q. The data They tend to point out that women use public transport more than men, who go more by car.

R. Yes, in fact electric cars are proposed as a solution to climate change. And it is clear that they are better than combustion, but what about public transport?

Q. What other inventions might we be missing out on because of gender stereotypes?

A lot of! A very small percentage of the investment goes to women's businesses. I am from Sweden, a country famous for its gender equality policies. But it doesn't matter: when we talk about venture capital investment, in Sweden only 1% go to women. In the UK it's a bit better, but similar. In Europe, all-male teams capture 91% of all investment. Innovation, which is supposed to bring us new things, is completely dominated by men. And that's where we lose ideas like the suitcase with wheels or the electric car. That is why I wanted to write this book.

Q. Tell the case of Aina Wifalk, the Swedish woman who invented the walker. He did not ask for money to finance it because he does not even value that they are going to lend it to him. But instead he talks about the world of influencer, women who are making a big business selling prescription, makeup, clothes...

A. Yes, it is going in the right direction. But equally, men get more than 90% of the money everywhere. In the media there is a lot of talk about female entrepreneurship but it is not transferred to investment.

Women are super powerful as consumers. They influence 80% of consumer decisions. The market should take that into account, but it is still determined to mark gender differences.

Q. She was the wife of the founder of Tefal [Colette Grégoire] the one who had the idea to coat the pans with Teflon, but he who monetized it. How common do you think this is?

R. Yes, and he did very well. This is a typical story in the history of innovation. For a long time women couldn't file patents, they had to do it on behalf of their husbands, so they're literally invisible. You can't find them. In this story, at least we know her.

Q. You don't mention the world of haute cuisine. Did you think of him while writing?

A. Yes. I have a newsletter and wrote about it a few months ago. Cooking has always been seen as a female skill, but haute cuisine is ultra-masculine. It's a good example of how when something scales it tends not to be considered feminine. Because if women do something, they do it naturally, full of love. But when men do it, it becomes technical, qualified and performative.

The problem is that economic logic dictates that if you do something for love, why should you be well paid? And that if it is highly qualified and highly technical, as is the case with haute cuisine, it must be very well paid.

P. Finally, you point out several ideas about the future of work, the arrival of robots and the tasks that they are going to replace. Regarding cleaning robots, she says, for example, "Who would want technology to solve problems that remain invisible when women take care of them for free?"

A. I think that when economists try to analyze which jobs are going to be replaced by machines, there are gender differences. There are a lot of jobs held by women, such as caring or cleaning, which are quite difficult for a machine to replace. That means machines are likely to put more men out of work than women. We don't know, but it's an interesting scenario. And it is something that already happened in the first industrial revolution: it was men, mainly, who were left without work and that created a lot of tensions in society.

We must be aware. What happens if we have to teach thousands of unemployed men to work as caregivers? It will be complicated. We need to think about technology and its impact on the labor market from a gender perspective.

Q. And there is no one doing it?

R. Some economists say "yes, this is going to happen, we see that men could have more unemployment than women". But then they say nothing more about it.

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