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5 Methods for Cleaning Vintage Suitcases and Deodorizing Old Luggage

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In the Midwest, cute vintage luggage can be a rare score in flea markets and thrift stores, but in Seattle, it’s been easy enough to find that I can be a little picky.  When I’m buying a vintage suitcase for marker storage, I try to only buy luggage that smells nice on the inside. That said, if the piece is exactly what I’m looking for, I don’t mind doing some work cleaning and deodorizing.

Below are some of the techniques that work well for me to start deodorizing and cleaning vintage suitcases, train cases, and other luggage. While I recommend passing on a piece of luggage that reeks of spilled perfume or mustiness, most  vintage luggage is pretty easy to rehab, deodorize, and get clean enough to repurpose for storage or everyday use.

Spoils of a morning at the Goodwill Outlet. I eventually put back all but the best and cleanest vintage suitcases.

Spoils of a morning at the Goodwill Outlet. I eventually put back all but the best and cleanest vintage suitcases.

Since moving into the urban equivalent of a tiny house, I’ve learned to be very, very creative with storage. One of the ways I keep my art supplies handy but neatly organized is by using vintage luggage– especially train cases. Train cases make perfect storage for illustration markers, artists paint storage,  and place to tuck away important papers.

I’m constantly spotting luggage at second-hand shops and flea markets now that I’ve got an eye for it. I’ve even picked up a few at the pop-up flea market at Pike Place Market a few blocks from my apartment in Seattle. When I’m completing a set, the vintage luggage on  Etsy makes it easy to gather the shapes, colors, and sizes I need to perfect a vintage suitcase collection or get the right piece to finish off a suitcase tower end table.

How to Clean and Deodorize vintage luggage

How to Get Rid of a Smell Inside Vintage Suitcases:

I’m a sucker for the perfect color and my favorite vintage luggage brand Skyway Luggage, so I’ve talked myself into hauling home a few pieces of vintage luggage with a lingering odor.

One Late 1970’s model train case had such a heavily perfumed odor that my best friend named it “Blanch” and would greet it by name each time she entered the room where it was airing out.

Method 1: Deodorizing Vintage Luggage with Air + Sunlight 

Sometimes cleaning vintage suitcases of odors is as simple as air and sunlight. If you can, place the suitcase outdoors, open, on a sunny, breezy day in direct sunlight. 

Method 2:  Cleaning a Vintage Suitcase with  Baking Soda 

Baking Soda, lots of it. Below I’ve included a tutorial on deodorizing a suitcase of light scents or lingering odors after cleaning, but if you’ve purchased a second-hand case that has a very strong odor you’ll want to use the baking soda more liberally. There are a few options, depending on how strong the smell of your luggage is:

for “just a little” stinky: place an opened box of baking soda in the case and shut the lid, wait 1 week, remove, and replace with baking soda sachets (instructions below).

for “kinda really” stinky: Every other day for a week, sprinkle baking soda directly onto the interior upholstery of the case, and vacuum it up, before immediately replacing with fresh baking soda. This method helps draw odors out of the upholstery.

for “super strong stink”:  There are a few methods for deeply deodorizing a suitcase with a strong perfumed scent or musty odor. Read on!

Method 3: Cleaning Bad Smells out of Vintage Suitcases:

For older cardboard-style cases and luggage:

First, wipe down the interior upholstery with a moist cloth dipped in water and vinegar mixture. Once dry, fill a pillowcase with unscented kitty litter, tie the pillowcase at the top, and close the suitcase with the kitty litter inside for one week. Repeat as needed.

kitty litter is a messy but effective way to deodorize

kitty litter is a messy but effective way to deodorize the old wood or cardboard cases and trunks. To make it a little easier to clean up, first dump clean litter into a pillow case, then place the pillowcase inside.

 

Cleaning vintage plastic or vinyl-sided suitcases and luggage:

These cases were made to be more resistant to water, so if a case is really dirty or really stinky, I literally wash them with a sprayer and a good scrub brush.

Washing and scrubbing workds for some suitcases

 

Scrub the interior upholstery with a wet cloth dipped in a mixture of water and vinegar mixture. Next, mix a paste of baking soda and water and scrub into the upholstery, let sit for 10-15 minutes, and then rinse out. Allow to dry fully in a well-ventilated area with the case propped open. This process usually works well to completely remove any lingering odors.

A nail brush and vinegar mixture, followed by a baking soda scrub and final rinse can remove stubborn smells.

A nail brush and vinegar mixture, followed by a baking soda scrub and final rinse can remove stubborn smells.

 

To tackle any remaining smells, scroll down to my instructions for easy baking soda sachets to refresh and deodorize luggage.

 

Cleaning a Vintage Suitcase’s Outer Case

Sometimes vintage luggage shows its wear in the form of layers of grime.

If the suitcase is cardboard, cleaning options are limited. Try rubbing a soft eraser (yes, like for pencils) gently over marks, as this will lift some types of surface marks.  After erasing, wipe the cardboard case down.

For plastic and vinyl luggage, you can clean much more aggressively and expect dramatic results.

This grimy vintage hat case needed more than a simple wipedown

This grimy vintage hat case needed more than a simple wipedown

 

For MOST vintage suitcases, wiping down with a damp rag and then vigorously rubbing any remaining marks or stains with a Magic Eraser will remove 90% of marks. The magic eraser does fantastic job cleaning vintage suitcases.

If dirt remains, or the finish has a particularly oily or grimy feel, you can actually do a full scrub down of luggage that has a non-porous exterior.

 

grimy cases may require deep cleaning to salvaves

For a full suitcase cleaning, I use:

Put a bit of the concentrate (full strength) into a dish and dip the nail brush into it:

 

A nailbrush can remove grime around handles hinges and locks

 

Don’t skip the scrubber! Check out how the dirt settles in the texture when examined up close:

The stamped texture of embossed luggage requires a little scrubbing to clean

A soft scrub brush is needed to clean the stamped texture of luggage, that sponges will miss.

 

With luggage fastened shut, begin to scrub the exterior vigorously, adding water and more cleaner as needed.

cleaning an american tourister vintage hat case

 

Deep cleaning suitcases can be oddly satisfying. After you’ve scrubbed all the seams and around the buckles and handles, and rinsed the outside well, open the case to check the interior. If soap has managed to reach inside, you’ll want to rise out the inside of the case as well. Just be sure to dry using the method mentioned above.

 

Its essential to dry the case completely

 

Instructions for DIY baking Soda Sachets for Deodorizing Old Luggage

 

I began making these to deodorize luggage, but they have many more uses than just absorbing musty or overly perfumed odors in vintage cases! These little pockets of baking soda work great for controlling pet-related smells near litter boxes or dog food, curbing shoe-stink in your mudroom, or diaper related smells in nurseries.

Once totally deodorized, vintage luggage can be a great way to stash papers, craft supplies, or toys

Once totally deodorized, vintage luggage can be a great way to stash papers, craft supplies, or toys

 

These were inspired by the Arm and Hammer Stick-On Deodorizers I started seeing in stores. Made for use in nurseries and kitchens, they stick on a flat surface and have a breathable exterior to promote air flow and deodorizing. With a price tag of $2-$4 each and a lot of plastic waste generated by their design, I decided to experiment with how my DIY quart size tea bags tutorial would work when adapted for baking soda deodorizes.

The verdict: they work GREAT. I make these up by the dozen every few months and toss them in the bottom of trash bins, in old sneakers, and the back of my fridge. They’ve been most helpful to me as deodorizers for my vintage luggage collection, which can present a unique challenge when it comes to odor removal.  They are perfect for controlling odors in my studio apartment- where a stink in one living space can quickly overpower the entire apartment.

filters can help keep the case odor free long term

Instructions for making DIY Arm & Hammer Fridge Fresh “Air Filters” for Suitcase Deodorizing

What you’ll need:

Step 1:

Scoop about 1/2 Cup of Baking Soda into the pocket of each filter

I make my own baking soda satchets for deodorizing vintage luggage

 

Step 2.

Hold the open sides together, fold down one side, then the other so that they overlap.  (you can fold the middle down in a small triangle for a little extra protection)

keep this odor absorber in all your old luggage

 

Step 3.

To finish, add a few staples to secure the flap and prevent leaks. If you want, you can also use a sharpie or soft felt tipped marker to make a note on the outside of the package the date that you’ll want to replace the sachet.

fold over edges and staple

 

 

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Teresa

Monday 15th of March 2021

I love the baking soda sachet tip and the tip for writing a change by date but how long do they last?

Also, won’t cat litter leave its own lingering smell? And are they any cat litters you would avoid?

Thank you for sharing all this experience and knowledge. I also agree that suitcases are perfect for storing things in a cramped small apartment.

Lindsayanne Brenner

Monday 15th of March 2021

Hi Theresa, I think how long the baking soda deodorizers lasts depends on how strong of an odor your luggage has. To just keep a suitcase fresh, the baking soda sachet won't need to be changed that often. For getting rid of smells, you might want to swap it out every week or two! If you use kitty litter, definitely go for an unscented variety!

Nancy

Thursday 18th of July 2019

Found your old post about cleaning musty vintage luggage. I've been cleaning my own vintage Skyway luggage that I got for graduation 50 years ago so it can be the new home of my yarn stash. The only thing I'm having trouble with is the latches. I tried mold cleaner then I used naval jelly but it isn't responding like either mold or rust. I also tried very fine steel wool with little success. The latches were originally silver colored and are now covered with black something. Any ideas?

Lindsayanne

Thursday 18th of July 2019

I'm so glad you are able to repurpose such a meaningful gift! I wonder if the discoloration isn't harmless oxidation? You could try painting a mild acid on to see if the finish is improved, or you could just paint the latches. I've had really good luck with high quality metallic paint like the kind used on models - when dry it's very-hard and very durable.