Before Her Time: Anita Willets-Burnham’s Rolling Suitcase

Anita publicity shot with suitcase and cape

Anita Willets-Burnham wearing her trademark cape and pith helmet and rolling her homemade rolling trunk.

Luggage has always been synonymous with travel, and no Winnetkan knew travel quite like Anita Willets-Burnham. The artist and former resident of the Log House now located in the Crow Island Woods led her family of six on two world tours on a serious budget. Forty years before the first patent for rolling luggage was filed, Anita Willets-Burnham was rolling her own suitcase all around the world!

Winnetka’s Burnham family constructed and carried rolling suitcases with telescoping handles to ease the burden of transporting their luggage between the many shipping ports, train stations, and housing of all types they had arranged during their travels through dozens of countries. This sounds like common sense today, but in 1928, the sight of a woman and her children rolling their own suitcases through the street would have been quite the oddity.


Anita Willets-Burnham, illustration from Round the World on a Penny, page 109

The Burnham family traveled first from 1921-1922 and a second time from 1928-1930. While travel for travel’s sake was accessible to many Americans and had been for some time, this type of long-distance, extended travel was still mainly relegated to wealthy travelers, who could afford to bring their own servants and to tip the many railway porters and hotel bellhops who helped manage the bulky trunks and suitcases of pre-aviation travel.

“Why be a human truck horse?” Anita asked before the Burnham’s 1928 trip, sparking her “grand idea.” “Wheels! Suitcase on Wheels!” she wrote in her book ‘Round the World on a Penny, her illustrated travelogue originally published in 1933 (available at the Winnetka Public Library). Her suitcase was fashioned by her son Bud with two wheels from an old baby carriage on one end and a telescoping wooden handle on the other.

“Force of habit and sense of humor made it work beautifully,” she noted, a sentiment familiar to travelers lugging their rolling bags through streets and airports today. The telescoping handle, so common in today’s luggage, was an innovation that would not be patented until 1987, when air travel and the term “carry-on luggage” became a standard term in the American lexicon.

Generally, Bernard D. Sadow is credited with the invention of the rolling suitcase after he patented the idea in 1970.  His design featured four wheels along the bottom of a suitcase with a pulling strap. Sadow’s attempt was the first to catch on with travelers. Then in 1987, Robert Plath “invented” the Rollaboard™, the suitcase with telescoping handle and wheels that is widely used today.

As Sadow experienced when approaching Macy’s, one of the barriers to marketing rolling luggage to stores was its marketability to men, who presumably would be too manly to cart around a rolling suitcase.1 The Burnham family found that to be the case, when Alfred Burnham, the family patriarch, “balked, preferring to carry his own good looking, ‘ton-o-bricks.’” “Casting a superior eye upon us, he said, ‘Lord sakes, Mother! Wheels on your suitcases and wheels in your heads!’”

After her second trip, Anita Willets-Burnham toured around the country, lecturing about art and travel and promoting her book, always with her rolling luggage in tow. Perhaps if she had patented, and then marketed, her invention as effectively at Mr. Plath did some 60 years later, the Rollaboard might have been the Burnham Rolla’round!

Anita Willets-Burnham's suitcase, WHS Object ID 2005.26.576

Anita Willets-Burnham’s 1927 suitcase, WHS Object ID 2005.26.576


Wheels attached to Anita Willets-Burnham’s suitcase from 1927, WHS Object ID 2005.26.576

Bernard Sadow's 1970 Rolling Luggage idea, Patent US3653474

Bernard Sadow’s 1970 Rolling Luggage concept, Patent US3653474 (courtesy of Google Patents)

Richard V. Plath's 1989 rollaboard, Patent US4995487

Richard V. Plath’s 1989 Rollaboard, Patent US4995487 (courtesy of Google Patents)

Tags: , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Before Her Time: Anita Willets-Burnham’s Rolling Suitcase”

  1. May 13, 2020 at 8:41 PM #

    Our nonprofit group, Northwest Indiana Community Art Association, would like to use either one of Anita Willets Burnham’s photographs of her artwork or a photo from her book in a booklet that tells about our programs for the 2020-2021 year. Ellie Carson will present a lecture on Burnham to our group in April, 2021. We would like to give the photo proper credit but have been unable to find such a photo in the public domain. Would you be able to send us this information.
    My phone number is 219-923-0517 if you have any questions.

  2. May 18, 2020 at 10:50 PM #

    Hi Joan – thank you for reaching out! I will contact you via email to discuss further.

  3. January 16, 2022 at 4:51 PM #

    I love this story!!! I’ve been traveling the world with my children and feel accompanied by Anita.

  4. Johnny Mnemonic May 26, 2023 at 1:00 PM #

    “Forty years before the first patent for rolling luggage was filed, Anita Willets-Burnham was rolling her own suitcase all around the world!”

    How could it be patented when she had already invented it?

  5. May 29, 2023 at 2:20 PM #

    She never patented it.

  6. February 12, 2024 at 10:59 AM #

    I think that’s Johnny’s point. If the idea is already in the public domain, how can it be novel – and so how can it be patented?
    Obviously – it was, so Johnny’s (and my) knowledge of the patenting process is superficially flaky. But if you knew how it worked – that would be interesting.

Leave a Reply