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Stinky Suitcases

Stinky Suitcases

Banish the musty blues with these can-do tricks to refresh a well-traveled bag.

Lived-In Style

Often when you pick up a vintage suitcase from a flea market or antique store, push open the clamps and open it up, there’s no avoiding it: that signature, this-is-really-old scent. We wouldn’t call it a favorable aroma, but it is unmistakable: that smell that comes from something sitting in an attic or being exposed to water; a combination of mold and mildew and mustiness that wouldn’t be welcome in your home. So, even though you love it, you put that suitcase down and keep walking. But guess what? The suitcase can likely be saved. We asked flea market regulars for their very best tips and tricks to “un-stink” a suitcase, and here’s a baker’s dozen of their tried-and-true tactics to help you salvage that gorgeous antique suitcase to add to your collection.

Stack of vintage suitcases.
Photo: Alex Lukey


1.  Stuff your vintage suitcase with newspaper and leave it for a week or two to get those good, odor-absorbing properties going. Refresh the newspaper every few days if needed.

2. Use coffee beans to get rid of the old, musty smells. Just put a handful or two in, then close up the suitcase for a week or so. You can put the beans in a mesh bag if you prefer. Another option is to pour coffee beans into a clean sock, tie it up, and toss it inside or sprinkle some fresh ground coffee into a metal pie pan and let it sit inside.

3. Activated charcoal has been known to work well. You can buy activated charcoal pre-bagged, or even turn to a few charcoal briquettes (the kind that aren’t infused with lighter fluid) placed in a paper bag with some holes poked in it to eliminate the smell.

4. This is the strangest thing, but it works! Put a slice of white bread in a bowl, then pour enough white vinegar in it to cover the bread. Carefully set it in the suitcase and close it. Leave it for 24 hours, and then remove it. The yeast of the bread combines with the acid of the vinegar to eliminate the smell.

5. Combine a teaspoon of vinegar with two cups of water and pour the mixture into a spray bottle. Spray down the suitcase, then leave it out in the sunshine to dry. Sprinkled baking soda and baby powder can be used for further deodorizing, too.

6. Since kitty litter already has deodorizing properties, a little clean litter sprinkled into a musty suitcase can work wonders.

7. Start on a sunny day and give the suitcase a good wipe-down with a slightly damp cloth with a mix of 40/60 lemon juice and water. Then leave it all day in the sun. In the evening, bring the suitcase in and sprinkle it with dryer scent beads, and leave overnight.

8. Put several fabric softener sheets in the suitcase for a couple weeks—whatever scent you like.

9. Clean out old suitcases with Clorox spray. When the inside has dried, throw in around five dryer sheets and close it up.

10. To really get the stink out, soak a couple of cotton balls in Young Living’s Purification essential oil. Leave the cotton balls in the suitcase until the smell has disappeared and refresh the cotton balls with oil as needed. You can also use lavender or other essential oils you may have.

11. Start by vacuuming the interior of the suitcase, then sponge it down with a weak vinegar and water solution without soaking it. Next, let it sit open outside in the sun—this method takes care of most odors.

12. Wipe the interior with a slightly damp cloth and let it dry. Once it’s dry, sprinkle in a small amount (no more than 1 to 2 tablespoons) of Carpet Fresh, a baking soda-based, odor-eliminating product. Close the lid and shake to distribute. Allow the Carpet Fresh to sit several hours or overnight, then dump it out and vacuum the suitcase interior.

13. Put a large scented candle inside the suitcase and shut the lid. Leave it for about three days, and it takes the smell away every time.

Stack of old suitcases in a vintage style loft.
Photo: Laura Moss

When a Suitcase Isn’t Salvageable
A stinky suitcase with heavy, saturated stains inside is likely one to walk away from at the flea market. Also, if you close the lid and the smell is still incredibly strong, you may need to give up on it—or prepare to try your darndest to eliminate the aroma. If you have tried multiple methods and the smell still isn’t disappearing from your vintage suitcase, consider replacing the fabric lining. Or, if you aren’t planning on using the suitcase for clothing or other soft-goods storage, just use or showcase it with a closed lid. With vintage, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and stinky suitcases are no exception.

WORDS Shelby Deering