October 11, 2011

The history and merit of hope chests

Day 284 of Vintage 365


Over the course of human history many everyday items that were once as run-of-the-mill as bread have come and gone. Just stop and ask yourself when the last time you saw someone wearing a sword, polishing their Concord buggy, or filling up a kerosene lamp was? Even more recently things like the telegraph, rotary phone, dial-knob television set, and 8mm video camera have become, to most, just quaint relics of the past.

While the advent of newer, better technology sometimes warrants doing away with certain items (especially if the new version greatly improves our lives), there are others which I firmly believe should not have been so hastily abandoned in a rush towards tomorrow. One such item is the classic hope chest.

As recently as a few decades ago (and especially prior to the twentieth century) it was exceeding common - virtually de rigueur, actually - for all young, unmarried women to put together a trousseau of household items that would serve her well later on in her married life (or, much less commonly, if a woman set up a house on her own, away from the family home).

In use for centuries, the hope chest (also known as a dowry box, or in the UK and Australia, a glory box) was a means by which women could help contribute to the home they'd one day share with their husband.

Started anywhere from when a woman was a young girl up until she came of "marrying age", a hope chest (often a box made from cedar or other wood, but sometimes also a metal trunk or other suitable storage container) would be filled with items such as linens, kitchenware, crockery, sewing notions, bedding, and often clothing.

In many cases at least some of the items that went in a young woman's hope chest were one she had made herself (or which were made for her by her relatives). Often times hope chests included treasured pieces that had been handed down for generations (such as fine china, silverware, and quilts), though it wasn't uncommon for a gal to start her chest from scratch either.

Carrying on the tradition perhaps more recently than most, my own mother brought a lovely cedar hope chest with her when she was married in 1980. While it no longer holds items for the house, she still uses it to this day as a place in which to store treasured mementos from her life (such as artwork by, and letters from, her children).

{Delightful 1940s vintage Lane Hope Chest ad from paul.malon on Flickr. The Lane Hope Chest company used the endearing sweet slogan "The gift that starts the home" in many of their advertisements over the years. Though no longer in business, Lane continued to produce hope chests up until 2001.}

I was fascinated by the idea of having a hope chest as a little girl (and loved listening to my grandmothers share tales of building up their own bridal trousseaus). Though I never formally acquired a chest in which to store items from my adult/married life (indeed, I moved out and started living on my own quite young, so by the time I go married, I'd already furnished and kitted out a small home, thus eliminating the need for a home chest in the traditional sense of its purpose).

I'm by no means alone in this regard. Long gone, for most in the western world, are the days when a woman was pretty much expected to go from her parents house to her husband's home with nary a five minute pause in between. These days many women go onto post secondary education and/or join the workplace, often living on their own, with friends or a partner before settling down (if they so chose to).

Whether you applaud this advance or long for the old-fashioned way, starting a home chest still makes a tremendous amount of sense (regardless of if a young woman uses it to furnish a home all of own or one shared with her boyfriend or husband).

Setting up a home, even with a bare bones number of everyday items can be very expensive (believe me, I've done it completely from scratch three times in life), and having household goods at the ready would be of great help to most people (women or men!) as they're starting out on their adult lives.

Though the use of hope chests has declined significantly from the start of the 1960s onwards, there is absolutely no reason why we need to let this meaningful, once highly important item go the way of the dinosaur.

For those interested in starting a hope chest for themselves or their child, there are (thankfully) still a handful of companies and woodworking artisans producing and selling these classic wooden piece of functional furniture (such as Harmony Cedar; should you have the good fortune of living around an Amish community, you may also be able to pick up a traditionally crafted cedar chest from one of their skilled furniture makers).

Good quality hope chests are not inexpensive ($400 - $500 is not an uncommon or unreasonable price for a well made solid cedar chest), but they are a very worthwhile investment in one's future (not to mention having added bonus a beautiful piece of home decor).

While I've made peace with the fact that telegraphs are now (for all intents) a thing of the past, that TV's no longer require antennas, and that record players have been overshadowed by iPods, I will forever continue to love and (should I have children of my own one day) carry on the beautiful tradition of hope chests.


  1. I think hope chests are something that haven't been used in Britain for a loooong time, nothing like in the US, and as so they're a bit alien to me. I do like the idea but I would never have wanted to start one as a child - I think they're better done once you're in a steady relationship and know there's a chance you'll get married! Although of course, in this day and age, women live on their own so you can keep a chest for when you get your first place etc. etc.

  2. i have the exact same chest as the large picture!! i love it. i keep sweaters in it. i love the idea of a hope chest, and while my daughters don't have room for actual chests, they are collecting pretty things to take with them as heirlooms. thanks for that post. :)
    ps. we also have a record player, a radio with tubes, and a rotary phone!!

  3. My mother had (still has, somewhere) a hope chest. It functioned primarily as storage for the good linens -- bugs don't like cedar. I do think that this is something that should have stuck around, for women *and* men. Making smaller purchases of household things like towels and dishes over the first couple of decades of one's life seems so much smarter than having to scramble to find those things when it's finally time to leave the nest. It wouldn't necessarily have to be a big fancy cedar chest, either -- I bet places like IKEA sell plain, basic boxes or storage containers that would work just as well.

  4. I am sitting here looking at the hope chest my grandfather made for me as my 18th birthday present. Forty-plus years later and more moves than I care to count, it is filled with memories rather than hope.

    After word got out at church that my grandfather had made the hope chest for me, a lot of fathers came over to give it a look over and my grandfather (a man in his eighties by then) made about a dozen hope chests for them to give to their daughters. My grandfather's love of woodworking showed in the care he gave to each chest. I'm pretty sure he just charged them for the materials. He was that kind of man.

    I believe my grandfather made hope chests for my three sisters, too, but I can't remember if they all wanted one or not (I think they'd be crazy not to want one!).

    There is something magical about a hope chest. I love mine.

  5. Years ago, my parents were having breakfast on the front porch when my mom spotted a neighbor putting furniture out for a garage sale. My mom, knowing that I was wishing for a hope chest,ran over and told the neighbor that her daughter would buy the bench with the lid that lifted for storage underneath. I didn't get married for 30 more years, but that $40 I spent was one of the best bargains ever! Today it sits in the front hall of my home in Montana, having journeyed from my childhood home in upstate NY.

  6. As a woman raised in the 60's and 70's, I can assure you I absolutely did NOT want a hope chest. Anything that was as closely linked to old-fashioned-ness and homemaking was something I intended to steer completely clear of.

    Fast forward 20 to 30 years. Now, I not only embrace all things vintage, but also the old-fashioned mindset behind many of them...including the hope chest. Now, I actually have 2 of them in my home, although only 1 of them belongs to me. When my grandmother passed away in the mid 90's, many of her things found their way to my home, one of which was her hope chest. It's beautiful and functional...I use it as a coffee table in my TV room, and it always reminds me of her.

    The other hope chest in my house belongs to my 21 year old daughter. Because I began to have a heart for those kinds of things when she was quite young, my husband and I knew we intended for her to have a hope chest. So, for her 16th birthday, we gave her one...handmade with love by him. (He loves woodworking and has a small hobby/side woodworking business). It's not a traditional cedar chest; he made it from an African hardwood called sapele (suh pee lee). It's stunningly beautiful. So, daughter not only has a hope chest in which to accumulate items for her future household, but she also knows it was made for her with love by her dad and brother.

    Blessings to you,

  7. I just discovered this post while researching for a post on my own hope chest I just got for my 21st birthday! I blan on filling it with all sorts of handmade items I'm going to work on this year, along with some heirlooms from my family. I'm SO excited about it!!!

    1. What an incredible 21st birthday present! I'm so happy for you, dear gal. Have an amazing time filling it up - I steadfastly believe that it's a traditional a whole lot more of us should get to experience in our lives still.

      ♥ Jessica