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What Is a Hope Chest? The History of the ‘Marriage Box’

What is a hope chest? (Or rather, what was a hope chest?) The term tends to connotate a lot of different ideas and notions (it’s that “old thing” from the 19th century, right?), but have you ever thought about the actual history of the design, what it means and why it once flourished and is now all but perished? Something as simple as a piece of furniture might not seem that exciting, but, as it turns out, the hope chest has quite the history. Here, we take you through its journey – and give you our argument for looking at it in a whole new way.

Hope Chest Definition

Historically, hope chests were large trunk chests that mothers would pass on to their daughters. Oftentimes, a mother would start preparing a hope chest from the time her daughter was a young age and slowly build the collection as the years went by. The chests contained many of things that were considered “essentials” for a young woman about to start a new life in marriage; things like silverware, china, linens, clothing and jewelry.
It was also standard practice to include family heirlooms and mementos. Things like albums or photographs, letters or treasured objects passed down through the generations that may not have much monetary or practical value – but in which the young woman could find comfort.

hope chest tradition
The chest itself was often made of cedar. At that time, cedar was an easy-access material for furniture manufacturers and a popular choice for storage thanks to its naturally fresh, long-lasting fragrance. (Tip: Clothes stored in a cedar chest or dresser smell so good!)

The History of Hope Chests

Like literally everything else in history, hope chests didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Here’s a brief breakdown of the evolution of hope chests – where the custom began and what it’s morphed into today.
big hope chest
Ancient times. 3,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians created boxes and wooden chests – with dovetail joints! (Actual chests which belonged to King Tut can be seen today at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.) The wealthier you were, the more ornately-decorated and -painted was your chest. Chests often stored items like jewelry, coins and travel essentials, since trunks and chests were basically what we would view today as luggage. Just like it is with our furniture today, the design of the chest spoke to the chest’s purpose; a chest with no legs was often used for traveling, while a chest with legs was kept at home for furniture.
leather hope chest
Middle Ages. Between the 5th and 15th centuries, wooden chests saw a period of prosperity. In Europe, most were made of hardwoods like oak, poplar, walnut, pine woods and some soft woods. It was during this time that decorating a chest wasn’t just reserved for kings; it became common practice to add friezes and panels to the outer lid of a trunk or chest. Handles also began to appear, but not for decoration. During times of wars, battles and invasions, a household had to be ready to pack up their things and flee at a moment’s notice; in this regard, easy-to-grab handles made life a little easier!

Baroque Period. The 1600s saw a specific change in the evolution of the chest: drawers! For what is believed to be the first time in history, storage drawers were incorporated into a chest’s design. At first, it was simply the addition of two small drawers underneath the chest – but it didn’t take long for the whole drawer concept to kick off and chests to be designed as actual ‘chests of drawers.’ By the end of the century, mahogany was the material of choice, and inlay materials like pearl and bone began to see popularity. The 17th century was also the beginning of the process of lacquering wood chests.

19th century. Europe in the 19th century was a time of traveling – a new frontier (America!) was on the horizon. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, train travel was all the rage – so lugging around one’s clothes and personal items for overnight travel became more necessary than ever. This led to the ubiquity of chests – the market for these types of chest designs was booming. While the exact origin of hope chests is hard to pinpoint (there’s little research available on the topic), it can be guesstimated that the boom of storage chests influenced the hope chest design. Perhaps it was because these storage chests were so widely available that it was just a matter of inevitability that a girl’s dowry would live in one. (A dowry, by the way, is a custom tracing back thousands of years in which the parents of a young bride keep a collection of her assets until the time of her marriage.)

Present. Today, the tradition of keeping a hope chest has faded out. There are a few reasons for this – not the least of which are that it tends to glorify the outdated idea of a “dowry” (or putting a “price” on marriage) and that it’s not the most practical (the items that would traditionally be kept in a hope chest, like fancy linens and dresses, are not exactly the things a modern bride “needs” for a successful marriage). However, hope chests still do exist in the 21st century – they can be found in both antique and modern furniture shops (in modern shops, it’s all about perception: a certain trunk, for example, can be viewed as a hope chest even if it wasn’t necessarily marketed as one).

What Types of Things Did They Used to Put in Hope Chests?

The hope chest was popular during a time when girls were being “prepped” for marriage from an early age. Things that could one day be useful for a marriage were placed in a hope chest – things like chinaware, decorative linens, quilts, kitchenware and clothing. Because their primary purpose was to keep the things that the girl would eventually need to move with her, many hope chests were designed for portability, often with a lighter weight and handles.

Hope Chests Today

The use of hope chests is often considered outdated, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be revitalized with a more modern spin – for more modern times. A hope chest can be what you make it. Instead of it being a “marriage box,” consider it a preservation of your own family history. Instead of keeping “dowry-like” things like hostess’ linens or china, consider things that make you happy, the things that you want to keep for your lifetime – and eventually pass down to the next generation. Consider a modern hope chest not as “the things you have to keep” but rather “the things you want to keep.” It should be, as well, a reliable place – one you know is always there and that you can retreat to for quiet reflection when the mood strikes. Travel souvenirs, family photos, a piece of heirloom jewelry; all fit right into the modern hope chest.

Of course, for some, the very antiquity of the “old hope chest” is what makes it so appealing in modern times; keeping precious heirlooms in an antique trunk can serve as powerful antidote to the world of digital everything. In place of screens and smartphones, social media and instant connection, streaming and binge-watching, a quiet chest in a quiet corner filled with physical, beautiful things is grounding.

Hope Chest as Time Capsule

Another way to think of a modern hope chest is as a time capsule. When used to keep things that mark important milestones in a person’s life, a hope chest becomes a “jackpot” of treasures for future generations to sift through and enjoy. (When you think of a hope chest in this regard, it becomes easier to “pull the trigger” on owning one, because it’s no longer about the old-timey tradition of keeping “marriage essentials.” It’s also no longer about you – rather it turns into a portal for children, grandchildren and their children to remember you by, and all of whom, in turn, can add to it their own mementos and milestone markers.) In other words, a hope chest can be viewed as a “really big jewelry box” – where instead of jewelry that’s being stored, it’s a diary, a photo album (or other precious possession).

Hope Chest Types

Here are a few of the types of hope chests:

Trunk Hope Chest. These designs look more like storage containers than furniture. They resemble a large rectangular box and lift from the top. This is the more traditional type and is often made of cedar wood, distressed around the surface or carved around the edges to give a decorative touch. While not designed to be a bench, because of their large sizes and heavy weights, they can certainly be used as a seat. These are often placed in bedrooms or at the end of hallways.

Bench Hope Chest. A bench hope chest is one that is designed more for the purposes of furniture seating (at least, in terms of looks) as opposed to storage. These can lift from the top or contain pull-out drawers that can be used to store hope chest items. These are often designed to be a little more comfortable than the trunk versions, with perhaps an upholstered top or (in some cases) a backrest. In a bench hope chest, it is more common to see legs that act as support and decorative flourish – and raise the overall seating height.

Cedar Hope Chest. When hope chests were popular, they were mainly constructed of cedar, because cedar is naturally mold-resistant, insect-repelling and is overall one of the most durable wood types. Cedar also carries a naturally warm color and, in contrast to metal, a softer, cozier texture – all of which made it fit right into the typical 19th and 20th century home decor style.

Metal Hope Chest. Of course, a hope chest isn’t confined to a single material. A hope chest is any chest that is used to store your valuable items – whether it be wood or metal. Precisely because it’s not the norm, a metal hope chest can make a unique statement.

Table Hope Chest. Like the bench hope chest, a table hope chest is designed more as a daily-use furniture item than the traditional trunk. (The traditional trunk is designed solely for storage, whereas the bench and table are designed for storage and living room sitting.) But just because a coffee table contains storage doesn’t automatically make it a hope chest – hope chests have a specific look. (If a coffee table is mostly “legs and a tabletop” with a small drawer underneath, it’s not a hope chest. If it’s a “block” design and/or devoid of legs, with a trunk-style lift-top, it can more easily be described as a hope chest.)

Domed-top Hope Chest. This is the type of hope chest with a dome-shaped cover; imagine a pirate’s chest from the movies, and you’ve got a good idea of this design. (Unlike a pirate’s chest, a hope chest isn’t filled with looted treasures – just your treasures!) Unlike the bench and table types, these types can’t be used dually as furniture – without a flat top, it can’t be used as furniture, and sitting on a dome isn’t exactly the most comfortable position!

Hope Chests vs. Cedar Chests

Hope chests and cedar chests often mean the same thing (in some contexts). However, objectively speaking, there is a slight difference between the two. Hope chest is the term for a trunk or chest design that is used for storing heirlooms, valuables and keepsakes. A cedar chest is a chest made of cedar, simply. A hope chest can be a cedar chest and vice versa. A hope chest isn’t always a cedar chest, though, and a cedar chest isn’t always a hope chest. When discerning a hope chest from a cedar chest, it comes down to purpose: if the purpose of a cedar chest is just to store everyday towels and blankets, it’s just a cedar chest, but if the purpose is to store the items mentioned above, it’s a hope chest.

When All Else Fails . . .

Never mind Shakespeare’s stance on “the rose by any other name,” we’re here to tell you the exact opposite: that the names given to the things in our lives can have a tremendous effect on how we view them and how they appear to us. (Think of your average “water cup,” for instance. Now, think of it as “the bearer of life-giving substance.” All of a sudden, the once-average “cup” becomes one of your most precious items!) Similarly: If the idea of storing your most prized possessions in a large, elegant trunk intrigues you – but the term hope chest creeps you out, then don’t think of it as a hope chest. When all else fails, ascribe to it your own name, perceive it in your own way, give to it your own connotations. Ditch the label, and keep the idea. A “hope chest” is all about the things that make up your life, so why not make it your own? There’s no rule that says a hope chest has to mean what it meant hundreds of years ago, so dust of its 20th century rules and breathe into it a new purpose, for the modern times.

A Modern Take on ‘Hope Chests’

— More Furniture History —

Modern ‘Hope Chests’ and Similar Designs

Editorial Disclaimer: Articles featuring tips and advice are intended for educational purposes and only as general recommendations. Always practice personal discretion when using and caring for furniture, decor and related items.