Nothing speaks of sentimental style more than a beautiful chest. Made of moth-repellent cedar wood, decorated with intricate carvings or striking finishes, and fitted with secure locks and hardware, the oft-called “hope chest” has long served as a storage piece for valuable keepsakes. Things that are kept inside a wooden chest preserve their character and quality, and also gain the sweet aroma of the unvarnished wood after being kept inside for a long time. These grand boxes have long served as symbols of status, history, and love.
The significance of an heirloom chest goes back to the Ancient Egyptians and their treasure-filled chests. During the Renaissance, wealthy dynasties in Italy increased their power by marrying their descendants with one another. On these occasions they produced ostentatious and elaborately-decorated wardrobes or trunks as wedding gifts. These large boxes were often more valuable than their actual contents and displayed the status of these affluent Italian families. Dutch and German cultures adhered to similar traditions.
A sturdy wooden chest, like one made of cedar, has always served the function of keeping valuable articles safe. Throughout history, migrating families have always brought these trunks across borders and oceans as they settled in new lands. The requisite locks kept their things safe, and the drawers or miniature boxes held smaller precious items like silverware or jewelry.
In later centuries, and predominantly in American families, when a girl came of age, a gift of a wooden chest encouraged her to begin preparing for marriage. The traditional practice was to receive the chest from her mother, or another female relative. In it, a girl would collect items that she will need for married and family life (usually referred to as her trousseau, from the French word for “little bundle”): dresses, intimate clothes, bed linens, table linens, towels, quilts, and other things. Until the 1950s, married life was the only ideal path for proper American women. Assembling a hope chest was part of a girl’s careful and ritual-filled journey towards that most important event in her life.
And when she finally embarks on married life, the chest becomes emptied out as she starts to take care of her new home and growing family. Over time the chest becomes filled again, as she places into it the new memories and keepsakes she has accumulated with her husband and children. Eventually she will pass down this memory-filled artifact to her own daughter, and the cycle of hope-building will begin all over again.
These chests have traditionally been made of sturdy wood like cherry, oak or cedar. The latter was used more frequently because cedar is known for having natural properties that act as moth repellant. Then, they are usually decorated with carvings, paint, or gilding to represent a family’s culture and origins. As mentioned, they were also usually outfitted with a drawer or too, or a miniature box that can go inside the compartment.
During World War II, a former ammunition-box manufacturer in America became the foremost producer of the cedar chest, promoting heavily its value of storing memories and promises for the women whose loved one was away and fighting in the war. This phenomenon concretized the graceful box’s status as a piece of true Americana.
Today, times have changed, and women do not need dowries or trousseaus anymore. Marriage has ceased to be a mandate of the society, and women are now allowed to have different opinions about it. A hope chest has ceased to be the girl’s symbol of growing up and being ready for real life.
Despite the radical differences in circumstances, the cedar chest remains an indispensible component of the American family’s home. Nowadays these chests are used primarily as classic home decorating pieces. A chest adds an air of warmth and personality to a bedroom or living room. Usually regarded as antiques, they lend a lived-in feel to the space.
But more than using them as pretty displays, it might be a wonderful project to revive the significance of these treasure boxes, and gain new ways to preserve family memories and history. More than being pretty displays, durable and roomy chests are still as functional storage pieces as they were half a century ago. Heirlooms, mementos, and pieces meant to be preserved and passed down for the children have no better place for safekeeping than these chests. And when a chest has been passed down from generation to generation, its value through its history can already rival that of the Egyptian’s treasure boxes.
A chest opens up to reveal a pile of valuable things and memories, but it has its uses as solid closed box, too. In bedrooms, wooden chests are usually placed at the foot of the bed to serve as pillow rests or as an impromptu bench. A closed flat-lid chest can also be used as small coffee table, or as a surface for displaying photos or small trinkets. Placed near a window and decorated with pillows, a large chest becomes a peaceful nook for sitting down and relaxing.
On the more practical side, a chest can become an extension of the wardrobe. It can be a good place to store rarely-used season linens like curtains for Christmas, or winter clothes like sweaters. Growing up girls and boys can find delight in owning chests which can serve as exciting places where they can keep and get dress-up items or toys.
The keepsakes that can be placed inside these chests do not have to exclusively be valuables or items necessary for a young girl’s married life. It can be a joy to assemble a “memory box” for both young girls and young boys to remember their childhood by. Baby clothes, first items like baseball gloves, dolls, or letters are things which can be considered for such a project. When children grow up, they will enjoy reliving special moments every time they open the chest. A memory box then becomes a tactile and extraordinary three-dimensional scrapbook of sorts. The contents and value of this chest can change along with the child as they both gain years. Eventually a child can bring a cedar chest along to his or her new home, as a reminder of childhood and history.
Memories and keepsakes are not the only things that a hope chest can hold. It can also be a container for the lessons and skills that a parent or elder relative has passed down to the younger ones. Swatches from the first knitting or sewing lesson, recipe cards for secret family recipes, and little tools for fishing or fixing the house are just few of the many things that can be kept within a wooden chest. These would be important objects for passing down a legacy or tradition that can preserve a family’s trade or identity.
Children have always enjoyed “discovering” treasures, in whatever form it comes in. When a child is presented with a hope chest, he or she will certainly feel that spark of amazement and wonder when the lid is opened and its contents are revealed to him or her for the first time. A child will be honored to be the next keeper of a chest that he or she remembers from the past. When a parent or elder relative shows great consideration for taking care of preserving memories and heirlooms, the younger ones are definite to follow suit.
The modern world is a fast-paced one. Thanks to technology and advancements in science and exploration, everything happens faster than ever, and people tend to place a premium on getting things quicker, cheaper, and easier. Food can be cooked in seconds, cities can be reached in minutes, messages and news can be received right as they are being sent or happening. And because our tools and machines are also always being updated, the mentality is always to discard the old and traditional to give way to the new and more efficient. Material things have almost ceased to have meaning attached to them, save for the function that they serve.
The trend now is to rediscover history, to return to roots in order to be certain of identity and to gain a sense of personal pride. Wooden chests, and the ritual of keeping things inside them, have a strong presence through the line of tradition.
Acquiring and passing down a cedar chest can serve as a stable reminder of the old days, when the value of a thing depended on its history, and the love and care that was put into making it. The chest does not have to be antique or history laden. The owner has the power to make a chest valuable by carefully selecting which objects to place into it, and by taking good care of it so that it will be in perfect condition when time comes to hand it over to the next generation.
Hope is a value which should not be lost on humanity, even more so because of the trying circumstances this generation is going through. The treasures that are put into a hope chest are meant to preserve important memories, be inherited by future generations, outlast lifetimes, and create legacies.
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