Cedar chest, filled by and for a future bride
"A hope chest can provide not only a repository for a growing dowry but a treasure chest filled with memories of the past and hopes and dreams for the future."
- Cumberland Books website
This was a time she'd never imagined she'd see - the time her Mother had prepared her for since...well, as long as she could remember. Her strong fingers pulled at the clasps of the chest, her strong heart leapt in her bosom. After all this time, it was finally happening, she'd met the man she'd dreamt about on so many nights, the man her parents had told her would come. Her mother's voice came down to her, clear despite the years apart, "A ready hand and heart, my girl, that's what we're making, not just a hope chest, a hope that you're prepared for any eventuality".
He stood in the front yard, his sun-beaten face shaded by his hat. She couldn't tell if his eyes were blue or not, but she could see his boots were from a bigger man. The clasps popped, she felt inside for the gun she knew was there, kept loaded and ready in the hope that she could survive...
A Little History...†
The expression originates in the early years of the 20th century, but the concept goes back way beyond that.
Americans all come from travelling backgrounds. It's not that long ago that every family's forebears were winging, well, sloshing, their way across one ocean or another to a hoped-for new life in a Promised Land. Even after that, so many families took up the challenge of homesteading, settling new lands as they were opened up. Having started to read the "Little House" series, I'm constantly reminded of that, as indeed I was during my recent trip across the country "Pioneer Trail" and "Emigrant Trail" signs everywhere.
Against this background, it astonishes me that anyone ever bothered to unpack anything, just in case the family were called upon to pack up and move again. All this travelling made the early pioneers highly practical - no space was wasted in their shipboard cabins or covered wagons, and the most efficient use of space (for those who could afford one) was...a sea chest, a large chest with shelves and compartments to keep things safe, and in one place. Those who couldn't afford one carried a duffel or stout canvas bag no doubt, and they leave our story now. The sea chest became simplified into a blanket chest, used to keep household linen and fragile things safe, and proof against man, moth and moisture. In time, blanket chests came to be fitted with shelves and compartments again, to enable things to be better stored and found again. The wheel has turned full circle, and the next part of our story begins again.
People being people, they brought their customs with them from their distant lands. And one custom that seemed to be common to many was the dowry. Simply put, this was a gift from a new bride (or her family) to the husband (or his family). Tradition dictated that there were certain things that a young bride might prepare, against the day when she would be wed, as her new family might be in want of some of the basics (and possibly some small luxuries, too!) Thus, the tradition of a young woman making and putting away certain items that she would need to start a new household. Most of these things were of a practical nature; bed and table linens, quilts, silverware, crockery, pots and pans. Also included might me family mementos, recipes, photographs, books and trinkets. In most cases, the mother would get a young girl started by teaching her to sew and make up a quilt (Laura Ingalls records that she started hers as a young woman, and ended up with more than a dozen in her chest).
In time, this little treasure trove would be put away in a safe place. A blanket chest, in fact. In time, the "hope chest", as it came to be known, was a sign that a young woman was readying herself to start a life of her own, and her evident hope was that she would find a suitable man to marry and give this gift that she had been keeping for so long. The chests, frequently made of red cedar, to protect the fabric contents, were personalised by the young woman (and often embellished by a doting father, with many panels and inlays). They were...revered, almost as sacred to the chasteness of the maiden, in hope of changing her status to bride, wife and mother. It was a hope that she in turn would carry on the great traditions and skills and knowledge passed to her. In time the chest itself would be passed along, an heirloom piece to preserve a long-held and precious cargo of the cultural birthright. A hope, in fact, of survival in a new, and sometimes hostile land.
Hope Chests Today
Collectors will sometimes swing by estate sales in the hope of picking up some valuable pieces, and valuable they are, precious and beautiful, especially those with inlays or marquetry panels. Still sought after, although so many families are hanging on to them, using and reusing them as blanket chests, toolboxes, and even, on occasion, hope chests.
I do want to set one thing straight, before all the non-Americans write to tell me that "in our country we have these, too..." Of course you do. In the UK, it's often known as the "bottom drawer", a place where things are bought, collected, made, stored. The hope chest is a feature of many cultures throughout history, but America seems to have kept the dream alive, in a way that was slightly surprising. As I was doing some background reading, prior to writing this, I came across so many sites that encouraged mothers to start a hope chest with their daughters, not just to prepare them for practical married life, not to bring a "dowry", but as a reminder that they should stay chaste and ready, in the hope that they would find a suitable young man. It's tied in now with Christian moral wholesomeness.
The hope chest is reborn, this time in the hope that the new Daughters of America will grow as their mothers did. Wholesome and prepared for any eventuality, in the Grand American Tradition.
Hatshepsut says: I have a lovely hope chest which was given to me upon moving into my own apartment. It was filled with homey sorts of things.
†...or herstory, as some might say, it being related to women's history, after all.
For Chras4, in connection with my Essay a Day quest