Cedar chests get their name from the cedar that lines the inside of the chest. Said to deter moths and other insects, the sweet, distinct smell of cedar is usually what one associates with this large chest.
Cedar chests are usually placed in the bedroom, often times at the foot of the bed. During the 17th and 18th centuries, cedar chests were also used as pieces of furniture to sit on because chairs were so scarce.
The “Hope Chest” tradition
A traditional gift for girls crossing the threshold to womanhood, cedar hope chests are still great presents for special occasions. In the past, cedar hope chests served as a trousseau, a vessel for young women to collect marriage necessities. Linens, quilts, and even her bridal gown found their ways into the hope chest.
Dating back to a time when marriage would include an exchange of property between the two families, the bridal ‘trousseau’ (meaning ‘small bundle’) contained all the bride’s dowry items, including the clothes and property she took to her new home and new life. It is not clear exactly when the tradition of the wedding, or “Hope Chest” started, or where, but it is certainly one that has survived the centuries.
In many cultures, a young girl planning for her future wedding would begin collecting treasured items for her wedding chest, including hand-embroidered linens and delicate underwear. This is a tradition still kept today in many communities worldwide, and especially in the United States.
The Hope Chest signifies ‘hope for marriage’ and the promise of love and security. It is the vessel into which a bride will place all those things handed down from mother to daughter, as well as her own hopes and dreams. The Hope chest is also the traditional place for a bride to store her wedding dress to hand down to her daughters.
Besides representing hope, cedar chests also protected fabrics. Cedar repels insects and fungus. The same oils that offer this protection also give clothes stored in cedar hope chests a pleasing scent.
If you think cedar chests are a modern invention, think again! These amazing vessels have been providing convenient storage since the time of the pharaohs. Learn a lesson from the cedar chest’s rich history.
Ancient Egyptians used cedar chests to protect their golden treasures and keep important papyrus documents in prime condition. Carved from a single solid block, one-piece cedar chests remained unchanged for thousands of years.
During the European Renaissance, cedar chests experienced a revolution, when one-piece carving was replaced with panels. Now easier and cheaper to make, cedar chests became more prevalent. With the addition of drawers, they also became more useful.
In the New World
Colonists making the great oceanic crossing often had but one piece of luggage for the entire family: the chest. Cedar chests of this time were based on popular coffers owned by wealthy Europeans. In America, the traditional construction continued in New England. Even if a chest was made from mahogany, cherry, or walnut, cedar lining was added due to its natural protective qualities. Were other woods fail, cedar chests repel insects and fungus.
An essential vessel for keeping clothing and valuables, colonists found many ways to use cedar chests. Because chairs were additional expenses, cedar chests provided convenient benches. They also kept blankets and warm clothing for the long winters. With no space for closets or wardrobes, cedar chests helped colonists use space wisely and efficiently.
As America grew, families sought opportunities in the west. Crossing the plains was long and dangerous. Traveling light was essential, and entire lives were crammed into a single cedar chest. The contents represented hope and the foundation of a new beginning.
The cedar chest’s rich history is filled with stories that you can read today. Each scratch and chip is a page from the past. Read it carefully, and appreciate the history.