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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

Nostaligia – Hope Chests

lane ad Nostaligia   Hope Chests Wooden toy boxes big enough to hold a child or all of our toys when we put them away. Jewelry Boxes made of wood and shaped like treasure chests. Wood lockers for my sons. My mother’s wood chest in her bedroom filled with her most precious memory items.  These are a few of my favorite things. But I never had a hope chest and I’m still dreaming. 

I often tell people that I grew up a hundred years ago. It seems that some aspects of my childhood were not the typical ones you may have experienced. In fourth grade for our celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States, I was able to wear my great-grandmother’s button-up shoes complete with shoe hook. How many of you were able to just walk into the basement and pull out a turn of the century wardrobe piece? We grew up with the wood and glass china cabinet holding our special china treasures passed down from girl to girl. The wooden trim in my parent’s house is neary 10 inches tall. The staircase was created by my great-grandfather when he took this home built in the 1860′s and moved it to the current location and remodeled it.

Being a good and dutiful girl in the Midwest, I was part of the local 4-H club, the Quimby Quorum. One day I visited one of the leaders’ homes and saw the HOPE CHEST of her oldest daughter Laura who was a senior in high school. She showed me everything and explained that she had been sewing linens and adding decorations to towels, beddings, pillowcases, and more in preparation for her upcoming marriage. Inside she had special dishes, silverware, and a unique variety of objects she had been accumulating for 6 years (junior and senior high school).  Her wooden chest was beautiful, but most attractive were the dreams inside. All of us left wishing we had a hope chest.

I thought of this yesterday when I was washing my favorite 25-year old spoon. All seniors in our 4-H club were able to visit the local jewelry store in Cherokee, Iowa, and pick out one spoon that was their favorite. This spoon was engraved with the 4-H symbol, year, and our club name. It was presented during one of our meetings so all the girls could see, hold, and covet. Their intentions were that this would be the first piece of silverware in our future collection. 

Coming from a less-than-wealthy family, it was several years before I was at the point of being able to purchase any of the set. Carrying my infant son, I rushed into a jewelry/silverware store in Chicago to seek the pattern - only to discover they had stopped making it. My dreams were not going to come true and I was never going to own that silverset. Well, I still didn’t own a cedar chest either, so I didn’t worry too much about it. 

Through the years and while I was working for a major department store,  I have watched new brides put together their bridal registry lists and I have contemplated the manner they do this. Some would treasure and plan for the moment. They’d bring their maid of honor or their mother and a list. Others would simply grab the tool and race around the store zapping every item that caught their eye. Examine a few wish lists for couples now and you’ll be amazed at the number of garden hoses, beer steins, and daily objects like garbage cans that appear. 

Since I was in a nostalgic mood, I decided to do some "incidental curiousity" research on hope chests. Of course Wikipedia had an article and it helped me tie in some feelings I’d had, but never connected. When I lived in Germany, one of my neighbors gave me parts of her German schrank. Even though it is extremely heavy, I love these true wood pieces and have moved them with me 4 times.The concept of the schrank is related to these hope chests – no wonder I love it. From wikipedia I learned:

The peak of the hope chest as folk art came with the waves of European immigrants to America. Many of these, from Scandinavia to the Northern Midwest and Germans in Pennsylvania, had long traditions of plainly constructed chests with extensive painted decoration.

Other terms used were:  hope chest, dowry chest, cedar chest, or glory box. I learned this was a common coming-of-age rite until approximately the 1950s. Viewing where I grew up and my Scandinavian ancestry, there were still people practicing this in the late 1970′s. The Lane Company produced many chests and I can remember viewing these through windows and in furniture stores until the company closed in 2001. 

According to the Virginia Historical Society from whom I found the photo of the ad above:

Reaching new heights of production and prosperity in the 1920s, Lane began to advertise its products nationally. These advertisements sought to equate the ideal of domesticity with a Lane "Hope Chest," in which a young woman stored clothing or home furnishings in anticipation of marriage. This was summed up in the company’s tag line: "The gift that starts the home."

Lane advertisements reached a high point during World War II, persuading thousands of GIs leaving for overseas to purchase a Lane Hope Chest for the sweethearts they were leaving behind. Ads combined romantic images of men in uniform and their fiancees with patriotic slogans and the well-known face of national spokeswoman, and symbol of all things American, Shirley Temple.

Learning all of this, I can see why I was destined to love the idea of having a hope chest. My father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on were carpenters. They worked with wood and we grew up admiring solid woodwork. My dresser is made of solid wood not plyboard and has stayed with me over 30 years. My sons love wooden boxes, seachests, and footlockers. My #3 son has been studying cabinet-making in high school – which totally thrills me. When we lived in Germany, I loved the wooden toys, nesting boxes, and all things demonstrating carpentry ability. One of my favorite stories had the characters traveling through a wardrobe into another world (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

Society has changed. It is no longer the single-minded goal of every young girl to grow up and get married. I myself have outlasted two marriages (to non-carpenter lads). Still, I will always cherish the love of wooden boxes, treasure chests, and places to put my dreams and hopes. Instead of linens, I wonder what I would gather today. Memories? Photographs? My dainty crochet works? The baby blankets I sewed for my sons? The beautiful jewelry from Taiwan? My favorite Polish pottery or German teapots? My favorite books? My dreams may have changed, but I will still gather memories and hopes.

I discovered a book on Google Books and on Amazon today called Treasure Chests: The Legacy of Extraordinary Boxes by Lon Schleining. You should really click the link and look at the photographs. Also, see the Library Journal review: 

Wooden chests have served many purposes throughout the centuries; they’ve held tools, the possessions of sailors, and the future housewares of brides often their owner’s most precious things. Schleining’s survey is part history and part picture book, with a multitude of colorful photographs supplementing the text. Nearly every chest is accompanied by a fascinating story; some of the chests have been in the same family for generations. Of particular interest is a section of unusual chests, including a "corpse preserver" (with an ice compartment) that was once used by undertakers. This interesting book is best suited for comprehensive public library collections.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. 

I think I’m off to the local library today to see if they have this title. Maybe I need to view some of the antique stores in Lebanon, TN, to see if any chests have appeared. Unfortunately, it seems everyone who has a well-made chest, keeps it. 

May you have a day of dreaming and hoping.

Comments

  1. Ms. Yingling says:

    My mother, and all the girls in her class of 1953, were all given miniature hope chest/jewelry boxes by a local store upon graduation. I will have to look for this book. I always wanted a hope chest for no particularly good reason. Thanks for a fun article

  2. Lisa says:

    I was given a small chest when I graduated high school and kept it. I now own my own business, HandcraftedHopeChests.com, and have enjoyed providing quality furniture to those who use them as hope chests and coffee tables. These pieces last a lifetime and are great storage pieces.