A History of Hope Chests & What Goes in Them

Knowing what a hope chest is may help you decide what to put it in yours, but the history of hope chests is by no means meant to set a rigid standard we all must follow.

For the U.S., the history of hope chests starts in Europe, and while dowry history goes back much further and takes us even farther afield, this story starts a little closer to home.

Europe’s Big Hopes

The term “hope chest” is uniquely American, but the concept has its roots in the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. In Italy it was called a “cassone,” although it’s unclear whether that version was the one imported to America by European immigrants.

First, the idea would have likely marinated in the United Kingdom (“bottom drawer”), Germany (“Schrank”) and France (“trousseau”) before finally making it across the pond. Despite the different names, though, they all contained much the same thing …

Linens ‘N’ Things

Traditional hope chests were often made of cedar because they were meant for storing and protecting the clothing, bedding and table linens that a bride would take with her into her marriage. Naturally, other things like keepsakes, heirlooms and dishes would go along for the ride, too.

This tradition was observed well into the 1950s in America, but things have changed and hope chests are now less of a traditional fixture. So, what happened?

Hope Springs Eternal, Hopefully

Arguably (and perhaps argumentatively), the tradition of hope chests began its decline with the rise of women’s liberation that swelled in the 1960s and continues today. It’s not that women lost hope, of course – to the contrary, it’s that it could never be contained by a box.

And of course, things continue to change about marriage, agency and relationships, and they always will. It’s easy to see how people today may have different views regarding a symbol that hearkens back to the days of the dowry.

Finally, there’s the much less meaningful fact that the Lane Company – renowned for making hope chests since 1912 – went out of business in 2001. Again, a commercial failure has none of the impact of a cultural movement, but it probably didn’t help.

Hope Chests Today

Hope chests are still a tradition, though, and there are no rules about what goes into them. Yesterday it was linens and tableware; today maybe it’s a five-year business plan or a picture of a place where you want to live at some point in your life.

People may have different opinions about marriage, but everyone usually agrees when it comes to hope – and maybe that’s what makes hope chests an enduringly elegant cultural artifact.

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