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What is a Hope Chest?

By Donna Reynolds
Updated May 16, 2024
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The traditional hope chest is a wooden trunk or box that is used to store special articles of clothing and other household goods for a bride to use after her marriage. This tradition is thought to have evolved out of necessity. In medieval Europe, many marriages were arranged by parents in order to merge family fortunes. A wealthy prospective groom’s family offered the bride’s family money, land, or even business ownership in order to win her hand in marriage. In turn, the bride’s family provided the new couple with everything they needed to start their lives together. This gift, which was called a dowry, included linens, china, silverware, glassware, kitchen items, and even furniture.

Families of limited means could not afford elaborate dowries, but wanted to be able to offer a prospective husband something of value for marrying their daughters. Traditionally, mothers taught their daughters at an early age how to knit, embroider, sew, and crochet in preparation for marriage. Young women, dreaming of their wedding day, started accumulating a collection of special items, including lingerie, hand-embroidered linens, towels, aprons, quilts, and other handicrafts, and storing them for the future in a special chest, which became a symbol of hope for the future. The new bride then brought her hope chest to her new home on her wedding day, and these items became part of her new household.

Early hope chests were handmade and often lined with cedar, a fragrant wood that has helps preserve fabric. Many fathers built their daughter’s hope chests and spent hours decorating them with artwork, wooden mosaics, and other decorations. The chest was then passed on from mother to daughter, becoming a family heirloom.

The tradition continued in the US, but by the beginning of the 20th century, the hope chest had begun to lose popularity. However, during World War I, the Lane Company won a large government contract to build pine ammunition boxes for the military. The plant modernized its assembly processes, and when the war was over, they converted the plant for the production of cedar chests. At the same time, they began an advertising campaign to promote the new Lane Hope Chest, and young women were captivated once again by this romantic notion. During World War II, Lane’s advertising was directed at young soldiers who, the company hoped, would be convinced to purchase a hope chest for the girls they left at home.

The tradition has since died out, but in recent years, there seems to have been a quiet revival of this custom. In her book, The Hope Chest: A Legacy of Love, Rebekah Wilson explores the history of these chests and promotes the value of passing on traditional crafts and homemaking skills to young women. Her book is a celebration of the bond formed between mother and daughter as they prepare for the daughter's wedding day together.

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Discussion Comments
By anon331413 — On Apr 22, 2013

I love the idea of a hope chest. It can be used for anything you really want to take with you, and I really do not see it as sexist, seeing as you usually put silverware as well as other items that can be used for either gender or collected by either gender.

I mainly started a hope chest because I love to crochet. Now I have baby booties, hats, pot holders, and am working on an afghan I believe I will be very happy with when I move out in a year (18 years old).

By anon181615 — On May 30, 2011

When I was little, about five or so, my dad had built me a toy box, nothing elaborate, just a simple maple box. As I got older and was moving into my new room that I didn't have to share with my brother anymore, my mom and I cleaned out my room. Most of the toys in the box were my brother's and we cleaned them out and found other places to store them. I didn't know if I wanted to take the box with me or not, my new room being smaller and me not using it, but my mom said I was and that was that.

When we moved into my grandma's house about three years later, I took it with me, it now meaning a little more to me. We started cleaning out her house and there were so many things, an extra set of dishes, dish towels, table cloths, and my mom didn't know what to do with them.

She then suggested I keep a hope chest and take a set of dishes, a few towels, some special mementos of my grandma and keep them in my toy box. I then looked up what a hope chest was and was fascinated with the idea. I'm now 18, and have placed some of my own things in it, a quilt I made, my baby album, and my first Bible. I can't wait to have a daughter to pass down this tradition with. She may get my hope chest because I have my eye on my mom's blanket chest from her great grandma.

By anon163412 — On Mar 27, 2011

I inherited a cedar hope chest from my mother made by I don't know whom. I was encouraged to put my keepsakes and prepare for my first home. I did so with much excitement. Now that I am a mother of three boys, I thought it would be a great idea to continue the tradition of building a hope chest, but with the meaning of hope for what your future plans hold.

My son is a junior in high school and I thought it would be a great idea to purchase him an armored footlocker/chest to take to college with him. With that tradition in mind, I began to call it a hope chest until recently when I learned hope chests were for girls. I guess I will name it something else more appropriate for a boy like "Treasure Chest". --tf

By anon158015 — On Mar 05, 2011

I received a hope chest from my father for my 13th birthday. It is handmade by him complete with a hand carved unicorn on it. That year we started collecting things to put in it.

I know traditionally it was for marriage, but it was a blessing when I moved into my first apartment at 18. I had almost everything I needed, dishes, blankets, silverware etc. Twenty years later I am still using many of the things that came out of that chest.

It now holds my wedding dress and photos, along with many things from my childhood. It will be passed onto my kids. Of course my oldest is nearly 13 herself now, and grandpa is making one for her as well. It may be an old and some say outdated tradition, but it can be a very special one.

By anon140562 — On Jan 07, 2011

I have an old chest from my grandmother - I'm assuming it was never used for this purpose. Not knowing what the term even meant (I just looked it up now to find out), I started thinking of it as my "hope chest," meaning that I would store old photos, family xmas ornaments and other memories.

So now I read this informative article. I really wish this term actually meant the meaning that I for some odd reason gave it. Can't really think of a better alternative.

By closerfan12 — On Oct 15, 2010

I'm not meaning to rain on anybody's parade, but does it ever occur to you how domestic most of the hope chest items are? I mean, I love the idea of a hope chest, and I actually have an old oak hope chest that I use for storage, but I think that some of the concept is a little dated, and maybe eve a little sexist.

I mean, why couldn't a girl bring books, or really anything representing her own passions and interests in life? I understand the traditional reasons, I just think that some of the most modern hope chests could do with a makeover.

Just some food for thought.

By rallenwriter — On Oct 15, 2010

I got a pine hope chest at a furniture auction, and to my surprise, there were still some things in it. It had apparently belonged to a Julia Bishop, who had married in the 1920s. There were a few old pictures with her name written on the back; that's how I know.

There were also a few newspaper clippings that she had cut out, though I don't know why. I guess they were important to her.

Although they're not your typical hope chest items, I was so delighted to find them in mine, and I hope that Julia had a happy life and a happy marriage.

By pleats — On Oct 15, 2010

My great aunt actually had a Lane's cedar hope chest, and I was so, so happy when she passed it on to me.

I had always been fascinated by the idea of the wooden hope chest, and I still love the commitment and promise that it represents.

I haven't started stocking mine, but I do have a lot of hope chest plans for when I get a more permanent home.

I know a lot of women keep their own lists of "hope chest items", even if they don't keep them in an actual wood hope chest. I think that really anything you take into your wedding that represents yourself and your hopes for your married life can be your "hope chest", whether it's physical or not.

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