For many centuries, the hope chest or trousseau was an important part of a young woman’s life and a reservoir of necessities that would serve her well for many years to come. Below, our readers share the rich histories surrounding these treasured heirlooms.
I imagine the sense of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertainty of her travels was somehow overshadowed by the hope of a new life in America. The journey my great-great-grandmother took changed her life and the lives for her generations to come. With foresight, fearlessness, and a brave spirit, she sailed six weeks to a new home, a new life, in a new land. On the ship, all her possessions were tucked neatly in a wooden hope chest, handmade by her carpenter father. Clothing, a few blankets, and memories from her life in Germany were nestled inside. One day on that voyage, she laid her head down on the wooden ship’s floor to take a nap, as many did. A young man about her age sprang into gentlemanly action and used his leather shoe to prop her head from resting on the floor. That first sign of affection brought a German girl and a young man from Prussia together for the rest of trip. And when they arrived in America, their romance continued—all the more inspired, I’m sure, by their passion for adventure and hope for what was to come. Not long after their feet first touched ground in New York, they made their way, with the hope chest, to Kentucky to start their family. The chest passed down to their daughter, who filled it with blankets that would be used often by her ten children. Placed prominently in the front entry hall, the chest served as a reminder of the sacrifices made, and perhaps even more importantly, that adventure is yours for the taking. One of my great grandmother’s daughters, my grandmother, took ownership of the hope chest and, in keeping with tradition, placed it in her living room, filling it with blankets and pictures of her family’s travels. A move from Kentucky to California brought the chest to the other great wide ocean, still intact as the day it made its maiden voyage. Today, the chest is with my mother. It is filled with memories of trips around the world inspired by dreams of hope and adventure. They say memories are more important than things. I say, some things hold memories we hope to never let go—adventure, history, and a reminder that life is what you make it.
In the back of my grandparents’ closet sat an old cedar chest filled with blankets and linens. I loved that beautiful chest and the smell of the blankets when they came out of storage. My grandmother told me it had been crafted by my great-great-great grandfather for his daughter. I always imagined it traveling with my great-great grandmother from Plymouth, New Hampshire, to Boston when she married, and I often wonder about its history and the stories it could tell. When my grandmother passed away, I brought the cedar chest home. Over the years, the chest was scratched and the legs cracked. I recently had it lightly refinished because I wanted it to continue to tell its story. The refinisher was astonished at the level of craftsmanship that went into the chest’s construction, but I like to think it was built by a father using his craft to express his love for his daughter.
I did not have a hope chest, but my mother did. The memories of her showing me its contents bring all my senses to life. But even more, it is as though my mother and her mother, and all the grandmothers before them, remain alive in the remembrance of their treasures. Though the physical chests are now long gone, their silks, laces, linens, the clipped hair in yellowed papers, and the crumbling faded pastel blooms—all these treasures I still hold in my heart. And thank you, Victoria magazine; you’ve also been a treasure to me now for thirty years. I still have many of the early issues, which will go into a hope chest for my granddaughter.
Seal Rock, Oregon
For me, the treasure of my hope chest was the chest itself. For my sixteenth birthday, my parents had a local carpenter design a beautiful chest with delicate brass hardware to embellish it. He carved my first name in a semicircle on the front. My mom and two of my aunts each placed an item in the chest to start me off. It was made even more special knowing I had the full support of the ladies in my family to help me prepare for what lay ahead. Growing up, I adored all of the special treasures in my aunt’s china cabinets. The Royal Albert Country Roses dishes were my favorite. I took some of my birthday money and headed off to a local shop to purchase a piece of Battenberg lace to drape over the top of the chest. I picked out my favorite pattern, and couldn’t wait to set it in place. Some years later, we had a major house fire, and my heart was broken thinking that my hope chest was gone. When we went back in to survey the damage, I found the chest had survived with some minor burns, but mostly smoke and water damage. The Battenberg lace, however, was beyond destroyed. My father and brothers carried the trunk outside for me to clean and to see what could be saved. When I peeled off what was left of the lace, I could see the design had been burned ever so beautifully into the top of the trunk. Once I had it completely cleaned, the look was stunning. I was amazed! Thirty-six years later, my hope chest with the exquisite lace top still sits in my bedroom.
Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada
My mother came from a large Sicilian family whose parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. She was one of eight siblings, each of whom had a unique artistic talent. My mother’s skill was making beautiful handmade lace, embroidery, and appliqué. As was the custom for mothers of daughters, she started making linen trousseaux for me and my sister when we were children. I can still picture her crochet needles moving with speed and accuracy at the kitchen table, long after we had all gone to bed. In the Italian neighborhood where I grew up, when a daughter was getting married, the handmade trousseau—linen and lace napkins, tablecloths, dish towels—was washed, starched, ironed, and put on display for the wedding guests to view a week before the big day. For me, this was like stepping into an art gallery, where you could listen to the praise and critiques of the other mothers as they admired the work. Now, when I open my old hope chest, my mother’s beautiful handiwork is laid out before me, as lovely as it was on that day, even though it has seen more than fifty years of use throughout my marriage. Sadly, I never learned to crochet like my mother, but her talent and love is remembered in the exquisite, one-of-a-kind linens that grace my holiday tables each year.
My mother inherited her hope chest from her mother, who brought it with her from Greece to America. My mother used it for her wedding in 1938. When I became engaged, my father stripped it down to the original cedar. When he finished, it was beautiful. When our daughter announced her engagement in 1993, I emptied out my children’s “coming home” outfits, and she began filling it with her own treasures. In time, one of her daughters, Emily, became engaged in 2014. She was afraid to move the chest from my home, so I kept it and filled it with treasures for my granddaughter. The chest is still in good condition after I received it fifty-eight years ago
My mother grew up on a rocky farm near Blackfoot, Idaho, where fine furnishings were scarce and frugality was a necessity. Her older brother made her hope chest in the 1940s. It was a simple pine chest, which she filled with embroidered dresser scarves, tablecloths, and quilts so she would be ready for the day when she had her own home. For all of her married life, it was lovingly placed in my parents’ bedroom with her satin wedding dress and all of her children’s blessing clothes. Occasionally we would beg our mother to pull out the wedding dress, carefully wrapped in tissue paper. In the seventies, when tole painting became popular, she had an artist paint it with roses and gold leafing. It was passed down to the oldest granddaughter—my daughter—and has now found a good home with my sister in St. Louis. Who knows where its journey will take it next?
Salt Lake City, Utah
When I was five years old, my grandfather taught me how to embroider. He taught all the women in my family. By the time I was ten, my mum told me it was time to start making my household linens for my hope chest, just as she had done at that age. And so I began embroidering pillowcases, tablecloths, and napkins. I still have them all and use them from time to time. They are all in perfect condition, as mum insisted on using the best materials we could afford, such as quality linen. My mum died quite a number of years ago, but I still have the linens she embroidered.
MELANIE ANN MACKENZIE
Lanark, Ontario, Canada
When I was sixteen, I received a cedar chest from my parents for Christmas, along with a set of metal measuring cups and spoons and a china place setting. The china pattern was one I had picked out one day while shopping with a friend and dreaming of the future. She must have been in cahoots with my mother, because I never told my mother of this choice. As time passed, those items were joined by treasures such as love letters, journals, embroidered pillowcases, and a set of flour-sack dish towels decorated for each day of the week. The aspirations and dreams of a young girl for wedded bliss and a happy future were carefully tucked away in that hope chest. The china represented the fancy dinners and special occasions I planned to host. The measuring cups and spoons were there for the cookies I would bake for my children. Although I haven’t used the china as much as I thought I would, the measuring cups and spoons have been used to bake countless goodies for my children and grandchildren.
American Fork, Utah
I treasured my hope chest, which held the crochet doilies my mother made, hand-painted glass Christmas ornaments that she instructed me to hang on our tree a little more this way or that way, the Waterford crystal used during holidays and on special occasions, my mother’s wedding china, the amazing costume jewelry that is now sought-after by antiques dealers, linens, and photos albums of ancestors from the old country. Going through my hope chest was like going through a treasure chest. From the moment we adopted our daughters, Grace and Natalie, I knew I wanted them to have their own hope chest filled with the memories of their adoption, their youth, our home, and the love I have for them. The most precious items in each chest are the baby blankets I designed and stitched by hand to wrap them in to bring them home. For each stitch, there was a prayer or blessing I said over their lives. Numerous other treasures mark milestone moments in their lives. I am very fortunate they are every bit as sentimental as I am. They have expressed how much they look forward to receiving their hope chests when they marry and to passing on the stories, memories, and traditions.
When my maternal grandparents married in 1921, one of the loveliest wedding gifts they received was a large cedar chest. That gift stayed on their sun porch all throughout their marriage and was passed down to my mother in 1978, who passed it down to me. Now, almost one hundred years later, that cedar chest contains my mother’s wedding dress, my grandparents’ wedding china, and cherished lace and embroidery work. It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and a treasured part of my family history.
Blue Island, Illinois
My mother’s cedar chest now sits at the foot of my bed. It was a gift to her from my grandmother for her wedding in 1930. Among many things, it contained her wedding dress, dolls from her childhood, and christening gowns for me and my twin brother. I can only imagine how my daughters will feel when they look through the chest someday. Thank you for the memories, Mom.
I inherited my grandmother’s cedar chest when she died. I was about eleven years old. Year after year, my mother and I squirreled away treasures such as towels, candleholders, and hand-carved spoons, dreaming of the day I would have a home of my own. Every now and then, I would open the chest and finger all the items, culling a few that had lost their luster. Now, decades later, I use many of those treasures in my home. The cedar chest is at the foot of our bed, storing family treasures for generations to come.
Fort Worth, Texas
I received my hope chest for Christmas the year I turned sixteen. My mother and I had different views about its contents, however. I hoped to fill it with items that I would use in my first apartment when I left for college. Mother saw it as a chest to store items for a future marriage. Nevertheless, it was very special. On Christmas morning, I discovered it beside the tree, and spent the next two years collecting art pieces, antique doilies, and ornaments. Thirty-one years later, the hope chest sits in my bedroom. Now it contains my children’s baby dedication outfits, noodle necklaces they made for me during their preschool days, and every Christmas list they’ve written in the past eighteen years. Funny—Mother and I had different visions for the chest, but it served the same purpose. My daughter Caroline will turn sixteen next year and she will receive her hope chest. May it be filled with hopeful possibilities and dreams come true as much as it was for me!
Boones Mill, Virginia
When I graduated from high school, my parents gifted me a wooden chest lined with cedar. During college, my mother would occasionally give me a crochet-edged set of pillowcases, china she painted by hand, a tablecloth from an aunt, and items for the kitchen. I added photos of my husband, the shirt he wore on our first date, our engagement announcement. The chest still sits at the foot of our bed and holds items from raising our four children. Still, when I open it, the smell of cedar brings back memories of wondering where life would take me, and feeling the love of my parents and extended family.
I grew up in Southern Europe in the mid-1950s and was fortunate to have two grandmothers who believed every girl should have a hope chest that grew in size until she got married. It would hold an accumulation of lovingly crafted and beautiful bedding in every pastel shade imaginable, table linens for formal and informal occasions, and kitchen linens. One of my grandmothers was born in the Victorian era and the other in the Edwardian period, and both were amazingly skilled at crocheting and embroidery. One of my most prized possessions is a fine white lace bedspread with beautiful rosettes made by my then 84-year-old grandmother. With failing eyesight, she made seven of these in one year for her seven granddaughters. After my parents immigrated to Canada in the late sixties, my grandmothers continued to send us beautiful linens over the years. My parents were unable to continue the tradition of the trousseau, but they instilled in us an appreciation for lovely antique furnishings, china, flatware, and all things refined by gifting us with some of those items for Christmases and birthdays so that when we left home, our everyday lives felt like a celebration.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
My mother placed great value and emphasis on the trousseau or glory box, as it was known when I was growing up in Sydney, Australia. She had one that contained a great many embroidered, crocheted, knitted, and hand-sewn pieces. It was all to be found in the black tin travel trunk, the one with all the immigration labels on it. The labels have since faded away, leaving only traces, but the contents are very much alive and being used in my own household today. These wonderful articles of wool, silk, and cotton were made with love by my grandmother, and every piece shows great attention to detail and style. I can just imagine the sight of a ladies’ embroidery and sewing circle, industriously working away and taking breaks for tea and biscuits throughout the day. Delicate laces, immaculate cross-stitching on cushion covers and wall mountings, crisp whitework embroidery on pure cotton sheets: I still use them all today.
New York City, New York
I can only hope that the tradition of lovely linens, china, crystal, and silver will be passed on to our children. It seems that this generation only wants things that go in the dishwasher or can be used a few times, then thrown away. I treasure the things I’ve inherited from grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and especially my mother.
Being a man, I never had a Hope Chest nor did I ever think of them while growing up. Despite this, I am delighted to read that so many others had these passed down to them or simply started their own traditions as time went by.
If I had a daughter I would LOVE to have one created out of crotch Mahogany veneers with intricate inlays of various woods to create one-of-a-kind piece to last forever ! I could certainly give her antique embroidered linens, sterling silver flatware and holloware as well as beautiful Herend china to start off her new life.
I wonder if Victoria would consider publishing a Classics issue specifically about Hope Chests and Trousseaus. Or, perhaps a book on this same subject?
I thank Victoria for this article and giving a new generation a taste of the past which sometimes seems lost forever !
God bless !
Te Deum Cottage
I truly enjoyed the letters about Hope Chests. It made me wish I had been able to acquire my Mothers. I do not know what happened to it. While growing up I loved when my Mother would open it. I remember a dark pink crocheted dress. She said my Grandmother made it for me; she died before I could get to know her. There was a Diary I discovered in my teens. My Mother wrote her favorites songs in it, poems, and lovely sketches. I am 75 now, maybe I will buy one and feel it with treasures for my Granddaughter. Some of my treasures will be Victoria Magazine!