What is a hope chest?
The traditional hope chest is a wooden box, sometimes lined with aromatic cedar, that fathers gave to their daughters in anticipation of marriage. Daughters worked with their mothers throughout middle childhood and adolescence, learning hand work skills like knitting, embroidery, weaving, and spinning, filling the chest with textiles for their future home.
When fathers sent their daughters into marriage with a dowry, poor daughters often had only their hand skills to recommend them to a future husband. By collecting textiles made with growing skill, the worth of the woman could be demonstrated, as well as her character. Finely spun and carefully woven linen towels, sheets and lingerie, often embroidered with traditional motifs would show both industry and artistic talent. And textiles had value. Well made textiles were a valuable inheritance. And textile skills could be marketed to enhance future income.
Cultural changes to the meaning of the hope chest
The hope chest went out of fashion when industrialization gave our culture mass produced goods. A woman’s worth was no longer demonstrated by skill with a needle, when this task could be relegated to a factory. Briefly, after WW 1, the Lane Company, a manufacturer of ammunition boxes attempted to revive the traditional hope chest, through marketing. During the depression the value of home industry gained importance and the cedar hope chest flourished. With WW 2, the value of a woman changed. Women entered the workforce with the war and their new responsibilities left little time for hand work. The baby boomers are the first generation in history to be brought up by the government school system, and not learn handwork at home beside their mothers and fathers. With women working there was little time to knit, sew or develop skill in embroidery, spinning, or weaving. And a boy better not be caught with a whittling knife at school.
Is there a place for the hope chest today?
Many would argue that its meaning is obsolete. When manufactured goods from China can take the place of domestic industry, there is no longer any need to provide for things for a home through personal industry. Further, girls prepare to be doctors, lawyers and business people and no longer look to marriage for fulfillment and provision. And if they do, it is their own secret, because the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is never answered with, “A mother.”
I disagree. In my view, the hope chest and its value as a repository of domestic and creative skills has never been more necessary. While, “The hope chest: A Legacy of Love” suggests a mother and father make and fill a hope chest for their daughters and sons, often with store bought goods, I view this as unnecessary and wasteful. For me the value of the hope chest is in learning the skills to fill it. Rather than labelling the hope chest as unnecessary materialism, using it as a treasure chest of acquired skills is prudent, especially in today’s economic upheaval, impending peak oil and inflation. Further, family values of thrift, industry, and creativity can be passed along during family times of creative work.
Handwork skills like knitting, spinning, sewing, and weaving, improve hand-eye coordination, strengthen concentration, enhance creativity and analytical thinking, and offer stress relief — many qualities needed in future employment. Further, skills acquired through learning handwork are valuable assets as our society seeks to cope with rising inflation. The threats of Peak Oil and Climate Change further impede our ability to manufacture and transport the textiles that we need to stay warm, safe, and healthy. The knowledge of needle-craft skills will become a valuable asset to our children and grand children, with future economic stresses.
Of course, these skills can be acquired without a hope chest. The hope chest is a symbol and a place to deposit the best work, for a future hope. Handwoven towels, embroidered pillow cases, knitted blankets offer proof that the future can be well furnished without mass produced goods and transport trucks, given time and access to fleece, nettles, linen or an angora rabbit.
Hope chests for homeschoolers
Homeschoolers, especially, can take advantage of the opportunities that learning handwork and filling a hope chest, avail. Sarah, my daughter, learned to spin on a drop spindle in Grade 1 and learned to knit shortly thereafter. Although the initial efforts to spin, knit, or weave are laborious and cumbersome, with practice dexterity and skill develop. Hand work can accompany studies in literature, history, geography, math, and science. One of Robin’s Great uncles, Alexander Crum Brown, knit complicated mathematical models to visually demonstrate organic chemistry concepts to his students at the University of Edinborough (1863 – 1908), as chair of Chemistry. Without television, our family spends winter evenings spinning, knitting, or doing other handwork, listening to stories read aloud, discussing them and enjoying the time together.
Hand skills are more difficult to learn in adulthood. The child is wired to copy the mother and to practice the skills learned through observation. Children pick up knitting and spinning much more quickly than adults. Children are not afraid to make mistakes. If you did not learn these skills in childhood, it is not too late. But realize that it may take you longer as your brain has matured and muscle memory is more difficult to acquire.
Skills to acquire for increased self sufficiency and to fill the hope chest:
- spindle spinning
- weaving on a rigid heddle loom
- hand sewing
- machine sewing
- rug hooking
- basket weaving
- cooking – recipe file
- soap making
- herbal medicine
What does the ideal hope chest look like?
An ideal hope chest is lined with cedar to repel moths and unwanted insects. It is a wooden box, or a bench, sometimes with a back to double as seating. The box part has a hinged lid with a locking mechanism to prevent the lid from falling shut on little fingers. It has tight seams to keep insects out. A well made hope chest will serve as a valued piece of furniture in the future home and be passed down to grand children. The hope chest is a good wood working project for a blossoming wood worker and can be made as simple or as elaborate as the woodworking skills employed.
When should my child get a hope chest?
Traditionally a girl received her hope chest, as a gift from her father at 13. My own daughter received hers, made by her father, in her last year of highschool, although she has been saving handwork to fill it for many years. The skills are the most imporant part of the process, the physical hope chest can come anytime before the woman leaves home. She can even learn the wood working skills to make the chest of her dreams, if that is her desire.
Is a hope chest strictly a feminine accoutrement or can boys have a hope chest, too?
Why, not? Boys as well as girls can benefit from learning handskills. Prior to industrialization boys and girls both learned to spin and knit. Boys and girls both are primed to copy their parents when young. If they see you working with your hands, they will want to do that, too.
The hope chest is another vehicle for self sufficiency and preparedness.
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Your turn: Do you have a hope chest story to tell? What one item is essential for a girl to make and put in her hope chest? Tell me in the comment section.