The hope chest, also known as the bridal trousseau or wedding chest, has existed since the times when traditional gender roles prevailed in agricultural societies. Parents might give a hope chest to their daughter when she is still a child or even a baby. As the girl grows, she stores items in the chest to prepare for her marriage.
French agricultural societies had strict gender roles, with the males supporting the family through farming and other trades, and the females keeping the house. For this reason, parents provided a bridal trousseau for each baby girl, and relatives and friends gave household items for the chest. The girl would collect more items in the chest, such as tableware, linens, candlesticks, clothing and towels. By the time the girl enters marriage and runs her own home, she would already have the items she needs in the bridal trousseau.
In the Victorian era, a wedding chest reflected a bride's social standing and wealth. Fashion magazines and newspapers of the era used to feature the wedding chests of popular brides, detailing the extravagance of the chests and the items in them. For example, a Victorian bride called Florence Adele Sloan who married an English lord in 1895 had a trousseau that cost $40,000, or 70 years' wages for an average Victorian man. Another bride, Bettina Rothschild from a wealthy European banking family, had a wedding chest that cost 200,000 francs and contained expensive silk, lace and jewels.
Spread to America
The custom of hope chests spread to America with European colonials, and wealthy Americans began displaying their wedding chests and the treasures inside in fashion publications. However, according to Vintage Connection, by the 1890s society had lost the taste for public exhibition of wedding chests and the personal items in them, which often included lingerie. A fashion magazine published in 1891 reported that displaying intimate lingerie for the public to see was immodest and distasteful.
The hope chest evolved from extravagant exhibition to practical preparation, with fashion magazines shifting their focus from detailing luxurious hope chests to giving tips for average chests. Young girls from poorer families meticulously stitched clothing items, especially underwear, to store in the chest. According to Dawn Aiello of Victorian Lace, Bloomingdale's 1880s catalogs advertised bridal sets that included items such as nightgowns, dresses, petticoats, corsets, stockings, tablecloths and towels. By 1905, brides mostly stocked the hope chest with household items, such as linens and tableware.
Today, the hope chest serves as storage for keepsakes, clothes, seasonal bedding items and documents. Hope chests also work well as seats, tables or display surfaces for decorating items. Some families still use hope chests traditionally, and some girls still store household items in hope chests to prepare for their weddings. The practice is now linked to wholesome Christian values.
- Photo Credit woman with chest image by Kirill Zdorov from Fotolia.com
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