The Dower Chest, better known as a Hope Chest or Blanket Chest in present time, is referred to by the Pennsylvania Dutch as Ausschteier Kischt. This piece of furniture is the most cherished and most representative of the Germanic Immigrants who came to live in Pennsylvania during the late 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Young girls between the ages of eight to ten were given Hope Chests inscribed with their names and usually the date of presentation. This storage chest was filled with household items that the girl made, was given or purchased in anticipation of her future marriage. On her wedding day, this completely filled Hope Chest was proudly placed in the “Wedding Wagon” to be taken to her new home. Items would have included blankets, bed linens, baby clothes, quilts and some family heirlooms.
The design styles, dimensions and construction types differ among these Hope Chests which shows that the craftsmen did not copy one anothers work. The foot design changes from Dower Chest to Dower Chest with a large variety of bracket feet, rounded ball feet or no feet at all. Some Hope Chests had two or three drawers along the bottom, while others had none. Many Blanket Chests had inlay designs or special painted designs.
The painted designs on some of these Hope Chests are very elaborate which has enabled historians to be able to categorize them by region and to recognize specific craftsmen. These Dower Chest designs included the use of inlaid leaf and flower motifs, unicorns, hearts, birds, hex designs to ward off evil spirits, flower designs mainly of roses or tulips, the name of the girl receiving the Hope Chest and the date that the Hope Chest was presented.
The two common elements of these Hope Chests are the top closing lid and the dark wood staining or paint. Dark coloring was necessary for the design elements to stand out, especially for the inlaid motifs. Beautiful hardwoods of Walnut, Oak and Eastern Pine were mainly used in the construction of these finely crafted Blanket Chests during this early time period.
These Early American Hope Chests were not made with cedar on the inside. Cedar linings and bottoms are the additions of present day craftsmen to their Blanket Chests. This is a favorite feature among buyers since cedar eliminates insect pests and releases a wonderful aroma every time the lid is opened. This fresh smell can be rejuvenated by simply roughing the cedar with small grit sandpaper.
Even though society in many regions has discontinued the tradition of giving Dower Chests to their young daughters, beautifully constructed Hope Chests are still loving given as wedding presents or as a special gift.
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