Love in a box – that’s what a hope chest is.
When I was five my mother gave me a piece of fabric stretched on a hoop and a threaded needle and showed me how to embroider a pattern in backstitch. I had my very own embroidery kit in an ice cream bucket, complete with scissors and teeny tiny pin cushion. I still remember how many times I sewed that duckling holding an umbrella to my dress! Maybe my mother was a bit crazy, or medicated, or something, because really? Who tries to teach a five-year-old how to embroider? I know, because I looked at my first daughter at age five and there was no way I was giving that child a pair of safety scissors, let alone A SHARP NEEDLE. I also thought, man oh man, my mother was awesome to teach me so young! I don’t know what happened to that scrap of fabric but it was the beginning of my lifelong love of handwork and the starting point of my hope chest.
What did you make for your hope chest?
My mother taught me how to sew linens and I began collecting embroidery patterns to embellish them. Confession to my mother: I stole them from her box of craft stuff in the attic. But she probably knew that. I still have them, by the way, and those things are VINTAGE! I could open an Etsy shop and sell 1955 Aunt Martha’s iron-on duckling patterns for some big bucks now. But I won’t, because I plan to use them and make tea towels for my new house. Or for vicariously living a second childhood, however you choose to look at it.
Another skill I learned was how to tie and bind a quilt. I remember sleeping under the quilting frames in my bedroom with a pink gingham baby quilt in progress. Just so you know, we made some dreadfully ugly things with gingham and yarn in the 70s. Perhaps that is part of the reason hope chests exist, to hide hideous yarn-tied baby quilts in a dark, quiet place. But it taught me the process by which a quilt is planned and made, and was a great floor blanket for my babies to spit up on.
This is one of my favorite quilts. It has doilies in every white block, and is about the prettiest thing in my house right now. It’s had a useful life and needs a bit of mending. This one was made AFTER the pink gingham spit up blanket. My taste had improved a little by then.
My grandmother was an accomplished craftswoman and taught me other handwork skills. One year she gave me a throw rug to latch hook with yarn, which I used until it fell apart. (I wonder if they still make those kinds of kits, only not in a nightmare 70s brown and orange color scheme?) Grandma Bertha showed me how to tie macrame knots and make a houseplant hanger. I hung it in the kitchen of my Very First House, a single-wide trailer, and then learned that I am not very good with
living things real plants. Rest in peace, dear spider plant.
All of these finished projects went into my “hope chest” – a cardboard box that held the things I was making, as well as household items that I was given or purchased with babysitting money. I remember getting a frying pan for Christmas when I was 16. A FRYING PAN! Several of my friends were also working to fill their hope chests as well. We would talk about what we were making and compare our thrift store treasures, essentials like complete sets of glass luncheon plates and cups.
Aren’t hope chests completely old-fashioned?
I completely agree that the idea of a hope chest is clearly a dated tradition. Hopefully that’s why you are reading this, to fill that nostalgic yearning inside which can only be answered by the scent of cedar on hand knitted facecloths. Years ago it was customary for a bride to display all the things she had made ready for her new home and role as a wife. When I dreamed of my wedding reception, I envisioned it with all the pretty things I had made laid out for the guests to see and gasp in amazement. “Look, Harriet! A frying pan! And a set of luncheon plates and cups!” Swoon…
In my family, my mother and aunts had all displayed their hope chest collections when they got married. In retrospect, I now realize that a better display at a wedding reception would be packages of toilet paper. Honestly, if a girl knew just how many rolls of toilet paper four kids can go through in cough and flu season, she would STOCKPILE. The awesomeness of her wedding reception would be measured by the height of the toilet paper package mountain.
Giving respect where it is due, my mother’s family, going back for generations, do some incredibly fantastic things with needle and thread, and their hope chest displays were glorious to behold and stand in reverence and awe. I am truly grateful for the rich heritage from which I have benefited.
On the right, hardanger with pulled threads and cross stitch. On the left, embroidered dishtowels made by my mother, probably around 1958. She had them in her hope chest when she married, later giving them to me as a wedding gift. I am not planning on allowing them languish in my cedar chest any longer, but considering remaking them into kitchen towels of a more suitable size and fabric. Stay tuned for an update!
The gift that starts a home – a Hope Chest
Now that I have raised a family I appreciate even more the love and patience of my mother and grandmother, as well as other women in our community, to teach me homemaking skills without psychological damage to them or to me.
I took 4-H cooking from a neighbor in her farmhouse kitchen, and I learned you can cook a chicken. My mother was a ground beef only kind of mom. She could prepare ground beef in one thousand ways. Cooking is a great skill to “keep” in your box of love hope chest, perhaps represented by handwritten recipe cards given by the ladies of the church for layered gelatin and carrot salad to serve on your luncheon plates. You know what I’m talking about, right? The cards that say, “from the kitchen of ______” and are folded in half so the giver can write in mostly illegible handwriting the details of the above mentioned gelatin salad. And how many it serves.
My home-economics teacher showed me how to follow a sewing pattern and construct clothes that fit. And my blessed mother – hallelujah to her awesomeness – gave me her FLATBED SINGER FEATHERWEIGHT SEWING MACHINE. Jealous yet? Yup, still have it, still works perfectly, and I shall revel in it’s glory forever more. Because those things are now worth their weight in GOLD. And it’s MINE. And I’m not going to do something stupid like give it to one of my daughters. And one daughter hath already asked, and I hath answered with a hearty “NAY! Tis MINE until I DIE.” And then the three of them can fight over it.
I also learned the basic skills to crochet and knit. Once I crocheted a purse, really and truly. It was the 70s! But stuff fell out between the stitches, so it wasn’t very practical. No, I never considered lining it. And no, it did not end up in my hope chest. It’s with the duckling embroidery, wherever lost things go hang out.
But what about the real deal, a cedar lined hope chest?
As a teenager I dreamed of having a Lane cedar chest. Those 1960s advertisements I read in old magazines in my Grandma’s basement were pure propaganda, and I completely believed my life would be incomplete without one.
My parents weren’t able to give me such an expensive gift but they did give me a frying pan and a cardboard box to keep it in, so I cannot complain about their lack of generosity. Or their brilliance in allowing me to buy one for myself. The dream lived on for me, so I saved and purchased my very own Lane cedar lined hope chest after I became engaged. I’m sure it was one of those things at which my betrothed shook his head and wondered if he had proposed to the right woman. (Turns out he hadn’t. Proposed to the right woman, that is. Because we divorced. Sad, huh? But that meant that eventually I married JB, and that’s about the most awesome thing that has happened in the last couple of decades for me. But I’m biased, and still newly married, and wanting to have a hope chest filled with embroidered tea towels. So that maybe shoots my credibility just a little. But probably not.)
We, as in my first husband and I, squeezed that hope chest into our home sweet tin can, where it sat, filled with my baby blue silk flowered wedding bouquet, and leftover reception table centerpieces made from canning jar rings and tiny plastic swans, and after a while, a few toy cars hidden in there by my son when I wasn’t looking. But eventually my cedar hope chest went into the attic of my parent’s house where it has remained ever since.
After thinking it would never happen again, I married in 2015. In a nutshell, JB and I frolicked through 13 dates over four months, exchanged about 10,000 text messages, decided the relationship was over, got engaged, and two weeks later we were married, all the while living about a hundred miles apart. Which I don’t recommend doing unless you are a little crazy, or a lot in love, or really really confident in God. Which we were, all three.
My husband and I are creating a home together. I love the vintage look in pretty much everything, and have a bit of time to make some yummylicious handmade linen closet clutter. I plan to get my cedar chest out of the attic and have a place for it in our home today. It is such a lovely place to start over, knowing exactly what my taste is and what I want. I’m channeling Emily Post about things like a well-appointed house. You should read this chapter of her 1922 etiquette book, it’s informative.
Because really, a marriage is love in a box.
A hope chest isn’t just for material possessions. A marriage is so much more than pretty towels and matching aprons. In my opinion, the skills and knowledge to create a healthy relationship and a happy home are never outdated or old-fashioned.
Why your passion for reviving the hope chest tradition?
Years ago I watched a friend working on a cross-stitch. I had never seen cross-stitch before so I decided to learn and make personalized Christmas stockings for my husband and myself. This resulted in one of my biggest project failures. As I finished the final stitching on the cuff of the second stocking, I realized that I had spelled my own name wrong and left out a letter!
I’m dusting off some rusty skills and hoping to learn a few new ones. I’d love to share with you the projects for the hope chest that inspire me and the ones that just don’t work. Perhaps I can share a few snippets of my life as a second wife and evil stepmother. And as a foster mama, because JB and I have TODDLERS in our home, for how long we don’t know. But it’s been a few months and let me tell you, full-time toddlers at age fifty is something else.