THere are people so tidy and orderly in their lives that they even have a place to keep dreams.
Not everyone has dreams. Some only have nightmares; others wouldn't admit to having either. And some people keep their dreams just any old place: in worn-out suitcases, cardboard boxes, under the bed or pressed in the unabridged dictionary.
But there is a type who keeps her dreams carefully wrapped in tissue paper and put away in a hope chest.
In one corner will be folded a dream about what her house will be like, once she doesn't have to put up with any more of her mother's antiquated notions. And in the tray will be the dream about what she'll look like when she can decide all on her own what is appropriate to wear to breakfast. Hope chests hold the dreams of growing up and being the lady of the house and having everything just the way you want it.
The proper name for a hope ches is a "dowry chest," though some people mistakenly say "dower." A dowry, as you remember, was the portion a woman brought with her when she married. In ancient times, a dowry chest might be full of gold and precious stones - if the bride were a princess and her father indulgent. More often, a dowry chest was a rough pine box, with a quilt carefully put together from scraps, a sampler with a wise saying to hang for a picture or a set of underwear embroidered with who knows what thoughts.
Often, the dowry chest was made by a girls father, pounding the nails to work off the lingering worries about that boy she was marrying. And mothers have always contributed heavily to hope chests - sewing clothes and embroidering linens with the new monograms to help it all seem real.
In a way, you could say that hope chests have always been a manifestation of women's rights, because whatever gold or dross was in the chest was universally recognized as the woman's, and hers alone. If her husband died, or cast her off, the chest's contents remained hers to keep.
In the beginning, chests may have been the first furniture. When people were hunters roving across the land, their possessions had to be portable. The extra skin for winter, the mortar and pestle for grinding grain and the pretty rock from the last camping place all rode in a chest on the back of the horse - or the back of the person.
When camp was reached, the chest by the fire became the evidence that a place was, for the time, home.
Almost always chests carried the name of the owner, sometimes with the date of acquisition cut or painted on the front.
Such chests are found in every European country, dating at least from medieval times, with the decoration and the workmanship marking the origin as plainly as a map. Often the family shield or the bride's favorite flower will be carved into the side. (During the Dutch tulip mania, all sorts of varieties were worked into the decoration.) The themes are varied. Cupids, of course, are favorites. Unicorns stand for virginity, doves for bliss, hearts for love, mermaids for the half-human, half-divine nature of Christ, pomegranates for pleasure, apples for temptations and much red and orange in German countries to pay tribute to Donar, the ancient god of the home.
When settlers first came to the United States, almost the only furniture they brought were their chests - full of hope for the new land. In the rough-hewn pioneer house, the chest not only was used to keep safe their few goods, but also as a place to sit or serve from, or perhaps even as a baby bed.
Probably the most elaborately decorated chests belonged to the German settlers in Pennsylvania. The more prosperous had schranks or wardrobes. But the rest settled for chests. Often the lettering was in German script and usually, as in fractur documents, worked into the design. Often the decoration was done by itinerant artists who also lettered the marriage certificates.
According to The Flowering of American Folk Art by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester, if you really know your chests, you can tell the country by the decoration.
Those from Lancaster County in the mid-eigheenth century had arches and columns to frame the painted design. Sometimes the bridegroom is shown in profile. In Montgomery and Lehigh counties, the designs are geometric; in Berks County they are unicorns, horsemen and flowers; Mahantango Valley motifs are small and cleanlined; in Center County, the design is freer. The authors describe a typical chest:
"One Center County chest mixes memories of the Old World decorative tradition with patriotic symbols of the new nation. Dominating the central panel is a large American eagle, boldly painted in black and holding a vermilion scroll, where, instead of a patriotic motto, the artist carefully lettered the owner's name, in keeping with German tradition. The eagle clutches stylized tulips, in place of the usual olive branch and arrows and is surrounded by geometric symbols very like those used by Pennsylvania German farmers to decorate their barns."
New England girls also had chests, most of these decorated in the British tradition of thistles, flowers, trees, lions and eagles. Often the plain frontier pine was decorated with a wood graining for posh. Some decorators even painted on false drawers and occasionally the paint was patterned with fingers, sponges, corncobs, brushes, paper, or cork.
One fine chest from the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware has Adam and Eve and the apple tree.
The Index of American Design at the National Gallery of Art has many careful illustrations of dowry chests, painted from life in several states during the Great Depression as a way to employ artists while recording artifacts.
On one chest made in 1790 for Ann Beer, a pair of mermaids hold flowers. Another with a 1781 date has the name of the bride and groom. Maria Kutz's chest from 1783 not only has flowers, but also bees. The Hadley chest, from the town in Massachusetts where it originated between 1675 and 1740, is decorated with shallow carving in three panels. Mary Pease's chest, made by her father, John, is well known for its elaborate, overall carving.
In the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology there are a number of handsome dowry chests, including a fine one from Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, made by Christian Selzer in 1777.
Today, hope chests are not as common as they once were. Nancy Miko, assistant buyer in Garfinckel's bridal salon says, "Our brides are usually between 25 and 30 years old. They don't live with their families. Most of them have come to Washington from some place else to work."
The bridal registrar at Garfinckel's, Ileana Henderson, who comes from Romania, remembers that when she was growing up her mother and grandmother gave her, from their own stocks, all the china, crystal and linen she would need.
Becky Bryant, Woodward and Lothrop's bridal registrar, notes: "I don't know if many have a formal hope chest, but most seem to have a good start of things when they come to us. About 3500 a year register with us. Sometimes they'll start their silver when they are engaged and then fill out the pieces after they are married."
Retailers report that brides often have silver they've received from their families, piece by piece at Christmas and birthdays over the years.
Thelma (Mrs. John A.) O'Donnell of Arlington received her Lane hope chest from her mother as a Christmas present when she was in high school. "She gave me handmade pillow cases, hand towels and pieces of sterling on my birthday. So when I was married, in September, 1954. I had those things. After I was married, I kept my wedding gown in my hope chest. Then when Brenda, our daughter, was married in 1976, she wore my dress. Now it's put away in the chest for our younger daughter, Annette."
Brenda, now Mrs. John Liner, lives in Mechanicsville. "Mother gave me my chest when John gave me my ring, about the time I graduated from high school. I had some crocheted table cloths and dresser sets from my grandmother's mother and other relatives, as well as a set of stainless steel mother gave me. My sister even made me an afghan as a wedding gift."
Brenda knew other girls at Northern Virginia Community College who had hope chests. Annette has already collected many things for hers - and her mother promises that the chest will come soon.
Today, more and more people are thinking about old ways and simpler days. Many people like to make things themselves - especially such a treasured object as a hope chest.
Hump-back chests, lined with foil or flocked wall paper, foot lockers or metal trunks decorated with paint or fabric can serve as well. And surely there are fathers with home workshops who would rejoice to make elegant mahogany chests for their daughters.
After all, there are still those of us who have dreams and want a warm and secure place to keep them.