Grandma's Treasures

By Janell Kennedy

Did you ever get to create a time capsule at your school? Or better yet, were you ever the class that got to open a time capsule from a class 10 or 20 years earlier? It is a great time of recollection, laughs at some of the crazy styles, and remembering sad times and what we learned from them. While traditional hope chests are much more than a time capsule, modern hope chests, what I would like to call teachable treasure chests, can take on a new meaning with the shift of the culture.

Traditionally, hope chests are wooden boxes or trunks that hold special or costly articles of clothing and other goods that would act as a dowry for a bride in the 1700s. Families would often arrange marriages with the intention of merging family fortunes, and the dowry, which was often contained or partially contained in the hope chest, was an attempt by the bride’s family to entice the groom’s family into an arrangement, offering valuable items and skills that would elevate the marriage.

The dowry could be anything: money, property, or in the case of the hope chest any items a woman brings into the marriage as a gift to her husband. A hand-embroidered towel or tablecloth would have some monetary value, but it was also a statement that she had delicate needlework skills that would serve the family well. However, dowries became a burden on poorer families who could not accumulate enough incentive to snag a decent match and as the world modernized, the practice has been abused, so nearly all modern cultures have outlawed it.

Often, many of the items in hope chests were passed down through generations, so not only was there a marital and sometimes financial significance to the contents of the chest, but there was a special, personal significance for the bride to remember her own history. It provides the bride with a remembrance of the previous family matriarchs, but also hope that these items passed down can assist with securing her own future.

The chest itself does not have to be of a particular material to be considered a hope chest. As wooden chests tend to be a little costly, plastic bins you can buy for $10 from Walmart will do to store the items until you are able to acquire that special, perhaps more elegant container for your memories and hopes. However, if you are able to consider a wooden chest now, the most popular type of wood is cedar. One reason is because moths seem to stay away better when cedar is used, but the nicer-sounding reason is that it smells heavenly. If the lighter colored wood, like cedar is not your particular preference, don’t fret! Many of the cedar chests on the market today are either made from cedar or inwardly lined with cedar, but can be stained on the outside to look like, cherry, oak, pine, or even black or white.

So, putting a dowry in the hope chest is outdated… what can you put in a hope chest that will have relevance to today’s culture and tomorrow’s generation? As mentioned in the opening, a modern title for a hope chest might be “teachable treasure chest,” with the intent to fill it with items that will build up future generations and provide them with hope, to put a new twist on the definition of the term “hope chest.” While my own ideas of what to put in a modern hope chest might take a little more effort and consideration, the benefits to future generations are worth the work. Here are a few ideas of what you might consider filling your hope chest with:

  • Write letters to the person you know will inherit the chest and include advice and anecdotes from your own life
  • If biblical scripture is important in your family, include some hand-written, favorite scriptures that were special or helpful to you in your own life
  • Select some photos that would be very precious to the person receiving the chest; try to include photos from old generations along with a story about their lives
  • A childhood storybook that is very special to you
  • A drawing or craft made for you by your child (especially if that child will be receiving the chest) that is very special to you, even if it is falling apart
  • A DVD with videos that are special to you from your childhood and/or the childhood of the person who will be receiving the chest
  • The recipient’s baby book (if they have one)
  • Special, favorite jewelry that you’d like the recipient to also cherish

These are just some ideas. If there are any special items from past generations that are more specific, it’s a good idea to include those as well, along with an explanation of the significance. Everything you put into the chest should communicate to the recipient a message. A childhood story book that you read when you were little will likely be tattered, and the inclusion of it communicates that you hold childhood reading in high importance. A pipe cleaner and construction paper craft, especially if it was made by the recipient as a child, communicates the significance you attach to a gift from that person, even if the gift is not functional at all. It shows that you cherish the person’s heart in giving it rather than what the gift is.

All of the items included in the chest can serve as a teachable moment for the recipient. So take care what you put in there and consider the message it is sending. Whether it is a chest full of great-grandmother’s old china, grandma’s hand-embroidered wedding dress, and your mom’s favorite costume jewelry and pants suit or loaded with hand written letters, photos, and memorable childhood items, a hope chest can inspire, instruct and invigorate future generations.