The British-English expression bottom drawer denotes a young woman’s collection of clothes and household articles, kept in preparation for her marriage.
This expression occurs, for example, in the following from the Lynn News (King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England) of Friday 24th August 1990:
Kay helps boost bottom drawer
WINNING the prize of a voucher worth £75 in a competition came as a timely surprise for a bride-to-be.
Miss Carole Moore, of 244 Main Road, Clenchwarton, turned up trumps in the Allied Maples competition featured in Kay Today.
She decided to spend the money on quilt covers to put in “the bottom drawer”.
Synonyms of bottom drawer are:
– of American-English origin: hope chest;
– in Australian English: glory box.
Both the expressions bottom drawer and glory box occurred, for example, in Our Australian Cousins. A Pre-War Impression, by Beryl Starr, published in the Northern Weekly Gazette (Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, England) of Saturday 2nd April 1921:
Self-reliant as I thought only the American girl could be, with a sweeter, more girlish air than that fascinating young woman of the world, quick-silvery to her taper finger nails, possesses, the Australian girl is pretty, with a more fragile prettiness, however, than that produced by our dear old foggy, beautifying clime, extremely hearty, hospitable, and generous, and very keen on improving herself. In the smallest out-ports of South Australia I found the girls going in, heart and soul, for private theatricals, elocution, music, song, and art. And as for fancy needlework, I have never seen sweeter confections of muslin and silk and lace than those I saw in the glory boxes of my Australian friends. (“Glory box,” by the way, is the Australian euphonius [sic] synonym for our English “bottom drawer.”)
Robert Holland (1829-1893) defined the expression bottom drawer as follows in the Supplement to A Glossary of Words used in the County of Chester (London: Published for the English Dialect Society by Trübner & Co., 1886):
BOTTOM DRAWER, metaphor. used for the imaginary receptacle where a girl is supposed to keep articles which she has prepared for future possible housekeeping.
Thus, if a young woman were to buy a set of tea things, or a tablecloth, or what not, and were asked what use she had for such things, she would answer, “Oh! they’re to put in my bottom drawer.”
The British author Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) described what a young woman had to accomplish in relation to what was called bottom drawer in the following passage from Anna of the Five Towns (London: Chatto & Windus, 1902), a novel is set in the Potteries, i.e., the area around Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, where the English pottery industry was based:
—as republished in 1912 by Methuen & Co. Ltd., London:
THE Wesleyan Bazaar, the greatest undertaking of its kind ever known in Bursley, gradually became a cloud which filled the entire social horizon. Mrs. Sutton, organiser of the Sunday-school stall, pressed all her friends into the service, and a fortnight after the death of Sarah Vodrey, Anna and even Agnes gave much of their spare time to the work, which was carried on under pressure increasing daily as the final moments approached. This was well for Anna, in that it diverted her thoughts by keeping her energies fully engaged. One morning, however, it occurred to Mrs. Sutton to reflect that Anna, at such a period of life, should be otherwise employed. Anna had called at the Suttons’ to deliver some finished garments.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘I am very much obliged to you for all this industry. But I’ve been thinking that as you are to be married in February you ought to be preparing your things.’
‘My things!’ Anna repeated idly; and then she remembered Mynors’ phrase, on the hill, ‘Can you be ready by that time?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Sutton; ‘but possibly you’ve been getting forward with them on the quiet.’
‘Tell me,’ said Anna, with an air of interest, ‘I’ve meant to ask you before: Is it the bride’s place to provide all the house-linen, and that sort of thing?’
‘It was in my day; but those things alter so. The bride took all the house-linen to her husband, and as many clothes for herself as would last a year; that was the rule. We used to stitch everything at home in those days—everything; and we had what we called a “bottom drawer” to store them in. As soon as a girl passed her fifteenth birthday, she began to sew for the “bottom drawer.” But all those things change so, I dare say it’s different now.’
The expression bottom drawer refers to an actual drawer in the following from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Saturday 30th May 1835:
THE WIDOW WOMAN.
The word Widow is employed, on the north as well as the south bank of the Tweed, as the general term for a woman of whatever rank who has lost her husband. But to describe an individual of very humble rank who has experienced this misfortune, the common people of Scotland use the phrase “widow woman,” which they always pronounce in a tone of mild and pitying melancholy. The application of this term is indeed so limited, that we can be at no loss in resolving into an individual portraiture the leading traits of the whole class.
[…] Her house […] consists, besides a kitchen, of two rooms, the best of which is devoted to her only son, a young artizan, or else, if she has no son, to some lodger of like sort […]. The other room contains her marriage chest of drawers, which she has contrived with much difficulty to retain amidst all her misfortunes. Before that piece of furniture, she may occasionally be found meditating over some piece of old dress, which awakens the recollection of happier days—perhaps the bridal gown itself, once white, but now yellow, not altogether without the help of tears—for never can this garment be looked upon without reviving the image of him for whom it was first put on, and sending her soul once more to weep over his lowly grave. Perhaps, opening the bottom drawer, she slowly draws forth the patch-composed and well-quilted bedcover, which exercised her industry in still earlier years, when her predominating object was to prepare for her union to the youth of her love, and every rapidly flying day was the gay counterpart of that which preceded it. Not a square or a hexagon throughout the whole composition but suggests the memory of some early companion who gave it, or some happy incident which occurred at the time it was passing under her needle. And for a quarter of an hour at a time will she often muse over this historical sheet, sighing for the friends and the days of which it is now the only chronicle.
2 thoughts on “‘bottom drawer’: meaning and origin”
The “bottom drawer” sounds functionally equivalent to what we call a “hope chest” in the U.S. Is “hope chest” used at all in the U.K.?
Cf. ‘hope chest’: meaning and origin
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