‘hope chest’: meaning and origin

Of American-English origin, the expression hope chest denotes a chest or box in which a young woman collects articles towards a home of her own in the event of her marriage.
– in Australian English:
glory box;
– in British English:
bottom drawer.

Both the expressions hope chest and bottom drawer occurred, for example, in the following crossword clue, from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Friday 22nd April 1983:

Australian equivalent of a hope chest or bottom drawer (5, 3).

The earliest occurrences of the expression hope chest that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From A Page for Women—Latest in Styles, published in The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA) of Saturday 30th April 1904:

A Good Thing, Even If She Becomes Old Maid—Treasures to Store in It.

“No it is not a ‘dower chest’; that is what the engaged girls start; this is the ‘hope chest,’ and the girl that has a ‘hope’ chest is the one that ‘hopes’ to be engaged some day.”
The hope chest is the latest fancy, and it has largely come about by the recent desire that girls have to sew, embroider and make their own things. When a girl makes an especially dainty garment, she does not like to put it on and wear it; she wraps it in soft tissue papers, into which she has placed a small sachet, ties it with her favorite color of ribbon and puts it in the hope chest.
“I found the loveliest pattern of lace the other day, and I could not resist buying it,” said a pretty girl that made her debut a few months ago. “I had no need for the lace, but I felt I could not let any one else have it, so I bought it, a dozen yards in the piece, and not another piece like it in town. I shall put that lace in my hope chest, and when the time comes I shall have it used in my trousseau.”
This hope chest may be a small trunk, or it may be only a large, firm hat box, something that can be conveniently set apart for the collection.
Linens are likely to form a major part of the contents of the chest. A girl takes a fancy to a pattern of toweling and buys enough for a half dozen towels. The material she carefully cuts and then hemstitches the ends, while somewhere on its length, as fancy dictates, she embroiders her initials. This is the correct thing to do, as the bride goes to her husband with all of her things marked with her own name or initials. Should the hope chest girl never utilize her chest for her wedding dowery, no one will be the wiser, for there are only her own initials or name on her things.

Seeking Favorite Designs.

Should the girl have a favorite flower or design, she will search the shops until she finds table linen of that pattern. The valley lilies come in exquisite patterns with tiny sprays of flowers scattered over the cloth and more of them fashioned into a pretty border. Tablecloth and napkins to match are found with hours to be spent on the hemming of them all. Then there are all the dresser scarfs, tray cloths, plate mats and articles of that character to be made.
Should the girl decide to have all of the linens match in designs and embroideries, this will take time to collect or embroider. There are bags of various kinds to add to the hope chest, and all of the little cases that are to be used for the different articles in different rooms, shoe bags, silver bags, comb and brush bags and a dozen other kinds that only the girl with the hope chest in her mind will think of adding to it. Some of these hope chests are begun before girls leave school. Perhaps gifts from a school friend are too delicate for everyday service, so they are put in the hope chest.
One girl that has a hope chest, and, as she says, has no hope that she will ever be married, declares that she “would not be without the hope chest for anything. It is the greatest possible convenience for things that I make just to be doing something.” There is never any hurry about having a contribution for this chest, and so the things that are added to it may be made as carefully as the owner can wish.
It is not often that any color is in any of the articles in the chest, unless it be ribbons, and often these are omitted, as they crease and lose their freshness. “We have great times with our hope chest,” said a mother, who has an interesting daughter just out of school. “We have very little in it yet, but we have good times watching for exactly what we wish to put in it.”

Note: Several U.S. newspapers reprinted extracts from the article first published in The Indianapolis News of Saturday 30th April 1904, and the following picture illustrated the extracts published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of Monday 16th May 1904:

2-: From one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column Society, published in The Wichita Daily Beacon (Wichita, Kansas, USA) of Saturday 1st April 1905:

The wedding chest of our grandmother’s day is rarely dignified by such a name now. It is the “hope chest” or “love box” and into it go all the pretty things which a girl accumulates for the home which she hopes sometime to have.

3-: From the column Madame Spectator’s Observation, by Catherine Allman, published in the Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois, USA) of Wednesday 11th December 1907:

Linen chests are all in favor again, and prospective brides are supposed, out of the sentiment of the thing, to embroider or hemstitch each dainty trifle that goes into these hope chests. Even the delicately-scented, old-fashioned lavender of our grandma’s days is back in favor, only the linen is not spun and woven by the bride’s fair hands, but is bought by the bolt at the department store. For several years the all-white embroidery has held away in the matter of lingerie embellishment, but in some of the sets shown in the most up-to-date establishments a touch of color, possibly the monogram, wreath encircled, is done in the most delicate hues of pink or blue to match the ribbons that accompany it. One original-minded little lady, whose maiden name began with a “B,” had a honey-bee designed instead of the conventional old English or script. Charmingly appropriate, n’est-ce pas?

The earliest British-English occurrences of the expression hope chest that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the Bristol Times and Mirror (Bristol, England) of Tuesday 5th May 1914—I have not found out who Agnes Kelso was:


Yes, every girl of you who starts out neat and trim to her first “job” or “place” or “position,” means to do her best and earn the most she can, until—she marries, says Miss Agnes Kelso. You needn’t frown and look scornful, or blush and deny it! Deep down in your heart you haven’t the faintest idea of spending the rest of your days in school, or in an office, or behind a counter—until you are old and grey and crabbed. And you wouldn’t be a wholesome, natural girl or woman if you didn’t want, some day, your own mate, and the home of which every girl dreams.
You see the girl of to-day differs from the maiden of yesterday or the day before, who stayed in her father’s home, fashioning with her own hands the stores of household linen for her “Hope Chest.” For her there was only one vocation—that of the home, and she received her training for it during her girlhood at her mother’s side. If she never married—there was always much to do in her own home, or that of some relative, and her housewifely education could not go amiss.
But the industries and factories nowadays are doing many of the household tasks that used to keep our grandmothers busy. Because they are being done for us we have to pay for them, and now, instead of doing the work of the home the daughters have to leave home to make money to pay for the necessities of life, because they cost so much more than they did in our grandmothers’ or even our mothers’ time.
In these days, when girls must leave home early to support themselves, you naturally receive an important part of your training for life out in the world among strangers. You spend that “Hope Chest” period in doing tasks which seem to have no connection with what you would like to be doing. But, whatever it is, the important thing for you and your future is not what you do but how you do it. Any position you hold is more than a dull round of monotonous tasks to be done, day after day—it is a door of opportunity into the world itself.

2-: From Our Ladies’ Letter, published in the Evening Telegraph (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Monday 11th May 1914:

In a country district a few summers ago an old lady showed a collection of quilts, some half a century old. The best of them had been made for the wedding chest of a daughter of the house in the days when mothers and daughters spent much time sewing against a future wedding day. The girl died young, and the quilts, with their thousands of exquisite stitches, were put away and never used. The gem of the collection as shown by the dear old lady who has guarded the contents of the “hope” chest since her sister’s death was a truly wonderful piece of work.

One thought on “‘hope chest’: meaning and origin

  1. Your post had me googling to discover the “Australian equivalent of a hope chest or bottom drawer.” Thanks for yet another interesting dive!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.