by Dr. Lori Verderame
In its simplest form, the blanket chest was a large wooden box with a hinged lid. Many collectors will pay tens of thousands of dollars for these simple pieces of furniture. Although it functioned primarily as a receptacle for clothes and valuables, it also served as an additional seating place, for chairs were a luxury in most homes during the time period. Frequently chests were used for the storage of linens, especially those a bride brought to her husband-thus, known as a dowry chest. From this name evolved the name hope chest.
Evolution of the Blanket Chest
Blanket chests were very popular during the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. Over the years, drawers were added to the basic form, increasing the height, and gradually, a different piece of furniture evolved called the mule chest. The drawers in a mule chest were used to store slippers called “mules” by the colonists. As in European homes of this period as well as in the Colonies, closets were not typical in which to store their clothing, blankets, and household linens. Attics were not readily accessible, and cellars were apt to be damp. Thus, the chest came into widespread use.
In colonial America, blanket chests were constructed of various species of lumber ranging from inexpensive pines used for “country” type furniture to more expensive hardwoods such as walnut, cherry, and imported mahogany. The latter were used for more formal pieces of furniture that only the very wealthy could afford. Some of these chests were lined or constructed of pleasant smelling aromatic red cedar that repel insects.
Colonial Blanket Chests
The Colonists borrowed the idea and construction of these chests to America from England. Most Americans utilized them for extra seating in the bedroom and to store bedding, blankets and slippers or mules.
Most period blanket chests have a candle drawer or compartment to hold candles which dates back to the practice of storing candles before the onset of electricity. Many have bracketed feet like the chest shown here. Dovetail construction is common and most of the early examples were built with hand-cut dovetails. The hinged lid typically has a locking mechanism to protect a family’s valuables as some blanket chests also served as storage for money, ammunition, documents, and other valuable keepsakes.
Early ships’ records show the chests to have been the only furniture items accompanying many settlers. It is not surprising, therefore, that the chests built by 17th century joiners in this country were copied from English pieces designed in the prevailing Jacobean style popular in London at that time. As early as 1660, craftsmen in Massachusetts and Connecticut were fashioning paneled and carved oak chests, constructed of wide stiles and rails. These had floating panels with elaborately carved intaglio decorations. Instead of a paneled top in the English fashion, the Colonial chest had a plain pine board top. This unadorned top surface was ideal for seating and did not need cushions thereby making it more functional. In their crude fashion, these chests were the counterpart of the elaborate kas, armoires, and storage caskets owned throughout Europe by wealthy families. Many households would not do without one of these blanket chests as few homes had a source of heat within the bedroom. On chilly nights it was convenient to merely go to the end of the bed and extract more bed covers to keep warm.
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