History of the Bridal Trousseau

Phyllis Inspiration 27 Comments

When I graduated from high school, my dad made me a blanket chest out of walnut wood. I had seen one in an antique store that was completely out of the question to buy. I took him over to see it and he made me my very own blanket chest that I still cherish today. It took the place of the traditional cedar chest that was popular in my day. As girls prepared for having their own home, we stored things that were given to us in hopes we would marry… maybe that’s where the name Hope Chest came from! Some mother must have coined the phrase in hopes that her daughter would marry.

Emma Reeves interned with us last summer and I asked her to do a little research on the Bridal Trousseau. I know you will enjoy reading her essay on the bridal trousseau, which includes information on the Hope Chest.

The Bridal Trousseau
by: Emma Reeves

A wedding is always a joyous time of celebration. There is a delightful sense of anticipation in the air for the bride and groom and the journey that they will embark on together. Beginning centuries ago, it was traditional that a bride-to-be would have a trousseau, a collection of items that she gathered to prepare for her future marriage. The items would have been made or collected throughout her young life, with the goal of the trousseau sustaining the new couple in their marriage. The word trousseau is derived from the Old French diminutive trousse, meaning to wrap in a package or bundle. This made it easier to transport the collection to the bride’s new abode.

Trousseaus in the form of dowries date back to ancient civilizations, including Babylon, Greece, and the Roman Empire, but the marital gifting reached a peak of popularity during the Renaissance, specifically in France. A trousseau often showed how wealthy the family of the bride-to-be was. French trousseaus consisted mainly of linens, many of which were family heirlooms. It was not uncommon for a trousseau to contain mostly handmade linens such as dishtowels, nightgowns, petticoats, bedding, or tablecloths. In Victorian England, if a bride was especially wealthy, she might host a trousseau tea in order to show off the items to family and friends. In more recent times, a typical trousseau could contain a wide array of items such as bridal accessories, jewelry, cushions, china, silverware, pillows, quilts, clothing, or lingerie.

There was one linen item that many trousseaus contained: a bridal handkerchief. While the origin of this tradition is difficult to pinpoint, it seems the Romans used a bridal handkerchief of sorts. The handkerchief was wet with perfume and used to wipe the bride’s face, then worn on her shoulders or neck. Once this tradition arrived in France, the handkerchief evolved into an elaborate handmade creation that was used only by royalty or the upper class. The fabric frequently was as fine and smooth as gossamer with embroidery and lace decorating the edges.

Over the years, bridal handkerchiefs began to be used by all brides, regardless of social class. Some handkerchiefs were more elaborate than others, but all were personal to the bride. Embroidering the combined initials of the bride and groom became customary in the mid 19th century. For the monogram, the two letters were interlaced or superimposed as a representation of the marriage union.

The more modern version of the trousseau is the hope chest, also referred to as a dowry chest, cedar chest, or glory box. A hope chest represented the hopes for a young woman’s future marriage and wellbeing. These chests were typically crafted from cedar in order to best protect the linens inside from moths. The Lane Furniture Company of Virginia was a popular manufacturer of hope chests; having learned production techniques from making ammunition boxes in World War I. Often the chests as well as their contents became family heirlooms. After her wedding, a new bride would store her wedding dress inside of the chest to preserve it for her daughter.

Hope chests were used throughout the 1900s, but faded out by the late 1970s. Upon her high school graduation, a young lady would receive a hope chest, either a family heirloom or a new one. She would then fill the chest with items that she and her mother had either made or collected for her future wedding and home.

Although trousseaus and hope chests are no longer in fashion, a young woman can still begin preparations for her future home. Linens can be embroidered and dishes collected in order to give her stability when she embarks on her new life. Her loved ones can assist her in making and gathering these items as a way of showing their love for her. Wishing blessings on a newly married couple’s journey is a courtesy that will always be in fashion.

Do you have a most cherished bridal gift?

Comments 27

  1. Your little history is very interesting. I remember my aunt’s hope chest, which was a (awful) sideboard in 1960s style. She filled it with useful and ridiculous things (like a lot of salt and pepper sets). She met and eventually married a man on her ocean trip to England. It was many years later that she returned to claim it all. Months later the house was immersed by a flood and it would have been lost.

    Meanwhile, I’m searching for a good list of the linens that comprised a ‘traditional’ trousseau. I’m on facebook zakkawithali if you have any ideas.

  2. When I was in High School, my brother was three years younger than I and for his Shop Class project, he made me a large chest that resembles the one in your picture. He gave it to me for my Hope Chest. I bought little things here and there and put it in my chest. By the time I married in 1980, I had some pretty special things stored away and was so excited to use them in my new home! I also remember the magazines that I read during that time always had beautiful ads for Hope Chests. Great memories!

  3. Such a wonderful journal sharing! Thank you to Emma for her research. Just the other day my friend was telling me that when her father had received a wonderful bonus from work during the Christmas season one year, he asked each of his children what was the one gift they wanted most. My friend wanted a keyboard, her brother wanted a computer and her older sister wanted a Hope Chest to place at the foot of her bed. Perhaps you will have other entries that research some of the traditions we hold dear to us.

  4. I have my mother’s and one of my aunt’s cedar chests that I treasure and use for storing family memories, which include several quilts made by my mother and grandmother prior to my mother’s marriage. I too was given a miniature Lane cedar chest from our local furniture store when I graduated from high school. I still have that small chest.

  5. When I was in college my grandmother decided that I should have a cedar hope chest after the Lane company had given a smooth little modern one to each of us graduating from high school. Granny found that local Woodlawn High School Manual Training/Shop students were making beautiful cedar chest by a handsome older pattern and arranged to have one made for me. When I became serious about marrying my college sweetheart Grandpa gave me two sets of the finest of sheets and pillow cased and two sets of the finest towels, all white by my choice. As our wedding approached he gave us place settings of the silver pattern I had chosen when a local store gave each senior high school girl a silver spoon of her choice. The cedar chest was one of the gifts I gave my eldest son’s wife. In addition each of the wives of my three sons was given one of my rings for her right hand or a then- legal, lacy, pierced ivory fan. It was a joy to have a hope chest and delight to pass along a family treasure to each new daughter whom my sons brought down the isle to the family.

  6. I live in “Small Town USA” but for all girls graduating in the 1950’s (for me,1955) a local furniture store gave each one a small jewelry Lane chest. I still have mine and have “treasures” in it for safe keeping!

  7. Both my mother and grandmother had lovely cedar hope chests. My daughter now has my mother’s and loves it for its history and for the storage it provides. When l married the hardware store in our small town gifted me with a wooden rolling pin which I still use and treasure.

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  8. What an interesting article!
    I am blessed to have Mother’s Cedar chest as well as mine. Also, the small Lane cedar jewelry chest I was given in the ’60’s by our jewelry store is identical to one Mother received in the ’40’s.
    When we married, I carried two hankies on top of the Bible that was under my wedding bouquet — one was from my family and the other was from my groom’s.
    I frequently give linen and lace hankies to brides and their mothers as small rememberances for their big day. Most recently, I shared hankes with an entire small wedding party. A treasured photograph for us all is one of the new husband wiping the happy tears of his new wife with the handkerchief we gave him just before the ceremony!

  9. When my older sister graduated from high school she received a small version of the hope chest from the Lane Company and a local jeweler. Just three years later when I graduated I was so disappointed they no longer sent these. For us it represented dreams of our futures.

    She still uses hers to this day as a jewelry box. I recently saw one in an antique store and nearly purchased it but I knew it would be a poor substitute for receiving one as a young girl starting off one her new life.

    My parents did give my grandmothers cedar chest when I got engaged. My friends “made me a rainbow” of nightgowns in different colors to place in it. I don’t know if you women do this anymore but probably not.

    1. I still have one of these small chests. I got it upon graduation also, keep my most precious items in it. Things from the births of children, tokens from Grandchildren.
      I also have my Mother’s cedar chest, received it full of items upon her passing. I have already told my daughter it is her’s when I leave this earth.

  10. Different cultures treat the whole wedding thing differently. In some parts of Africa, it’s the groom who has to gather things up and impress/bribe the bride’s family. They think it’s insane that in Europe/the U.S. it was the woman who had to supply a dowry.
    A great-uncle made me a huge cherry-wood pastry board when I was born. I guess he figured I’d be a homemaker (and in fact, years later he made comments about how I should quit my career and make babies). I do use it now, but it’s my brothers, who are excellent cooks, who are jealous that they don’t have pastry boards.

  11. I have my Mother’s cedar chest which is now ninety years old. I keep all our old treasures in it along with some of her treasures. As everyone says it is wonderful to reminisce every once in a while. And sometimes you forget some of the treasures you have saved.
    Brings back wonderful memories.
    Barbara Duguid, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

  12. I raised my daughter by myself from age four. We didn’t have lots of “things” because we lived paycheck to paycheck but we made beautiful memories with what we had. When she reached sixteen I was able to give her a handmade chest made of pine for her to start a Hope chest. To this day she proudly shows off her chest.

  13. A treasured bridal gift…let’s see it’s our gift to ourselves our Wedding Photo framed that is proudly placed on our bedroom wall. I met my soulmate and cherish our precious memory of that day that moment our vows and of how blessed I am. Carmel

  14. I am blessed with my grandmother’s chest made by her fiance in the late 1800’s..My treasures are there..embroidered dresser scarves, Dad’s christening dress,wedding Bible…….But most of all are the treasured memories of four generations.

  15. We spent each Saturday afternoon and evening with out Paternal Grandparents as our mother had to work. Pop-pop was always busy in his garden, the yard, his workshop or making shoes for our dad who had been afflicted with Polio in 1933.
    Pop-pop was out and about early each day checking what people had put out to get rid of when he found an old dresser he used to make me a hope chest when I was 8. I was thrilled and began to plan.
    Just after he died, in 1974, my Aunt Ruthie gave me HER hope chest from the 1930’s! It is red mahogany, carved with the bun feet. I have treasures in both of them now.

  16. I have the bridal hankie my mom gave me 30 years ago. I carried it at my son’s wedding this past June.

    When that same son was confirmed 12 years ago my mom pinned the pearl tie tac my dad wore on their wedding day on his tie and wrote him a beautiful letter with it. He proudly wore it on his own wedding day.

  17. Jayne,
    My story is like yours–What was I thinking! I was ‘talked in to’ (by my husband) of disposing of the hope chest that my great-grandfather handmade for my mother. Oh, how I’ve regretted that over years. However, there is a happy ending: my mother’s sister is giving me her hope chest, identical to the one I let slip away.

  18. Lovely story! I married in the late fifties, 2 years after high school graduation and my husband to be, for the Christmas before our wedding, gave me a hope chest. It is very mid-century modern made by Lane. While still in high school a local jewelry story provided every senior girl who wanted one, a small replica of a cedar chest for our jewelry. I also have my mother’s old cedar chest which is probably 85 or so years old which is much more ornate than mine. Mine now holds many old but very treasured items. I haven’t looked in my mom’s or mine for that matter for years. Reminiscing is good for the soul, I must take a day or so to do some chest diving, kinda like dumpster diving?

  19. Didn’t they also have a quilt in the Trousseau? Or was that just in the south or poorer families. I bought a rolling pin which I still have and a bunch of other things I didn’t need.
    You can’t wear a quilt but the young lady would spend time making a good one and an everyday one, as I remember.

  20. My grandmother gave me her hope chest, which was a carved mahogany chest on bun feet. I promptly “antiqued” it in a green color, much to her dismay – and later mine! I also took the bun feet off and disposed of them. What was I thinking! That is why I always counsel young people and the new modernists who are turning away from “brown furniture” – DONT give it away! SOmeday you may be kicking yourself for turning down the relatives’ offerings. I still have the hope chest, and the horrid green is gone and it has its remarkbale finish back…but I still miss those bun feet as it sits proudly at the end of a guest bed!

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