An Heirloom: Harriet’s Cedar Chest #52Ancestors Week 8

#52Ancestors Week 8
February 19, 2018
An Heirloom

The Gift that Starts the Home: Harriet’s Cedar Chest
By Marilyn Sears Lindsey

Over the course of human history many possessions that were used every day are now only found in museums, antique shops or landfills. Wash tubs, straight razors and fancy hats are rarely found in American homes today.

For centuries, young women learned to do needlework and cook as part of their everyday education. They didn’t always learn to read, write and cipher (that was often left for the young men) but they learned how to keep a house and family in good health and warm clothes.

Harriet Ruth Thurston, Harriet’s “Avona” Model Hope Chest
My Dad’s mother from Jordan Marsh Store,
June 16, 1923 Boston MA

For the working girl, a hope chest was the equivalent of planning and saving for marriage. “The bridal ‘trousseau’ (meaning ‘small bundle’) contained all the bride’s dowry items, including the clothes and property she took to her new home and new life. It is not clear exactly when the tradition of the wedding, or “Hope Chest” started, or where, but it is certainly one that has survived the centuries.” From
Handmade chests were given to young women as a symbol of good luck in preparation for their new lives. Many of the items placed in a hope chest were made by these women to show their skillfulness in sewing. This was a practical way to prepare for marriage and their new homes.

I’m so glad that Harriet Ruth Thurston, my paternal grandmother, had a hope chest and that it was handed down in the family to me. I wonder if the chest was purchased when Harriet was young and if she was allowed to choose the items that accumulated in her trousseau. Or maybe it arrived already full of heirlooms that had been handed down from her parents and grandparents.

On her father’s side, her grandparents were Charles Pleamon Thurston (1844-1920) and Harriet M. Downs (1849-1890). John Archibald Leaman (1815 – 1900) and Charlotte Berry (1824-1895) were her mother’s parents.

Her parents were Charles Henry Thurston (1874-1921) and Lucinda Catherine Leaman (1866-1942) and her siblings were Elizabeth “Bessie” Beaman (1893-1968) and Roy Earl Thurston (1903-1966); she was the middle child – just like me.

Harriet was born in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts on 2 Jan 1901 and grew up in Auburndale, Newton and Waltham, Middlesex County, MA. After my grandfather, Leslie Ray Sears died, she lived out her years in East Dennis, Barnstable County, Massachusetts where she worked at the Cape Cod Cooperative Bank.

Even her name may have been an heirloom. There were 2 Harriets among her ancestors: Harriet Downs (1849-1890), her paternal grandmother and Harriet Emma Thurston (1862-1941), her first cousin once removed, both from New Hampshire.

When she married my grandfather, Leslie, on 16 Jun 1923, the ceremony was held at her mother’s house in Auburndale. Her grandparents had all passed away and so had her father by this time. Her father died from tuberculosis when she was 20 years old. There were many other relatives present, among them Uncle Fred Thurston and an uncle from Quebec according to the newspaper article.

Lucinda was a domestic after her first husband died and Charles, her second husband, was very ill for years with tuberculosis until his death at the young age of 47.

“Wealthy families, on the other hand, saw other reasons to educate their daughters and this translated into forms of home education as well as the development of elite boarding schools mainly within urban areas. Access to learning was not just contingent on access to schools, however. In general, the growth of girls’ education depended a great deal on contemporary attitudes about the relationship of the sexes and on women’s place within society. Initiatives that favored girls’ education were always buttressed by arguments about how this education would serve to create better, more pious families. Rarely, if ever, was girls’ education seen as a liberal right contributing to the development of the individual in the 1800s.” From

The Victorian Era was all about what was right and proper. So the “Dear Abby” of the time received requests regarding:

“What shall I put in my hope chest?” asks the girl in a letter. “We had an argument about it last night, my sweetheart and I. He says house linens, towels and things — and I say personal affairs for my trousseau. Which is correct? There are four of us girls all filling hope chests and we want to know what is the proper thing to put into them.”
“Put in linen, my dear, and muslin and soft embroideries. Put lace in and lingerie and pretty filmy materials. Put the art of needlework in, fine stitches carefully taken, gay colors, gaily embroidered, bright ribbons.

Left: Lemon Verbena Center: Camphor Rose Right: Lavender
And day by day your chest will fill and fill, and hour by hour your heart will warm and warm, and by the time you have finished with your hope chest, anyone who would try to persuade you to live in a hotel or to board in somebody else’s house, even in that of your own parents, would be no friend of yours.
With every stitch you take, write “Home” upon your heart.
“H-o-m-e” spells home, and it doesn’t spell another thing on earth.
Home for tired hearts , home for weary brains, home for restless nerves — peace, comfort, the joy of living, the delight of little pleasures, the bright fire on the hearth, the plant in the pot in the corner. The books on the shelf and on the table — your chair on one side and his not too far away on the other. Moonlight or starlight, sunshine or rain — foggy or windy, old or young — careless or careful — beautiful or plain — H-O-M-E. And put, too, in your hope chest, first of all — love. True, honest, faithful, trusting love.

from What You Should Put In A Hope Chest 1920
Families have many influences from different parts of the world just like hope chests do. According to my DNA Results, I have ancestors from:
• Great Britain (58%)
• Ireland (18%)
• Western Europe (15%)
• Eastern Europe (7%) and West Asia (2%).
As far back as the ninth century, in the Middle East, these chests were called “dower chests” because dower means: to give a dowry to. Cedar chest is the name often used in Europe and “glory box” is used by women in Australia. Isn’t it interesting that the concept of women taking items to start their new homes is common worldwide? Maybe a ninth century Greek woman took her dower chest with her when she got married and this started the tradition in my family.
This custom changed over the centuries because when the Colonists made the great oceanic crossing to the Americas, they put all their possession in one piece of luggage for the entire family. Mahogany, cherry or walnut was used in the US if cedar wasn’t available but a cedar lining was used because of its natural protective qualities; it can repel insects and fungus. The Ancient Egyptians also used cedar to protect their golden treasures and papyrus documents.
This design shows a Portuguese influence. This particular motif suggests fertility and good luck – from Europe into East Asia – and it is particularly appropriate for weddings. These trunks were usually secured with a hasp and padlock. While locks and keys were a Portuguese and Dutch innovation, another locking device, one that uses 3 rings and a padlock, came from China.
The hope chest dates back centuries, revealing a rich and fascinating history. It originated at a time when marriage included the exchange of property between families. The idea of the hope chest was brought to America in the 18th century by waves of European immigrants, including the German settlers that would come to be called Pennsylvania Dutch. Amish settlers had a long tradition of simply crafted chests with ornately painted decorations.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, cedar chests were also used as pieces of furniture to sit on because chairs were so scarce. With no space for closets or wardrobes, cedar chests helped colonists use space wisely and efficiently. Traveling light was essential, and entire lives were crammed into a single cedar chest. The contents represented hope and the foundation of a new beginning.
Nowadays we could purchase a hope chest on like Harriet’s for anywhere from $90-$545 depending on the condition. It doesn’t have to be for women only or brides only. It could be filled with graduation gifts or inspirational books or family photos.
Long gone, for most in the western world, are the day when a woman was expected to go from her parents’ house to her husband’s home with nary a five minute pause in between. These day many women go onto post-secondary education and/or join the workplace, often living on their own, with friends or a partner before settling down (if they so choose).
I like to imagine Harriet’s 1920s photo album, Dad’s school paper, photos and certificates, her recipe box, their Army Air Force Aircraft Warning Service Reserve certificates, the Brag Book of photos of her 6 grandchildren, her music box that has seen better days and her Seth Thomas Grandmother Clock gracing the insides of her hope chest.
In preparation for this blog post, I contacted my siblings and cousins for any tidbits they may have known about Harriet’s cedar chest which got my cousin, Steve thinking about the olden days. He remembered a ring full of keys that Ray had sent him. After seeing this photo of her hope chest, he went to find them. One in particular had him curious. Lo and behold, he found it, mailed it to me in Oklahoma and it fit!
The key went from the store in Boston to all these Massachusetts addresses from Needham, to 19 Central Southwest in Weymouth, to 39 Hilldale Road in Weymouth, to 42 Belvoir Road in Milton, to the Cedars and the “Little House” in East Dennis, to Oklahoma, to Delaware and now finally back to Oklahoma. That’s a lot of mileage for just a key.

What else would Harriet’s Hope Chest have in it nowadays than blank albums that are waiting for the Family Photo Historian (me) to fill with stories and photos of new heirlooms and family traditions? But that’s another story…




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