The Cedar Chest: Hope, Glory and Bottom Drawer

At first glance, this appears to be a Lane waterfall Art Moderne chest but it is actually an E.R. chest made by Ed Roos Co. of Forest Park, Ill.

This is the genuine Lane waterfall chest of the 1930s and 1940s.

Any search for information about the family heirloom we call a “cedar chest” will eventually lead you back to the ancient Egyptians, who made boxes of cedar to store important documents and treasures. Sometimes the boxes were even carved from a solid block of cedar. But the use of cedar was simply an accident. It was the default option, since there was so little wood in Egypt and since they were importing wood (cedar) from Lebanon anyway for other uses, it was the most logical material.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages. A portable storage device such as a chest with a lid—sometimes made of a hollowed log—was often the only piece of furniture a family owned. It not only served as storage but it also could be a table or a chair and, best of all in those uncertain times, when it was time to go, everything they owned went with them in this one piece. The type of wood used was immaterial as long as it worked and was portable. In more peaceful times, a little art was lavished on the plain boxes and they became statements of style and wealth for the upper classes, reflecting the current furniture and architectural styles of the period. And, again, the actual wood used was secondary to the decoration. Still, the chests were often lined with cedar to give fabrics a nice smell and to repel insects.

The chest or—“cassone” or “coffer” —was the original receptacle piece of furniture. From it evolved every other type of receptacle furniture, such as chest of drawers, sideboards, china cabinets, credenzas, court cupboards and desks.

This is a model more typical of Ed Roos chests of the late 1920s to mid-1930s.

When colonists came to the New World in the 17th century, one of the most useful articles they brought with them was their chests with all their possessions. It was reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but the Colonists were quick to adapt the form to their special needs using whatever material was available. One need was for a smaller chest in which to store bedding material, like blankets, that could be accessed quickly on cold night. This led to the smaller-size “blanket chest.” The best examples are the famous “six board” chests, which used pieces of lumber so wide that each side of the chest was made of a single plank with no joints. Since a box has six sides, including the top and bottom, the chest was called a “six board chest.”

Along the way the chest acquired another purpose. A special chest was given to a young woman as she approached marriageable age. It was called a dowry chest since it was intended to be filled with the things the family gave to the young woman as their contribution to the marriage. This was a custom among less well-to-do families who would not be able to give a cash dowry. Over the years the dowry chest acquired other names such as the “glory box,” pertaining to the riches it supposedly held, and in the U.K. it was often called the “bottom drawer,” since a drawer was used instead of an entire chest. Eventually, and especially in the U.S., it came to be called a “hope chest” and contained not the dowry but personal things the bride to be “hoped” would contribute to a successful marriage.

Until the 1950s, the hope chest was an important part of the American marriage arrangement ritual, thanks primarily to Ed Lane and the Lane Co., which cleverly marketed hope chests by giving out small samples chest to young ladies. But Lane was not the only manufacturer of chests, now made of solid cedar or was cedar lined. During the 1920s and 1930s, almost every furniture manufacturer tried its hand at making hope chests and the term “cedar chest” became the ubiquitous term to describe almost any chest used in the home. Major manufacturers besides Lane included Ed Roos of Forest Park, Ill., which operated from 1916 to 1951, Caswell-Runyan in Huntington, Ind., and Cavalier of Chattanooga, Tenn.

This is a solid cedar chest made by Farley & Loestscher in Dubuque. Iowa. F&L chests were comparable in quality to Roos.

Chests you may find today are of two general styles: solid cedar and veneered with a cedar lining. The solid cedar chests are usually from the earlier periods of the 1920s to mid-1930s and tend to be less stylish. Most can be refinished with no loss of original value. The key to refinishing is to use a clear shellac undercoat under any other finish. Cedar is an oily wood and will migrate into most finishes if not sealed first with shellac.

While many of the chests from the late 1920s and early 1930s are veneered in the styles of the day, including Jacobean, William and Mary, Chippendale and Queen Anne, probably the most popular chest of the 20th century is the Art Moderne chest with the waterfall front edge produced by Lane. Art Moderne is the style we today call Art Deco, a term coined in the 1960s. Typically, the waterfall chest has the veneer on the top running from back to front as opposed to side to side, giving the effect of going over a waterfall as it crosses the front edge.

Refinishing veneered chests is no different from refinishing any other piece of veneered furniture. Just remember the veneer is quite thin, usually 1/28 of an inch thick, and while it can be stripped and sanded using reasonable caution, just watch for exposed edges and loose strips of veneer.

One of the most common complaints with cedar chests is the loss of the cedar smell. There are some products on the market that purport to replace the smell, and some DIY experts recommend sanding the interior to enhance the smell. But why spend money or work hard? Let physics do the work for you. Simply wipe out the empty chest with a wet rag and allow it to air dry. As the moisture evaporates it draws the scented natural oil closer to the surface by the process of osmosis.

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