Blanket & Dower Chests

A Shaker Union Village blanket chest in walnut

p4A ItemID F7938338
A yellow and green painted blanket chest in pine, American (Pennsylvania), 19th century

p4A ItemID F7938143
A primitive painted blanket chest, American, possibly Connecticut, mid 19th century

p4A ItemID F7937834
An Ottoman Syrian carved and mother-of-pearl inlaid blanket chest, 19th century

p4A ItemID F7937169

Blanket Chest or Dower Chest?

The rectangular wooden lift-top storage box is a widely identified furniture form often associated with Pennsylvania German decorative arts. Utilitarian in design, it features a lift top, iron hardware and usually rests on feet. The form was brought over from Europe and dates back to the Middle Ages. Sometimes referred to as a “dower chest” or “hope chest,” the preferred terminology is “blanket chest.”

A general confusion surrounding the terms centers on the 18th and 19th century practice of giving a young person a dowry of household goods and furnishings in preparation for marriage. The custom of giving a son or daughter personal gifts for future use was part of an inheritance system while the parents were still alive. It was widely practiced in Pennsylvania German communities, and the tradition remains today among the Plain Sect. The gift of such a useful and primary furniture form was often part of a dowry, but does not warrant the form being called a “dower chest” or a “hope chest”. The latter is a term generally associated with Victorian sentiment (1).

The blanket chest was often made upon commission with its date of origin and owner’s name on the front in a stenciled cartouche or painted script. A greater number of chests have survived with female names as opposed to males, although both exist today (2). Often birth and baptismal certificates, which were important personal documents of faith and genealogical record, were pasted on the inside lid of blanket chests. Today, these manuscripts are perceived and valued for their artistic merits, much like the chests themselves.

Pennsylvania German decorated chests were commonly constructed of pine, poplar or walnut. Softwood blanket chests were often paint-decorated incorporating such motifs as tombstone panels, unicorns, tulips, birds and hearts. Hardwood examples sometimes had inlay decoration. One such type of inlay decoration was done with molten sulfur. Grooves were gouged out and a molten mixture was applied. Wooden string inlay and veneer was also used as decoration embellishment. Many Pennsylvania German examples were elaborately paint-decorated, while chests bearing English Quaker influence were generally not.

Many chests were constructed with “tills,” small lift-lid containers most often mounted near the top of the interior left side. Tills sometimes included locked drawers underneath and perhaps a hidden drawer. Small personal valuables could find safekeeping in the till.

Crab-lock spring mechanisms were commonly used as keyed locking devices and involved a metal spike on the lid that when inserted into the mouth of the lock would bite closed. The lids themselves were mounted onto the lower storage frame by wrought iron strap hinges or box hinges. Many chests rest on turned or bracket feet.

The blanket chest was a well-utilized piece of furniture commonly kept at the foot of the bed. They were brought over by German speaking immigrants in large numbers and widely produced in this country. Found in almost every 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania German household, the form today remains important to collectors of American furniture.

(1) Fabian, Monroe. The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer, 2004.
(2) Lasansky, Jeannette. A Good Start: The Aussteier or Dowry. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Oral Traditions Project, 1990.

Reference note by Contributing Editor Karl Pass.

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