From the earliest days, humans have furnished their dwellings with the items they needed to survive and over the centuries the wooden chest, storage boxes and trunks have become the most common piece of furniture found in the home. Over time the simple storage chest has evolved into different styles and been modified for different uses: wooden boxes, storage chests, tool chests, treasure chests, blanket boxes and steamer trunks. Wooden chests and trunks have become the most useful, and most versatile piece in furniture’s history. We are often asked: what is the difference between a wooden chest and trunk? As long ago as 3,000 years ago the Egyptians had already developed advanced methods for building boxes and wooden chests with dovetail joints, including their ceremonial and burial sarcophagi with incredible carving, metalwork, inlaid jewels, and gilding. Even the poorest Egyptians would have used reed wooden chests to store things. Image 1 King Tutankhamun's Painted Chest (ruled 1332–1323 BC). Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
.” The items of jewellery include a bronze seal ring bearing the inscription L.CRAS.TERT.
However in Britain, life for even rich Saxons was hard and trunks were very simple. Very little is known about Saxon trunks and chests but they must have been basic and heavy. The storage chest really only came into its own in the Medieval and Middle Ages when wealthy nobles would own literally hundreds upon hundreds of wooden treasure chests and trunks, as indicated by their wills. They served as both furniture and luggage and storage chests, as well as treasure chests, tool chests and weapon chests, as well as to keep clothing clean and dry. They could even be used as food larders. The image below shows a Saxon storage chest.
The designs of wooden chests and trunks were heavily influenced by their intended use. Designs without feet or legs were easier for travelling, especially by cart or wagon. Designs of trunks and chests with legs were much better for use as a storage chest and kept their contents cleaner and with the addition of herbs were able to keep linen and clothes freer from lice and moths. Wooden storage chests usually had flat lids, which would make them more useful as furniture for seating or other purposes and travelling wooden chests were often covered in waxed leather to improve their weather resistance.
Oak was the favourite material for medieval wooden chests whilst walnut was another common wood for wooden chests in France, but not in England. Wooden chests were sometimes made of poplar or pine, and several softwood wooden chests survive from what is now Germany.
Aside from being the most important practical possession in a home, these early wooden chests began to reflect the life and status of the owner, which were reflected in their decorations and carvings. Panels and friezes began to be added to wooden chests, such as in the Tudor period where they had arches and rosettes or in the Renaissance period when motifs of flowers and scrolls began to appear.
During this period wooden chests were also referred to as coffers and often had large hand forged iron handles for ease of transportation. Coffers would often be covered in leather with a nail head trim. If an invading army was closing in and a person had to leave at very short notice, all their belongings would be loaded into the chest and they would leave quickly in the knowledge that everything they owned was safely with them.
The different types of early wooden storage wooden chests / boxes:
The Dug Out chest: In medieval Europe, the earliest type of wooden chest was the hollowed out, dome-top chest, made from one solid piece of timber dug out from the inside, then given a rounded top following the shape of the log. In the 1500s, two types of joined wooden chests evolved: the first, a simple, planked box chest held together with nails, and the second which now included framed-up panels worked with the grain of wood. By nailing together a structural frame then fixing panels to the frame with the grains cross-wise, panels could move along the grain with the expansion of the frame (because wood always shrinks across its grain, never in the direction of the grain), all without breaking or splitting.
Hutch Chest: during the c13th the simple six-board chest was developed to extend the front and rear panels to the floor to lift the chest off the ground. more durable tongue and groove joints were used on the longer panels and tops were flat. They continued to be popular through to the c15th. Large front panels gave a larger surfaces for carving and decorating.
Image 9 17th century chest, Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire (Accredited Museum)
Image 10 Rare early 17th century oak carved press cupboard, with naive carved face, circa 1640
In the early 17th century wooden chests were plainer and heavier and almost always made from Oak. By the end of the century wooden chests were more finely decorated and often made of walnut or mahogany. They were now decorated and inlaid with other materials such as mother of pearl or bone, and began to be lacquered in bright colours.
In the c19th and c20th with the expansion of the British Empire into new continents and lands and mass emigration storage chests were required for people to store and transport their belongings and simple pine chests were often used. Travel trunks were made especially for transatlantic ship travel. Steamer trunks were made from metal and wood and were styled like small portable wardrobes. These travelling wardrobes were fitted to hang clothes and were fitted out with multiple drawers and compartments.
In the c20th the styles of chests have changed as we experienced Art Deco and Arts and Crafts styles. During WWII, as materials were scarce, more simple chests and boxes were made, from easily accessible woods such as pine, to store and transport military supplies.
Today chests are still a popular furniture item in homes. The construction of modern chests has not changed in the last 300 years with dovetail joints being used for better quality chests and simple butted joints or mitred joints for others. The current trend for antique and vintage furniture including wooden chests and simple storage boxes from by-gone eras with their charming patina and intriguing history and stories has seen the resurgence of old chests from many times and styles. People have also taken an interest in researching the history of their chests and fining out about a particular style is not very hard.