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 became the most useful, and most versatile piece in furniture’s history.
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
In ancient Greek and Roman times people stored their belongings in wooden chests and coffers, whilst the wealthy owned more ornate beautifully made trunks and treasure chests.
The image above shows a Roman storage chest used as a strongbox contained over 200 coins together with a collection of gold and silver jewellery- it was found in the peristyle. The wooden framework of the box is covered with iron sheets, and is inscribed “Pythonymos, Pytheas, and Nikokrates, the workers of Herakleides, made [this].” 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.
The Evolution Of Wooden Chests
The Wooden Box : A wooden chest is a variation of a wooden box: a simple flat-lidded piece of furniture. The construction is very simple, with a single board for each side, bottom, and the lid. A total of six boards. The boards are simply butted against each other and nailed together. Their basic construction means their joints are weak and metal bands or iron straps to act as reinforcement. As they are used often used for stacking or transportation they have no legs and are usually undecorated.
The Standard wooden chest: probably the most popular basic design for a wooden chest and often used for travelling chests. It follows the basic wooden box design, no legs, butted joints, undecorated and when used for travelling will have banding and strapping for strengthening. The top is often curved to allow water to run off its top. Additionally leather or a waxed or oiled covering is used to preserve the wood.
The six-board chest: takes the standard storage chest design further by elevating the chest off the ground by extending the end panels. Although more complicated designs existed the six-board chest was cheaper to fabricate and so were popular between c9th and c16th. This is perhaps the most common household wooden chest for this period
. Viking chests – were developed from six-board chests. With extended side boards to lift the chest off the ground. Overall Viking chests were strengthened with better overlapping joints as well as broad straps for reinforcement and protection. The bands were then often then decorated.
The Viking Chest :The Viking wooden chest is very similar to the six-board chest. The two end pieces are extended down to form slab legs, raising the wooden chest off the floor (or ship deck). Instead of the simple overlap design used in the six-board chest, where the front is nailed to the end-piece, Viking wooden chests have both the front and end-piece overlapping each other, so nails reinforced the joint in both directions. Although this is a better joint than the simple lap of the six-board chest, the resulting joint is still not very durable, and Viking wooden chests often show the use of metal reinforcing straps. Pirate chests have always been modelled on this type of chest!
. Image 7 9th century Viking chest from the Oseberg ship burial, Oseberg, Sem, Vestfold, Norway. Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo, 149
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.
The Panel Chest: used panels of thinner and lighter wood that were inserted into stiles that were joined together. Like the hutch chest the panels are often decorated with carvings or painted.
The Dovetail Chest: dovetail joinery was not new in c15th it was not a popular chest style as the joinery technique was challenging. The best chests of this era were dovetail chests. Of course it was a style that was to dominate the c18-c20th.
The c16th saw the most change in the evolution of the storage chest. During the Elizabethan period, the humble chest or trunk began to evolve. Legs and extensions were added to create boarded chairs, stools, court cupboards, tool chests and drawing tables. Settles were chests with flip tops that turned into a table to a bench with storage.
The most notable change occurred around the mid 1600s with the introduction of drawers. Chest makers were adding two drawers below the chest for storage of smaller items. These chests were also called mule chests. The simple addition soon led to the entire frame being filled by drawers and the top being fixed to the frame. In a very short time the chest became a ‘chest of drawers’. The humble chest was now transformed into a function piece of furniture that allowed stored items to be organised and easily accessible. Like the evolution of the chest, chests of drawers’ construction improved to ensure better joints and styles.
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.