Cedar of hope

I have a cedar chest in the living room, placed between the sofa and the armoire.  I store Pendleton blankets in it now, but it was my mother’s cedar chest or hope chest as it was sometimes called. Opening it up the other day, I came across the trademark on the lid with the scientific name of the red cedar used to construct the chest: Juniperus virginiana.  I don’t recall ever having seen that before.

I find it quaint, old-style, to burn the imprimatur into the lid.  Frankly, I am not one given to hope, but rather working for a desired outcome seems to pay off better than wishing.  Cedar chests, however, were storage boxes of blankets, sheets, pillowcases and fine dresses for young women in the 1920s and 1930s in Texas, my mother being one of those hopeful for the ‘right man.’  The Lane Company that manufactured cedar chests went out of business in 2001, after having started constructing ammunition boxes for the U.S. military in The Great War.

As I open the cedar chest today, the red cedar smell permeates the blankets and handkerchiefs I store.  The scent of cedar brings back the vignette of my mother leaning down, opening the lid of her hope chest and caressing white sheets and pillowcases as I sat on the bed and read comic books as a boy.  Cedar is a tree.  Cedar was hope.


Notes, corrections and additions:

As the contents of such a chest would primarily be linens, construction in moth-repellent cedar, or at least a cedar lining, was popular. The Lane Company of Altavista, VA (1912, closed 2001)[4] were a notable maker of cedar chests. After developing production-line techniques for making ammunition boxes during World War One, they turned these production techniques and a patent locking-mitre corner joint, into vast numbers of chests. This was aided by strong advertising, using a teenaged Shirley Temple as a model, in a campaign targeted at GIs and absentee sweethearts of World War II. They were particularly well-known for their practice (since 1930) of distributing miniature (12″ long) cedar chests to high-school girls as advertising gifts.[3] The Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is the “cedar” used in making moth-repelling cedar chests and drawers, as well as pencils.

‘Hope Chest,’ Wikipedia, accessed March 15, 2012.



Filed under Juniper, Recollections 1942-1966

15 responses to “Cedar of hope

  1. Hello Jack, this is a beautiful post. This cedar chest is so special to you, because it once was your mother’s hope chest. I think I know how you feel just by having it near. Your mother is very pretty.
    I have an old oak chest of my fathers. He used if for his things when he was travelling as a sailor. (It’s a middle size chest, but the lid almost crushes your fingers if you don’t take care). I wish I could ask him now about the history – I’d like to know a little more about where he was travelling with this old chest.
    Thank you.

  2. I have my mother’s cedar chest. I know there is a stamp in the bottom, but I’m not inclined just now to empty everything out to see what it says. The cedar still is fragrant, though, and even though the contents have changed, I well remember exploring the chest as a child. I still have two silver dollars that my dad gave me – they lived in the chest, inside a tiny beaded purse. They still do.

    I had one of those small cedar chests, too. I would have received mine in the mid-50s. I had no idea they were given out as bits of advertising, but of course that makes sense.

    I smiled at your use of “wishing” in one place and “hope” in another. I understand them as two quite different things, and just tucked “wishing and hoping” into my draft file as something to explore. Many thanks!

    • I have the small cedar chest, too, that contains letters of my father to my mother during WWII. There’s a coarse expression about ‘hope’ that has stuck with me. The one about wishes: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride them.” I do think we need to dream, hope and wish. Sets the framework for work, or something of that sort. I have pity for those, however, that have lost the drive to go on. It’s very complicated. I am curious about your different views of wishing and hoping — I tend to generalize rather than parse a lot of the time.

  3. Jack, what a sweet recollection, and photo, of your mother and the old practice of keeping a “hope chest”. I wonder if we don’t all need one these days. I just began reading a new book by Joanna Macy (a woman with 40 years commitment to peace, justice and deep ecology) and Christ Johnstone called “Active Hope, How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy”. She tells me hope is not wishing. She says: “Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for…Active Hope is a practice….It is something we do rather than have”. It is not passive nor blind. It moves from a clear view of reality. I find it helpful that Active Hope does not require optimism. It requires intention and action.
    Cedar is a tree. Trees here, my “cedar chests”, are leafing out again in spite of everything. Trees show me active hope.

    • I think the Active Hope concept is very, very viable as you define it. Having a clear view of reality and working with it or to change it is good. I like your phrase, “Trees show me active hope.” Thank you for Macy’s work.

  4. What a treasure. I had forgotten about Lane chests. When I graduated from high school, they were still giving out miniature cedar chests as graduation presents (we couldn’t afford the larger one, so this was very special to me). I wish I could say I still had it, now that you’ve posted this story.

    The photo of your mom is so dear…she is just beautiful, and looks to be very young. What a wonderful posting.

    • Yes, she was young, about 17, I think. I have her miniature cedar chest just above the desk where I write so I can see it and the letters from Dad within. I never connected the small chest with the larger one she purchased until this morning when I wrote this post.

  5. One of your best pieces of writing Jack. Thank you for sharing this bit of your personal history. I assume the photo is of your mother, she is so beautiful!

    I love a whiff of cedar. It always reminds me of the woods.

    • Yes, Bill, that is mother. Thank you. And, yes, when I smelled the cedar I was reminded of the woods, the outdoors. Funny how opening the cedar chest in a bedroom, far away from the woods, brings the outdoors in. Cedar was as much about that as repelling moths.

  6. That old chest is a treasure, but perhaps the small one and its contents even more so.

    One of my wife’s prized possessions is a rather large chest that her grandfather made from a single log he found floating down the Missouri river. It’s made in the fashion of a cabin.

  7. Hej Jack, I’m not quite sure what you mean now, for your cedar chest is wood, and then you say you haven’t got a trunk. What’s a trunk in that connection? My oak chest is also just a chest.

    My father was in the Danish navy when soldier, It must have been in 1924-26, and before that he had been out sailing since his 12th year with his brother-in-law, who was a skipper on the Scandinavian countries, and I think they were in England too, but he was never across the Atlantic or further, so they sailed the North Sea and the Baltics. After the navy he worked on my grandfather’s tile work in North Jutland. Then he met my mother, got married and had two children (me and my fresh little brother) – and his fate was to be a loyal husband taking care of his family.

    I have always felt he longed for something else. Do you know what I mean when I say that he had the Sea in his eyes.?

    I’m sorry I always talk so much.
    Grethe ´)

    • Your father’s fate — well-said phrase that describes so much of our habit patterns. The ‘hope’ chest was made out of cedar, but was often referred to as ‘cedar chest.’ A trunk is also a chest, but young women referred to their ‘trunk’ as a hope chest, a storage place for fine linens they would use one day when the met the love of their life. One and the same. I’ve never heard the phrase, ‘Sea in his eyes,’ but it means a lot.

  8. Thank you!

    My mother had a furniture (a chest of drawers, a bureau?) where she kept her fine linen which was embroidered with initials, meant for the day, when she got married. And it was all white. I still have some of it. It was another time.

    People took so much care of their clothes and everything. And if you see the old photos then they always wore hats, no matter if it was on everyday basis or Sunday wear!
    My chest is filled with old drawings and sketches and with my diaries from 1980 up till now!

    Now I’m talking again…………
    This is the last for now!
    Grethe ´)

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