Over Centuries the wooden chest has been the most common and fundamental piece of furniture. Wealthy nobles would own hundreds upon hundreds of chests, as indicated in the history of their wills and death-rolls. Chests in the Middle Ages served simultaneously as both furniture, luggage and storage.
Wooden chests were the most important furniture item of the medieval noble household. They were used to store treasures, as a secure place for weapons, to keep clothing clean and dry and often as food larders. They were a multifunctional item used in everyday life.
Chests are also the most useful items of medieval furniture used by the great nobles in the Middle Ages for travelling from manor to manor with their vast hoards of riches. Many of these wooden chests have unfortunately been lost or damaged but the few that remain are treasured antiques.
During this period chests were also referred to as coffers and often had large hand forged iron handles for ease of transportation. 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.
Some coffers even acted as safe vaults for banks. For instance during the 12th Century King Henry II requested that coffer chests should be placed in all Churches across the land to collect cash contributions for the relief of the holy land.
The different types of Medieval Chest
The designs of wooden chests were heavily influenced by their intended use. Designs without feet or legs were easier for travelling, especially by cart or wagon. Designs with legs were used for storage and kept their contents much cleaner and were less subject to the filth and vermin of medieval floors. Extensive decoration is rare on wooden chests designed for travelling, as it would easily become damaged and marred. Travelling wooden chests often had hipped or curved lids to shed water. Chests intended for static storage purposes usually had flat lids, which would make them more useful as furniture for seating or other purposes. Travelling wooden chests were often covered in waxed leather to improve their weather resistance.
As with many medieval artifacts intended for the wealthy nobles, wooden and metal chests were often extensively decorated. The decoration of a chest might be a simple and standardized design, mass produced by a single workshop. A wooden chest dated to c. 1300 in the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of a closely related family of chests found largely in Sussex and Surrey, probably all created by the same guild or workshop, all decorated nearly identically.
On the other hand, decoration unique to a particular chest also appears in surviving examples. The `Fares’ chest (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) shows a number of unique features. The back of the chest (where the hinges attach) is much more heavily decorated than the front (where the lock-plate was). One end of the chest is heavily carved, the other end is left rough.
This chest was clearly designed for use in a specific place, probably a workshop or guildhall where it would be facing the customers, one end flush against a wall.
Oak was the favourite material for medieval wooden chests, as for most other medieval furniture. Walnut was another common wood for chests in France, but not in England. Chests were sometimes made of poplar or pine, and several softwood chests survive from what is now Germany.
Different types of early wooden storage chests / boxes
Boxes are simple flat-lidded travelling chests. The construction is very simple, with a single board for each side, bottom, and the lid (six boards total). The boards are simply butted against each other and nailed together. Since this is a very weak joint boxes often used simple iron straps as reinforcements. Because they are intended as travelling chests, boxes have no legs and are usually undecorated.
This is perhaps the most common, and universal, design of wooden chest, and the best overall travelling chest. Like the box, the bottom of a standard is simple and legless. The top is smoothly curved, often overlapping the sides, front, and back. This curved overlapping top allows the standard to shed rain during travel. Like the box, the standard just has butted and nailed boards, and therefore it, too, almost always shows heavy use of metal strapping and reinforcements. As a travelling chest, it is usually undecorated. Standards were sometimes covered in leather for weatherproofing.
This is perhaps the most common household wooden chest design of the period and generally used for storage. The construction is extremely simple: five flat boards make up the bottom, sides, and ends, and another flat board forms the lid. The two end boards are extended to raise the chest off the ground on a pair of slab legs. The one above has two additional triangular support panels for the legs. Six-board chests might be undecorated, or highly decorated with painting or carving. Some of them are extensively covered with metal strapping to reinforce their fairly simple and weak joinery, but others show little or no metalwork.
Six-board wooden chests involved nailing the sides to the end pieces in a simple lap joint. Six-board chests are common from the 9th through the sixteenth centuries and later. The longevity of the design is probably related to its simplicity. More complex and durable joinery existed from the end of the Viking period, but these chests would have been much simpler to make, and therefore cheaper, which explains their survival throughout the period examined and into the seventeenth century.
This most common and long-lasting wooden old chest design shows a number of decorative techniques. Few early chests survive, so decoration techniques before 1200 are merely supposition, but designs like those discussed below for Viking chests would probably be appropriate. For later chests, whatever decoration technique was most common in a given period was likely to be used upon six-board chests of that period.
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 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 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 chests often show the use of metal reinforcing straps.
Viking chests are usually made to be a good height for seating, and may have been used as rowing benches in Viking warships. Many Viking chests were travelling chests, and usually have lids that are hollowed out of thicker planks so they are curved to shed rain and weather.
The few surviving Viking chests are generally undecorated, although sometimes the iron strap work is decorated with tinned nails or incised designs.
The Hutch Chest
The hutch was the first great advance of joinery from the simple nailed six-board and Viking chests. Instead of the slab legs of the six-board chest, made by extending the end pieces down to the floor, the hutch added extensions (stiles) to lengthen the front and back pieces, and extended the stiles down to the ground to make four legs. The end-pieces and front pieces are joined to the stiles with a pegged tongue-and-groove joint. Sometimes braces are used in the end pieces for additional strength. The lids are usually flat, but may be slightly angled..
The hutch design of pegged tongue-and-groove joinery is far more durable than the nailed or pegged lap joints of the six-board chest. Although decorative strapping continues to appear on hutches, it is less prevalent and appears to take the form of a couple of long straps, fewer and more decorative than on six-board chests.
Hutches first appeared in the thirteenth century. They became the dominant form (at least for expensive, fashionable wooden chests) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the sixteenth century the panel chest, a design that is lighter than the hutch but just as durable, took over and replaced the hutch, which quickly disappeared.
Because of the sturdiness of the hutch design little or no additional reinforcement is necessary, leaving the whole of the face available for decoration. Many surviving examples of the hutch are extensively carved. The feet of the wooden chest are also common subjects for relief carving (arcading) or cutaway designs. The face of the hutch is commonly covered with carving appropriate to the period: chip-carved roundels in the thirteenth century, the relief-carved scenes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or the elaborate tracery of the late fifteenth century.
The panel wooden chest is a sixteenth century evolution from the hutch. Instead of the hutch design where the sides and ends are constructed of single boards attached to stiles by pegged tongue-and-groove joints, the panel chest uses pegged tongue-and-groove to create a hollow grooved frame that holds a thinner, lighter panel. The stiles often evolve to be corner posts. Panel chests have flat lids. The panels are usually extensively carved, often with linenfold carving. Panel chests quickly become the dominant form in the sixteenth century, although (like the hutch) they fail to eliminate the much cheaper and simpler six-board chests.
Decoration of panel chests is usually focussed upon the panels themselves, with the frame undecorated or merely engraved with linear forms. The elaborate tracery of the later fifteenth century and the linenfold techniques of the early sixteenth both show up on panel chests.
Dugout wooden chests may be the oldest design of all. No joinery is required; you just cut a log in two lengthwise and then hollow out both halves to make a chest.
Chests constructed in this way are very heavy, and take a long time to make. Even so, a few surviving examples show that chests were still being made this way in the early Middle Ages and possibly even into the seventeenth century.
Dovetail joinery first appears in the fifteenth century as an alternative method of attaching the ends of a chest to the sides. Numerous examples exist, but this was not as common a technique as the hutch. Dovetail chests cannot use the extended-stile design of the hutch, and so dovetail chests never have legs. Probably because of its difficulty (and therefore cost), Dovetail joinery never became the dominant construction technique, and when the panel chest began appearing in the sixteenth century dovetail-joined chests largely disappear.
The dovetail-joined wooden chests of the fifteenth century were very well suited to complex tracery carving over the whole face. Hutches also sometimes exhibit extraordinary carving, but the differing grain direction at the stiles complicates such carving. Many of the finest examples of fifteenth century carving are on dovetail-joined chests.
The six-board and Viking chests dominate. Carving is probably incised low-relief with the addition of paint. Reinforcing ironwork is common and often decorative.
Hutches appear and become ubiquitous. Decorative ironwork and reinforcing straps are relatively common. Carving techniques used are simple arcading and chip carving. Painting is fairly common, sometimes on chip-carved chests, sometimes heraldic designs and miniatures.
Hutches begin to have complex carved scenes on them, replacing the chip-carved roundels common in the thirteenth century. Reinforcing straps begin to disappear on chests and decorative ironwork is uncommon.
Hutches with relief-carved scenes reach their height, but they begin to see competition from complex ornamental tracery and dovetailed boxes. Only travelling and utility chests seem to be without carved ornamentation. Decorative ironwork is rare. This period is the height of the chest-carver’s art, with fantastic decorative ornamentation, whether gothic tracery or relief-carved scenes from famous stories from literature or religion.
Panel chests dominate; various carving techniques are used to decorate the panels. Linenfold panels and other relatively simple methods quickly replace the complex tracery of the fifteenth century.
17th & 18th Centuries
Dovetail wooden chests were being used by explorers of the time to store valuables when travelling to and from distant continents. The chest below was used by Captain Cook and his companions on a voyage in 1772.
19th & 20th Centuries
Chests start to be referred to as blanket boxes as this is the function they were predominantly used for during this period. Dovetail wooden boxes are still one of the most popular construction methods due to the added strength these joints gave to the boxes.
Two Drawers are added to the basic chest design and this becomes commonly known as a ‘mule chest’. There is some debate surrounding the reasons for this name, but the most likely is because colonists used the two bottom drawers to store slippers or ‘mules’ as they called them.
Similar to 500 years ago wooden chests and blanket boxes are still a very popular and functional piece of furniture being used to store linen, clothes, CDS’, DVDs’, magazines’ and anything else that needs to hidden away. They are a fabulous multifunctional storage item and can be used as a coffee table in a living room, a side table, as a statement piece in a hallway, in a bedroom or as a child’s toy box.
Please take a minute to look at our great range of vintage and new chests and trunks.