Chest (furniture)

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Mexican chest from the viceregal era, at the Franz Mayer Museum.

A chest (also called coffer or kist) is a form of furniture typically of a rectangular structure with four walls and a removable lid, for storage. The interior space may be subdivided. The early uses of an antique chest or coffer included storage of fine cloth, weapons, foods and valuable items. It is a box with a hinged lid that can safeguard personal items. Some chests are equipped with locking mechanisms or a metal band that a lock can be secured on. In Webster’s Dictionary 1988 version, a chest is defined as a “a box with a lid and often, a lock, for storing or shipping things” or as “a cabinet as for holding medical supplies, toiletries, etc.”[1]

A cassone is a kind of carved or painted chest associated with late Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Cassones, also called marriage chests or hope chests, were often used to carry the dowry goods in a marriage ceremony.

A simple chest, called a wakis (wagon-kist) was commonly used in the Cape Colony as a seat on a wagon. To make it more usable, it often had a wooden support along the centre of the top so that the seated driver would not slide off so easily. In addition to this use, they were also used for storage at home; keeping clothes, food and other commodities safe. They were frequently made with one or more sides sloping downwards, although the top was always horizontal. Many are made of sturdy woods such as yellowwood and therefore last a long time. Some manufacturers also painted the front of the kist with relatively simply designs reminiscent of, and presumably originating from Europe bauernmalerei [de]


European chest with metal band and locking mechanism.

The Ancient Egyptians created the first known chests, using wood or woven reeds, circa 3000 BC.[2]

In Medieval and early Renaissance times in Europe low chests were often used as benches while taller chests were used as side tables. By placing a chest on the side on any kind of rough table, the inner surface of its lid could be used as a proper writing surface while the interior could house writing implements and related materials, as was the case with the Bargueño desk of Spain. Many early Portable desks were stacked chests, with the top one having its lid on the side, to serve as a writing surface when opened.

Many European chests did use the standard band of iron over the lid and the body of the chest to close it or lock it. There were a few different styles of the chest like square box or domed lid chests, which were so different that there wasn't an effective way to categorize them.[3] Each had their own sense of decoration, so each had its own purpose. Domed chests with their lid shape would have thrown off water and discouraged their use as seats. This use of the chests in the 15th to 16th centuries made the chest have a longer life due to the conditions the chest avoided, such as water or using them as seats.

In fantasy, fables, and games, "treasure chests" are frequently used as a plot device to contain treasure such as gold or jewels. The meaning can be a lot of things. The classical is a reward for a protagonist. In some stories a form of MacGuffin, a literary device which exists solely to drive forward a plot. A "toy chest" is a type of chest that usually carries children's toys, like dolls or building blocks.

Chest with bride's dowry (Kosovo & Metohija, Serbia)

In some Slavic countries, for example, in Ukraine and Serbia, chests were a family relic, especially in peasant families. Each Ukrainian girl received her own chest at the age of 15 for her future bride's dowry. Peeping in the girl's chest was considered impolite. Coffers were an indicator of a family's wealth. Ukrainian girls and women also used them to keep their garments and some personal items – towels, jewelry, tools for embroidering etc. A big collection of Ukrainian traditional chests dated by the 18–20th cc. is kept in the Radomysl Castle (Zhytomyr Region, Ukraine).

In many Arab countries, chests are used to hold ship captain's personal possessions, such as the Kuwaiti chest. Today, many Middle Eastern furniture chests are known by place names, such as Omani or Bahraini, but this most often refers to where they were purchased rather than where they were made. Others are used to hold linens and household goods collected by girls in preparation for eventual their marriage, and often called a hope chest. In Arabic, two terms are used for the dowry chest: The muqaddimah[4] was specifically for the bride’s personal possessions; and the "sunduq", which normally came in matching pairs, were for other goods.[5]


Chests designed for linens or other soft objects would have a very smooth or sanded interior, and chests made for heavy equipment or weapons, would have a more coarse interior. Chests back in the day were used primarily as a storage unit rather than just a piece of furniture similar to those used today.[6] The furniture chests today have evolved from one that has been designed to store items for practical use, to one that is used to hold family trinkets or toys for children or grandchildren. They have also been used for primarily as a decoration and a place that could serve as a seat rather than just a transportation device.

In popular fiction[edit]

In the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, a sentient chest on legs called The Luggage is owned by the first tourist, Twoflower.[7] Twoflower later gives the Luggage to Rincewind.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuefeldt, V., Editor in Chief. (1988) Webster’s New World Dictionary. Location of Publisher: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
  2. ^ Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. Reader's Digest. 27 November 2009. p. 12. ISBN 978-0276445699.
  4. ^ The "muqaddimah" means "first", and possibly refers to the fact that it was carried by the lead donkey in the traditional bridal procession to the groom's home.
  5. ^ "The Art of the Dowry Chest." by Caroline Stone. Aramco World. Volume 66, (8). November–December 2015. [ISSN]: 1530-5821. Pages 24-29.
  6. ^ LaChiusa, C (2005) Chest-On-Chest. Retrieved from
  7. ^ Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

External links[edit]