Historically used to store valuable items or for transporting goods, chests have been a mainstay for hundreds of years. After all, if you had something you valued and wanted to keep safe, a lockable box seems like a logical choice, especially for storing money. Unlike today with online banking, a more tangible form of currency came with its vulnerabilities. While we will not be talking about chests before the Georgian era, it is fair to say that they have made massive strides with time, which is reflected in the appearance of antique chests.
As more professions were being drawn into the making of furniture, furniture became more complex and elaborate. The focus was once on functionality, but as the overall talent in the trade grew, so did the interest in aesthetics. Where could pieces be made more appealing to people looking to buy one, and how can it be achieved without hindering the overall product? As you can see, while these older, 17th century pieces indeed have a charm to them in their plainer appearance, being a sort of indicator of their character. In terms of their appearance overall, it is simpler than a Georgian iteration of a chest, which may not be as intricate as a Victorian rendition. But what is there to be said about the quintessential ‘Georgian’ look? We should note here that most surviving pieces from this time tend to be those of the entrepreneurial class, so any surviving pieces from the aristocratic, upper classes tend to be more intricate in their design, and vice-versa for lower-value chests.
One of the core inspirations was the Gothic, medieval style, where the carvings might evoke scenes of a cathedral or that of an old castle. This grew in popularity throughout the period. Ironically, this popularity gave way to more intricate and decorative designs in the Gothic style, to the point where they would be a far cry from what ‘Gothic’ was. Chinoiserie (or Japanned furniture) was also a popular style. Wherein western-made pieces drew inspiration and concepts from eastern history and symbolism. It was far more extravagant visually than the Gothic style, with dragon-like imagery and oriental scenery permeating the more Eurocentric pieces.
Another thing to note with the Georgian era is the prominence of its premier designers, meaning that the developments in design were often attributed to the creator. A prominent example of this would have to be Thomas Chippendale. His influence permeated most if not all types of furniture due to how diverse his designs were, ranging greatly from plain to elaborate.
The Victorian era saw a slew of changes, though this was the era in which the gothic revival took place. It was distinct from the gothic styles of the Georgian era, crucially in the panelling. Previously panelling had been more straightforward and squared, but geometric panelling came to the forefront in this era, alongside panelling that resembled the lancet arches of traditional gothic architecture. However, many of the changes scarcely apply to chests, and so aesthetically, chests were not all too dissimilar. This is not to say variations wholly stagnated. With the expansion of the British Empire and the growth of various newly independent nations, emigration became an appealing prospect to some, and with this, travel trunks rose to prominence. These were, for the time, a great way of packing clothing and the valuables you intended to take with you. They had handles on either end for transport and were sturdy with locks or clasps to prevent them from opening accidentally and spilling their contents. They also had an emphasis on function over form, which was a potential by-product of the market they appealed to, such as the entrepreneurial class who travelled for business. These travel trunks became more commonplace through the 20th century as mass emigration became more accessible. As such, there are many antique or vintage steamer trunks or travel chests in circulation today.
Building on that last point, today, many antique and vintage chests, coffers and trunks are circulating. They were a useful and, therefore, a common item for most households and families. Though the more decorative ones will be harder to find (damage to a carved surface is more de-valuing than damage to a flat surface) and more expensive (due to exclusivity and the potential historic value of their previous owners), they do exist.
In terms of contemporary chests, they are not all too common. There is less of a need for them with online databases and banking securing most valuables that would have necessitated a chest in the past. This is similarly the case with coffers. One might say that the development of more compact and intricate safes is the next iteration, though that’s a discussion for another time.
For anyone in the market for an antique chest, there are numerous options. In terms of antique furniture, they certainly fall into the more affordable brackets. Though you will not (likely) need to store the deeds to your house or land in them as once was common, they can still hold your valuable items or be repurposed into a toy or blanket box. If you look for a more historic or rustic aesthetic, chests do not need to be used as storage specifically to provide this. Their presence alone in an interior can help in creating it.