A chest is an item of furniture, consisting of a typically rectangular box with a opening lid used for storage. The most prestigious use for these things is as containers for treasure, but as arguably some of the oldest forms of furniture in service, they have been used for a variety of other things as well.
In terms of storage, the most important role they would have served historically would probably have been to store milled flour - since grinding grain was historically a controlled and taxed process, best done at scale, it was in most people's interests to grind as infrequently as possible. A large, air-tight and damp-proof chest could then preserve the milled flour from spoilage and vermin alike. Chests were also widely used for storing clothing and other fabric based items (such as bed and table linens), again, protecting them from damp and vermin. Locks and latches were something of a luxury for most of history (where they existed at all), but in general anything that needed safe storage was likely to end up in a chest. A well made chest could also serve as a table or seat and would often be decorated to an appropriate level for its location.
This important household role lead to a cultural significance in most societies, usually revolving around marriage customs - at least one chest was typically part of a young woman's dowery goods, used to store and transport those domestic supplies intended to help her set up home with her new husband. It was common for such a chest to be purchased before a girl became of marriagable age and filled with goods as her family could provide them (such things being commonly referred to as a "hope chest"). In higher society, richly decorated marriage chests could be used for public display of the more impressive dower goods to enhance the prestige of the bride's family - for poorer people, it was more a case of processing the bride's luggage to her new home.
Chests - often known as "sea chests" or "steamer trunks" were also an important part of travelling luggage. These were substantial, and usually quite robust to deal with the vicissitudes of being handled (and dropped) a lot by stevedores and porters of various kinds. As with their housebound relatives, these served as both luggage and furniture and could be quite elaborately compartmentalised inside for ease of packing and inventory.
As noted above, locks were something of a luxury for most people, most of the time, but are more or less standard on fantasy chests, as are all manner of rather more active security devices. Amazingly, some of these (especially poisoned needles hidden in the lock) actually seem to have existed historically, albiet being far less common than in non-historical settings.
Game and Story Use
- As noted, most PCs will probably encounter chests only as things to be broken open in search of treasure within.
- Finding only flour or bedlinen may be an amusing let down.
- The well equipped expedition will, of course, need its steamer trunks, especially in the Colonial Era
- Animated luggage type chests show up occasionally.
- As do chests with hidden compartments - extradimensional or otherwise.
- Chest traps are a vital component of many fRPGs.