Chest (furniture)
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Basic Information

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. A common feature for a flour chest was for the lid to have a dough kneading board built into it, allowing it to double as a workbench for breadmaking. In some cases this would be a reversible lid/board, to keep it clean when not in use.

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. In a reasonably historical campaign, a chest could well be treasure in its own right, especially if well decorated or otherwise furnished.

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 dowry 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 marriageable 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 compartmentalized inside for ease of packing and inventory.

A common design feature on Viking longboats was for the rower's benches to be individually-owned sea chests with a seat built into the lid. This made it quick and easy for each viking sailor to unload their belongings at the voyages end: just grab your seat/chest and go. It probably also gave them piece of mind to know that no one could be skimming from their share of the loot since all their plunder was safe right beneath their butt for the entire the voyage home. Added bonus: if it's your first day on a new longboat and/or with a new crew, you have a familiar visual clue to find your assigned seat.

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, albeit being far less common than in non-historical settings.


1. full source reference

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 bed-linen 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 fantasy RPGs.
  • The inside of a viking oarman's chest seems like a lovely place to stash a sealed evil in a can pertaining to norse myth or nautical danger.
  • Trunks, and the contents thereof, can provide useful adventure hooks, whether found in a newly acquired property, received as a legacy or bought blind in an auction. A moderately picaresque wainscott fantasy campaign could be built around one of the PCs inheriting a trunk full of esoteric artifacts from an illuminated relative and, with the help of friends/relatives/colleagues, probing into this new world. Scope and scale could be whatever you like, from moderately trivial items associated with the supernatural population of one big city, to the mementos of a globe trotting monster hunter, to the macguffin that everyone is looking for in the matter of an impending global apocalypse (and some other stuff, possibly shinier and/or with similar potential…).
    • Might even work with child PCs digging through a chest found in an ancestral attic. Especially for fans of Spiderwick or Narnia1.
    • Note that the inherited caravan trailer in Grimm serves some of this function (being essentially a chest of chests), later to be replaced with an actual chest for reasons of plot.
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