Eastern Dowry Chests
Though now seen as a custom of a bygone era, most of the world is familiar with the dowry chest, sometimes called a hope chest in the Western world. Women would (and some still do) bring with them into a marriage a physical trunk, usually wooden, filled with the necessities for starting a new household — linens, dinnerware, clothing and jewelry, and valuable items that established her family's social standing. These items were usually gifted by members of the family, a tradition which eventually became the more modern ritual of a "bridal shower". Some examples in museums date as early as 900CE!
Two chests on display at the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Cairo, pictured above in the cover image.
Some carved and painted chests at an antique shop in Antalya, Turkey.
Dowry chests are usually highly decorated as they would be used as a piece of furniture in the household for years to come. Sometimes the particular style is named for the location where it originates, such as Omani, Zanzibari, Kuwaiti, etc. But they are also known by many other names in the Arab world, including damchiya, mandoos, sanduq, safat, and makran. India was the biggest maker of dowry chests because of the rosewood and teak hardwoods they export. The styles exported from India include: Surat, Bombay, Malabar, and Shirazi (not from Shiraz in Iran, but made in India and found in all areas with Persian influence).
Three incredible true antique chests on display at the Sultan's Palace in Zanzibar. Traces of red paint, as seen on the last one, leave no question about its original use as a dowry chest.
Syrian and Egyptian chests often have mother-of-pearl or camel bone inlay designs. Shirazi and Zanzibar chests often have cut sheet brass and brass tack designs. Elaborate marquetry was popular in the Ottoman world, and North African chests are usually painted with floral designs.
A shop in Zanzibar selling modern chests, many of them a hybrid carved and brass plated style that was made popular for Western tourists.
We have been fortunate to see a number of elaborately designed chests in museums around the world, and are now ecstatic to have two true antique, 19th century Zanzibar chests in our store. Click below to read all about them:
Some of our customers have already shared photos with us of their own dowry trunks styled in their homes! We would love to see more of them and hear your stories about them. Share with us on instagram or in the comments below!