Sailors' sea chests have a varied history.
They were infamously used for stowing pirate treasure, as in the famous illustration from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates (1917). On the whole, though, they were used for more mundane treasures, that being a seaman's private belongings. It was equivalent to his bookshelves, his wardrobes, and his chests of drawers back home -- and yet had space for so little. At the New Bedford Whaling Museum there is a educational program that asks the students to pack a sea chest, which is more of a challenge than the student might expect. Not only do spare clothes have to be packed inside, but there are little luxuries, like soap and tobacco. Any books and writing paper have to find a place, along with the seaman's journal -- and his navigational guides and instruments, if he is ambitious enough to study his trade, with an eye to getting a post in that hallowed place, the afterquarters, where the captain and officers live. And, on long voyages, like the years-long cruises of whaleships in the age of sail, there are the ships' models, scrimshaw, and shell valentines he might have made, all of which need a safe place.
And Sunday was the day for turning out the sea chest, and gloating over the little private treasures that were hidden inside. As J. H. Drew meditated in the Boston Journal, on Septembe 10, 1877, "Sunday is the day for the sailor to wash and mend his clothes ... Having done this, he invariably overhauls his chest, takes out all his clothes, unfolds them, airs them, folds them again, and lays them away. This is what they call 'sailors' pleasure.'"
And woe betide anyone who opens another man's sea chest, invading his most private space.
The drawing above is from "Sketches from the Naval Training Camps," created by George Wright, and published in the Harper's Monthly in August 1918. I'm not even sure that the fellow depicted is studying his sea chest, as it was usual for a canvas bag to be issued to a navy man, instead of the traditional chest -- or so I believe.
So, can anyone think of a better illustration of a sailor turning out his sea chest?
It's a challenge.