Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bed Time, Eighteenth Century Style

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Susan reports:

While Benjamin Alexander was admonishing his children not to linger overlong in bed in 1659, by the 18th c. a well-appointed bed was a very fine place for lingering indeed. A handsome wooden bedstead with matching curtains and linens was often the single most valuable piece of furniture in the household. The hangings were usually expensive textiles and often lavishly embroidered, making the bed an impressive, showy symbol of status and prosperity.

With the curtains loosed and pulled close, a bed became a small, snug, private room within a room, and much warmer and less drafty than the bedchamber (or, in smaller American houses, the parlor) in which it sat. Once the curtains were drawn and draped into elegant swags, a bedstead could become a stage for a lady of fashion, presenting her as she sat propped against her pillows to take morning tea or chocolate and receive her closest friends. Beds were also the settings for the most important stages of an individual's life: births, marriages, and deaths were all solemnized in beds.

But the question most of us have now regarding these imposing old bedsteads is much less complicated. How comfortable were they? Compared to our modern monumental box springs, an 18th c. bedstead seems flat and unwelcoming. But this cutaway display at Winterthur cleverly shows that sleepers of the past were most likely quite comfortable, thank you. The bedstead - the wooden frame - has a sacking bottom tightly laced across it. Resting on the sacking a straw-stuffed mattress, and on top of that is a feather-stuffed "bed", pillows, and bolsters.  Unlike the lightly filled down comforters and feather-beds of today, the 18th c. version is firmly packed; an estimated 90 pounds of feathers could be used to fill a single feather-bed.

While this bedstead was made in colonial America, the style remained fashionable in England for many years. This illustration for a folding camp bed from Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 shows exactly the same method for lacing the sacking bottom.

One myth about 18th c. beds that needs to be dispelled: the beds were not shorter because the people were shorter. In fact our ancestors (particularly in America) were much the same size as we are today, with some taller and some shorter; both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were over six feet tall. Beds were all made to order, without standardized sizing, and while some are shorter to reflect their owner's stature or the size of his bedchamber, many more are the same length or longer than modern beds. In addition, many people chose to sleep propped up by pillows, which also "shortened" their bed.

Just for nerdy fun: Here's a fascinating article about more historical myths that need debunking. Be honest, now. How many have you heard or believed?

Above: Bedstead, Eastern Massachusetts, possibly Salem; 1765-95. (Bedding modern.) Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, Winterthur.
Below: Camp Bed with Sacking Bottom, Laced; from The Cabinet Directory by Thomas Sheraton, London, 1803

9 comments:

Emma J said...

I always wanted a canopy bed like this! Looks comfy to me even with that straw mattress.

Diana said...

Antique beds are soooo romantic, but I keep thinking about the bedbugs, ugh.

Chris Woodyard said...

Very interesting post--I've never seen a cutaway presentation like that. 90 pounds? That's a lot of waterfowl! There's an excellent book on the history of bed hangings called, oddly enough BED HANGINGS. A Treatise on Fabrics and Styles in the Curtaining of Beds, 1650-1850 by Abbott Lowell Cummings with an Essay By Nina Fletcher Little. Lots of interesting pictures and textiles. My favorite bed is the embroidered Chinese bed at Calke Abbey--when the National Trust took over, they found it in a box, unused and fresh as the day it was made. They had to put it up in a staff room instead of a bedroom as none of the ceilings were high enough to accomodate it.

Finegan Antiques said...

Love the article and picture of the lavish bedstead. I for one along with my husband have slept on a 3/4 size rope bed for most of our marriage. (That is smaller that a standard bed but bigger than a twin) I must confess that even though we had the bed roped we did have a modern mattress made to fit the antique bed. There is something almost magical,and getting used to, turning over in a rope bed and hearing the ropes groan. Got to luv it!

Donna

Susan Holloway Scott said...

There is something undeniably romantic about an antique bed! Maybe dreams of the past come a little bit more easily in one?

As for bed bugs- there's no doubt they were a problem in inns and other "public" beds, but a good 18th c. housewife or housekeeper was vigilant in keeping her beds sweet-smelling and vermin free. Nor are bed bugs an antique problem. I've read that they're once again on the rise in modern hotels.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Here's the link to Calke Abbey and the Chinese bed that Chris mentions:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-calkeabbey/w-calkeabbey-abbey.htm

And another of the hangings:

http://stylecourt.blogspot.com/2010/02/chinese-textiles-at-calke.html

Calke Abbey is new to me -- what a wild place! If ever there was a house suggesting eccentric characters...

Mari said...

I have got to go see Calke Abbey next time I visit England! That Bed would draw me alone...such a perfect condition. I have slept in early 1800's rope beds and unfortunately I do not adjust well in fact I almost became sea sick. Every time you turn the bed swings out to the right or left! The make of the Bed determines how solid it is and the Abbey eighteenth century bed looks quite heavy so this same problem would not occur. The canopy and the mattress would add even more weight thank goodness.

The Down East Dilettante said...

I'm late to this party, and loved the post---in fact love all your posts---but did want to add my two cents to the historical myth question. When I took over the board presidency of the Jonathan Fisher House Museum in Maine, we had one docent, a volunteer, who inserted ever damned one of those myths ever known into his tours---the short beds, the Christian doors, the Holy Lord hinges, and my particular bete noir, that the family's coin silver was made from coins melted down as a way of preserving their wealth, and a dozen more that I can't think of at the moment. When the time came, after much research, to institute a new tour, he flatly refused to remove these cherished chestnuts from his tours. The punchline? He was a high school history teacher in his professional life.

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