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