I've spent the last week in Colonial Williamsburg, and as usual, I've spent much of my visit in the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop with our friends the mantua-makers and tailors. But not all of their current projects involve fine silks. This week they were stitching together a very large, very shaggy green bed rug.
Bed rugs were a heavy-duty blanket popular in 18th c. houses without central heating. In his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined bed rugs as "a coarse nappy coverlet used for mean beds." Those "mean beds" primarily belonged to servants and children, who were often the individuals sleeping in the chilliest parts of the house under the eaves. Bed rugs were also used by soldiers and sailors, other demographics that slept far from a fire.
Bed rugs were purely utilitarian and decidedly unlovely, and no house-proud mistress would want one on her best bed. To modern eyes, they look like bad shag carpeting from the 1970s. Rug blankets are woven in wool on a loom, with short tufts of dyed wool yarn woven into the undyed fabric at regular intervals. The resulting fabric is dense, warm, and heavy -the completed bed rug I saw weighed about twenty pounds.
The width of the pieces are determined by the size of the loom, as can be seen with the bed rug in progress on the loom in Colonial Williamsburg's Weavers' Shop, above. The bed rugs are woven by senior weaver Max Hamrick and his apprentice Karen Clancy. The woven lengths are then sent to the seamstresses in the Margaret Hunter Shop, who sew them together into a finished bed rug to fit a double-sized bed. Below is a detail of the finished pile.
An 18th c. weaver could weave a bed rug in a day, as long as he had assistants standing by to prepare and hand him the clipped tufts of pile as he worked. Most were woven in England and imported to America, and cost around five to eight shillings. Bed rugs are frequently mentioned in advertisements of the time, and are often described as "thick spotted Rugs." Always used on the bed pile-side down, the smooth side showed the white backing punctuated by the spots where the tufts had been woven in, making the characteristic "spotted" pattern.
Few 18th c. bed rugs survive. Unlike a beautiful quilt, they weren't carefully preserved and handed down. More likely they were used until they fell apart, and all that piled wool must also have been a tasty treat for long-ago moths – as well as a haven for a good many bed-bugs and fleas as well.
Which leads back to the old expression "snug as a bug in rug." Its first noted appearance is 1772, when Benjamin Franklin used it in a satirical epitaph for a lady's pet squirrel named Skugg:
Here Skugg Lies snug As a bug In a rug.
Whether Franklin specifically meant a bed rug or not isn't known, but on a cold winter's night both poor departed Skugg and the bug could have done a lot worse than curling up with a sturdy "thick shagg'd" rug.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.