Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sleep Tight: Staying Warm at Night

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Eighteenth Century homes could get quite chilly this time of year, often becoming downright frigid as central heating had not yet been invented. Banked fires never went out, but they provided little to no heat in the room. What would the Masons have done when temperatures could drop to well into freezing range at night? There were lots of things that could be done to keep warm at night; we’ll explore a few here including bed hangings and bed covers of various sorts.

The bedstead with hangings in the Chamber at Gunston Hall.
Firstly, bed hangings provided the first layer of warmth for sleepers. If you use your imagination, take yourself back to building forts as a child, or with your own children and grandchildren. Once all of those blankets get draped over the couch cushions, it gets a little warm under them, doesn’t it? People in the 18th century were trying for that warm, damp heat to keep body temperatures up throughout the night.

Families like the Masons could afford such a lavish expenditure, which could have included matching window curtains. Various bills and inventories include lovely descriptions of bed hangings. George Washington requested “yellow Silk and worsted Damask Furniture, lined with Tammy… [with] 3 pr. Yellow silk and worsted Damask Window curtains.” Furniture here means furnishings or fittings, and from context the bed hangings. They were often designed to be easily raised and lowered from the head of the bed on a series of rings, pulleys and strings. One wealthy gentleman requested “Cotton of a large pattern and Rich colors to be well fitted and to Hang upon brads or with Hooks and Eyes so as to be Easily taken up or Down. [Image: drawstring interiors]

Fabrics varied from incredibly fanciful to fairly plain. Textile books that survive from the period give samples of fabrics that might have been used for ordering new hangings. Everything from silk, cotton and wool were used for the hangings depending on the season and the wealth of the purchaser. Some of the very fine wool hangings were worsted, or tightly spun fibers, with decorative finishes which might appear to be silk to the modern viewer. The finest of homes might have had silk hangings with lovely damask brocades. In the second half of the century, cotton hangings became more popular; to some extent because they were increasingly washable. [Image: Harateen]

The next layer of warmth was the top cover on the bed. For some families this might have been the top outermost layer, as not everyone could afford fashionable beds with bed hangings. This might have been a rug. Such rugs were not intended for the floor, but rather were designed to be used solely on the bed. To the modern eye they might look like a shag rug from the 70s, but they would have been a heavy, insulated layer on beds without hangings.

Another option for that layer might have been a quilt. In the 18th century, quilts were not always the lovingly designed patched pieces we connect with that word today. In homes of quality, quilts were most often whole cloth, or made of a single kind of fabric, often silk and covered in exquisite stitchery. They were filled with wool batting and backed with linen or wool. This would have been another warm layer on the bed. Sheets and pillowcases would have been the foundation for all of these things. In the probate inventory database, the vast majority of sheets listed were linen.

When all else failed, one could always search for company to keep warm. In February 1780, George Mason wrote to his cousin James Mercer, “This cold weather has set all the young Folks to providing Bedfellows. [As justice of the peace] I have signed two of three Licences every Day…I wish I knew where to get a good one myself; for I find cold Sheets extremely disagreeable.”

Just two months later, Mason married Sarah Brent.

Montgomery, Florence M. Textiles in America: 1650-1870. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Gunston Hall Room Use Study.
Probing the Past: Probate Inventory Database
Rutland, Robert, ed. The Papers of George Mason. Vol. II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1970.

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