Thursday, May 8, 2014

What's Under (and In) the Mattress?

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

One of the most commonly used pieces of furniture in Western society is a bed.  They come in a wild variety of shapes and sizes, colors and materials, but they are all beds.  On a modern bed, typically, there is a box spring and a mattress resting on wooden slats.  Such slatted beds, and the box springs that went with them, were a later innovation.  In the 18th century, beds were more likely to rely on the tension of a rope or taut linen sheet for support, similar to a modern camp bed or cot does.  Unfortunately, research has not been able to determine what kinds of beds George Mason had in his home at Gunston Hall.  It has, however, left a plethora of research including a number of probate inventories listing what others in the area had by way of bedsteads, including the inventories of his brother, mother and two sons.

A camp bed with a sacking bottom.  The struts provided
 support for the collapsible frame rather than the mattress.  
From Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803.
Sometimes, it's challenging to tell from probate inventories which kinds of beds were often found, as many of them describe the frames as "Bedstead, Bed and Furniture" (bed meaning the mattress and furniture all of the associated equipment, such as sheets and hangings), or "Four Bedsteads with curtain Posts of Walnut."  Some lucky inventories however, clearly state: "1 blue painted bedstead with sacking Bottom [line break] 2 low post bedSteads[sic] with cords," and "one green Bedstead with sacking bottm[sic]."  When studying an actual 18th century bed, it is easy to tell which sort of bottom it had.  If it was a corded bed, there are holes in the sides, head- and foot-boards.  If a sacking bottom, pegs or nail holes can be found on the frame of the bed to hold the sacking tight.  Both of these methods needed to be tightened periodically so that it didn't sag or become impossible to get out of.

Beds with sacking bottoms typically have webbing along the sides with eyelets through it.  a small cord would be looped through those and corresponding eyelets on the sheet that supported the center of the mattress.  The tightly woven fabric would have little give in it, but over time, it would eventually stretch, and the cords could be tightened up by hand. If necessary the sacking could be replaced.  This style of base is often seen on beds with canopies and the splendid furnishings seen in our earlier post about beds, although that is not always the case.

A rope bedstead in action at
Gunston Hall.  There are two
beds, or mattresses on top
and a spare mattress below for
unexpected guests.
Cord beds, on the other hand, relied completely on the cords looping through the sides, to support the mattress.  Rope, often of hemp or what a modern user might call manila, would have been used to support this kind of bed.  George Mason's son Thomas was a merchant, and the inventory of his shop upon his death lists "11 Bed Cords" at 2 shillings a piece in the goods for sale.

The rope would be tied off at one end, and threaded through the holes in the frame, and woven over and under in the same way a basket is done.  This was typically a two person job to ensure the tautness of the rope as it is worked up.  On this style of bed, when tightening, a tool was helpful.  This was the bed key or straining wrench.  Such a key would be hooked on the loose cord on the outside of the bed and twisted to take up the slack.  The person twisting the wrench would hold the cord taut until the slack could be taken out of it on the other side.  Check out this video taken of a bed being tightened up at the Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth, TX.

 Multiple mattresses, "beds," or "featherbeds" were often stacked on top of the frame.  Two of the beds on George Mason, Jr's inventory are listed with a "Mattrass."  His younger brother Thomas sports "4 Mattrasses" for the five beds he has listed on his inventory and the same number of "Feather Beds & Bolsters."  These mattresses were large sacks stuffed with straw or rushes to firmness and then had the feather mattresses laid over top of them.  The bolster, like the mattress, was a firm support for the softer pillows.  The feather beds themselves were also not quite the downy, soft things the term brings to mind.  They were densely packed with material.  Both George Jr and Ann Mason, George Mason IV's mother, had excess feathers listed with their bedding materials, possibly to adjust the firmness of their feather beds.  Thomas Sheraton, famed furniture maker of the late 18th century, stated that beds should be firm, and to achieve that, layered thusly: "begin with a straw mattress, then a flock [wool] ditto, on which a feather bed is to be laid, and lastly, a hair [possibly horsehair] mattress; but if it should feel too firm, then a very thin flock mattress may be laid upon it."  It is possible to imagine the Masons sleeping quite comfortably on beds of that style when taking into account the springiness of the bed frames, as well as the firmness of the mattresses.

Adams, Rev. Samuel. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book J-1, 1806.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Carlyle, John. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book D-1, 1780.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Ann. Probate Inventory. Stafford County Will Book Liber O, 1763.  Stafford County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, George. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book H-1, 1797.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Thomas. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book I, 1800.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Thompson. Probate Inventory. Stafford County Will Book Liber S, 1786.  Stafford County, VA Courthouse.
Sheraton, Thomas.  The Cabinet Dictionary. London, 1803. Reprinted: New York, Praeger Publishers, 1970.

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