If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
William H. McRaven
I’m in the process of moving, having acquired a new house. This house, in the manner of houses since the beginning of time, is in some ways unsatisfactory and must be modified.
I would guess the first sensible person to move from one cave to another immediately started rolling rocks around till they were in a position more conducive to comfortable living.
That is, in essence, what I’m doing. Rolling rocks. Washing walls; matching the dark color of the old mopboard and window surrounds; spackling cracks; priming walls and, in the fullness of time, picking a wall shade more beautiful than any other, and painting.
The way in which this relates to beds is that I don’t want one underfoot when I am doing all
this. I don’t want a big ole heavy piece of furniture I have to move about from room to room, one step ahead of my wall washing. I don’t want a mattress and bedding getting covered with paint. And I don’t want to carry that major bit of furniture down the mountain from my old house to my new one right now when I’m so busy.
So I bought an air mattress and I’m living in the new house with my air mattress and folding chairs of the sort one takes to amateur sporting events or concerts in the park and six or seven dishes and a towel.
Air mattresses led me to think of beds and that’s what this posting is about.
The bed is the ultimate personal space. That cave — the one the careful newcomer is rearranging — will have a nest for everybody to sleep in, alone or by twos and threes. The first beds, constructed of leaves or a pile of hay or snuggly furs or a woven reed mat, were the inevitable product of the first semi-permanent dwellings.
That little sleep haven gathered together from whatever was handy and piled in a corner of the cave is one end of the spectrum. Plastic-wrapped air blown up by an inset pump is the other.
About midway in between, technology-wise, were our Regency folk.
How did the middling people of the Regency era sleep in 1800?
Well, first off, in England and in Europe in general, a bed is somewhat a platform to get sleeping bodies off the floor. While many parts of the world live sociably at ground level, in England it was a poor man indeed who couldn’t manage to get himself elevated a foot or two at bedtime.
People liked a bit of height for a couple of reasons. Some was purely cultural. European life was lived standing or sitting in chairs. Desks and tables were waist high. Beds took their cue from the rest of the furniture.
But aside from lifestyle preferences, there are arguably two practical reasons for sleeping high up. Height makes it more of a challenge for the bugs to get to you. Creepy crawlies stare upward, baffled. Even athletic fleas — you will be pleased to know this — only jump eight inches high.
Also, floors tend to be cold if the house is cold.
The most common bed sold in Europe and America is queen sized. Your 1800s bed would be custom built rather than set to any standard size, but paintings show them as narrow. When we’re not looking at lords and ladies but at ordinary, everyday folks, single people seem to be in what we’d think of as a twin bed. For two folks, the bed is no wider than a modern double.
Now why is this?
One possibility is that the room your middling sort of 1800s person slept in might well have been small. Small bed chambers would be easier to heat.
Or were Regency people were simply shorter and smaller than modern folks. Small beds for smaller folks …
Talking relative size of Modern and Regency folk, arguments run both ways. I remain puzzled and uncertain.
Okay. Those beds could be small to save on materials. Artificial materials that are relatively cheap equals big beds. Natural, hand-made materials give us small beds.
Were Regency beds relatively more expensive? Did they take Regency folks more hours of work to pay for …
I think the cost was not so much in the wood supporting the bed structure, as in all that soft bedding stuff.
The wood and the material of the sturdy fabric bag that contained the feathers or other soft stuff weren't expensive. But everything else was. There'd be the down- or feather- stuffed pillows and mattress. The linen or cotton sheets, the wool blankets or the cotton quilt, the bed's coverlet. All pricey.
If the bed was curtained to keep warmth within and cold drafts out — still common at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century; less common by the end — the material that formed the canopy and draped sides of the bed might be quite luxurious.
A comfy bed was a major investment in furniture. In 1800, your ordinary working family didn't supersize it.
Long as I'm here. Just to revisit what stuffed the mattress.
Not all mattresses were stuffed with feathers. For the poorer sort of middling person, barley straw or straw and chaff mixed might be inside the ticking. It’s a traditional way of making a mattress. Nice to sleep on, really. A straw mattress could also be used as a second layer below the more expensive feather mattress.
And for the forward thinking mattress stuffer, consider horsehair.
A mattress filled with horse-hair is preferable to a feather-bed, which heats and relaxes the body, and disposes it to pulmonary and hectic complaints. The bolster should be stuffed with horse-hair, and covered with a small pillow filled with feathers.
The Domestic Encyclopedia, a Dictionary of Facts and Useful Knowledge, Anthony Willich, 1802.
I’ve slept on the ground and on carpets on the floor, on gym mats, in narrow bunks at sea, on futons, in the back of cars, and on a water bed. I suppose one can get used to anything.
… well. Not hammocks.
Would I be comfortable in an 1800 bed?
I’m allergic to feathers and I’d be sneezing all night.
What about you? What sort of bed do you want to slumber in, in your imagination?