Today I’m thinking about beds. Hoping for a nap? Nope. Doing research for a scene in a book, which sent me down a research rabbit hole.
The articles and photos I perused about beds led to an “aha!” moment for me. Remember the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Princess and the Pea”? In the story, a skeptical queen decides to test a so-called princess by seeing if she can feel a pea beneath “twenty mattresses…and twenty eider-down beds.” And wouldn’t you know, she felt it—proving she was a real princess.
I’ve seen picture books and stage play versions showing modern mattresses comically piled twenty feet high, giving “over the top,” a whole new meaning. But I learned afresh today that beds made of piled mattresses were commonplace in former centuries.
A mattress, often called a tick, was basically a large, densely-woven cotton sack filled with straw, wool, or horsehair. A “bed” usually referred to a feather bed—another cotton sack filled with carefully prepared goose feathers, and if one were quite wealthy—down. These were traditionally layered atop coarser mattresses.
Here’s a photo of a cross-section of a bedstead from the Winterthur Museum. Notice the several layers:
- The bedstead strung with sacking or ropes (or, later, wooden slats)
- Straw-stuffed tick/mattress
- (Often another mattress filled with wool or horsehair)
- Feather bed
- Wool blanket
- Linen or cotton sheets
- Another blanket
Here’s another diagram from Historic Kenmore:
I don’t think I would feel a pea through all those layers, would you?
Feathers (goose or duck, but not chicken) were costly, desirable filling, but the feathers had to be prepared before use. Feathers have stiff spines, and would poke through (and you) otherwise. Each feather had to be carefully split, the spine removed, and then “curled” over a sharp surface. Feather beds were tedious and expensive to make and maintain. The feathers alone were a major investment. I’ve read estimates of 1,000 feathers or 35-50 pounds of feathers needed to fill one tick. Feather beds, bolsters, pillows, and bed curtains were called “bed furniture” in the 18th century and were often more valuable than the bedstead itself–so valuable they were often itemized in people’s wills. (Today, you can buy a feather bed online for $100-200.)
I have visited English manors with bedsteads so high one would need a tall footstool to climb into them. Even so, I never guessed at the varied—and humble–layers within. I’ve read that even in wealthy Regency households where people could afford the finest down, the beds would also have layers of straw and perhaps wool or horsehair beneath. I’m not sure why I have trouble visualizing, say, Mr. Darcy sleeping on straw, but I do. (Although no doubt the beds of Pemberley would have had enough luxurious layers over the coarse ones to satisfy even the most sensitive princess.)
Reading about feather beds and cotton ticks reminded me of a favorite song from my American childhood. It was written by Jim Connor, popularized by John Denver, and sung often by Dad and me. 🙂
Grandma’s Feather Bed”
When I was a little bitty boy just up off the floor
We used to go down to grandma’s house every month end or so
We’d have chicken pie, country ham
Homemade butter on the bread
But the best darn thing about grandma’s house
Was the great big feather bed
It was nine feet high and six feet wide
And soft as a downy chick
It was made from the feathers of forty ‘leven geese
Took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick
It could hold eight kids and four hound dogs
And a piggy we stole from the shed
We didn’t get much sleep but we had a lot of fun
On grandma’s feather bed….
Ah, memories. What about you? Ever sleep on a feather bed? Been down any of your own research rabbit holes lately?