The Seven-Layer Beds of the Regency

The Seven-Layer Beds of the Regency

There are eighty-seven instances of the word “bed” in Jane Austen’s writing, and eleven more if you include the plural. Readers may well pass over the word without giving it much thought, (except perhaps for the passage in Northanger Abbey when Mr. Tilney speaks to Catherine of her inevitable “unconquerable horror of the bed,”) but your understanding of the actual details is likely to be substantially different than Austen’s was.

We’re going to take a beat here for you to make a mental note of how you imagine a Regency bed. What is it made of? What is inside? How thick is it? Is it firm or soft? Does it sag in the middle? Is there more than one mattress? If so, how many? Now that you have this in your head, let’s take a peek under the counterpane, shall we?

The frame

This piece of furniture was usually made of wood, and in the great houses of the day, the visible part of the frame – the posts, headboard, footboard, and canopy would often be ornate, at least for the beds of the upper classes. Depending on the wealth, this might include ornate carvings, fantastic inlays of jewels or ivory, silver or wood gilt with gold, and rich textile features. New bedframes acquired for re-decoration of bedrooms during the Regency were heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman styles that permeated architecture and fashion, which meant they had simpler lines than what had come before, but many of the great houses had heirloom beds that had been passed down for generations. Regardless of the style and age, everything that went on it was similar.

First French Empire style bed
Bed chamber in Château de Compiègne, France, restored by Napoleon in 1807. Creative commons ID=94488969

The bed ropes

The frame and ropes together comprised the bedstead. The ropes are the lattice of material that the mattress is placed on, and can be made of rope, wool, or even leather. The frame had holes that were drilled in the rails for the rope to pass through at intervals of somewhere between six and ten inches apart. The closer the holes were to each other, the more rope required, and the more rope that was used, the better the support. There was a science to the way the ropes were strung and tied, and then the fun part began, which was to remove as much slack from the ropes as possible. This task was usually performed by men since it required great strength. A special tool called a rope wrench or rope key was used to tighten it. Because the ropes would stretch over time, re-tightening the ropes was a routine part of maintenance in a well-run household.

Antique rope-strung bedstead. Watch the video to see how the ropes are tightened.

Rope-strung beds always sagged to some degree in the middle, even then the ropes were fully taut, meaning that if a bed was shared, the realities of gravity would prevent the sleepers from keeping to their own side. As you can imagine, well-strung ropes would be critical to a good night’s sleep, which is where the phrase, “Good night, sleep tight.” is believed to originate from.

The bed mattresses

If you imagined more than one mattress on the bed during the exercise at the beginning of this post, congratulations–you’re right. The reality is that Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. A princess, being royal, would be accustomed to a many-mattressed slumber during Anderson’s lifetime, and the fairy tale seems to have included a bit of satire on excesses of sleeping privilege among the nobility.

The Princess and the Pea Edmund Dulac – Gutenberg.org: Stories from Hans Andersen, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. Creative Commons ID=14406760

While the poor might just have a single straw mattress, the higher the class, the more mattresses were piled on. All of the mattresses began as cloth bags made from a durable fabric called ticking, so the bag itself is the tick. You can still find vintage-style ticking fabric today. The stuffing of the tick varied based on the resources available and the wealth of the household, with most examples starting with a straw mattress with increasingly finer and softer stuffing with each additional layer with the best layer at the top. Multiple layers of the same material were common. Middle-class homes would have at least three to four mattresses, with at least the top one being a soft layer. Here is a list of potential mattress stuffing options, starting at the bottom layer and working up: Chopped straw, chaff, flock, horsehair, feathers, and down.

The rest of it

Maintenance of it all was critical to ensure the comfort of the bed. The ropes were re-tightened as needed, and periodically the ropes would require complete re-stringing. Straw and chaff mattresses were re-stuffed annually during the harvest season when fresh contents were plentiful. The tick was re-used but thoroughly washed and dried before refilling. All the mattress types were prone to compression, so regular turning and fluffing, especially of the softer layers was performed at least monthly, and if the top layer was inferior, such as flock, it might need to be re-fluffed every time the linens are changed.

Wealthy and poor alike had to deal with living creatures taking up residence in their bedding. Raising the bottom of the bed helped to combat rodents in the straw mattress, and raising it up over eight inches put it out of jumping range of the flea. Bedbugs were a constant battle, and solutions provided in housekeeping manuals included fumigating the room with brimstone, and washing the bedstead with a mixture of turpentine, wine, and camphor, sprinkling the feather mattress with some of the same concoction for good measure. In this, we find the third stanza of the famous bedtime valediction: “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

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13 Responses to The Seven-Layer Beds of the Regency

  1. Thanks for this informative and interesting post. It was great to see the photos and video on how the strings were tightened.

    • I can only imagine. I realized as I was doing the research for this post that our modern “pillowtop” mattresses apply the same principle. Like a down pillow.

  2. Thoroughly fascinating! Thank you!
    Random questions my ADD brain wondered while reading:
    What there typically an order for the content of the matresses, a progression? In a wealthy home, I imagine down and goose or duck feather would be the top layer(s).
    Was that a job on a farm – someone to select, sort, and clean the feathers from the farmyard? Or only collected as part of processing a bird for the table?
    Was there any info on why rope and not wooden slats?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. You are correct that there was an order. The sequence I cited above, “Chopped straw, chaff, flock, horsehair, feathers, and down.” is basically the order they went in. Chopped straw is explanatory, and was the hardest/stiffest mattress, so it goes on the bottom. If you had the resources for a second mattress, then came the chaff, which is basically any hull or husk that was a by-product of a grain harvest. It was just a bit softer than straw, so it would go on top of the straw mattress. Flock mattresses were usually stuffed with wool fibers, the shortest ones that can’t be spun. While a flock mattress is much softer than straw or chaff, it has to be aggressively re-fluffed frequently because the fibers rapidly compress and harden. Ditto for horsehair. This chore was typically performed monthly. I didn’t encounter any resources that specified the source of the feathers, but I suspect that you are correct as to how they were collected. I did encounter a mattress advertisement from the period, claiming that the down in their mattress had been “collected from the down that lined the nests, which was the softest, finest quality down available.” I don’t remember the price on the ad, but it was a fairly pricey product. Feather and down mattresses were shaken and re-fluffed every time the bed linens were changed.

      And yes, I did encounter several reasons for the rope. One was that the ropes were harder for vermin to establish a nest in because there was no solid foundation for them to build on. If they managed to open a hole in the tick and burrow into the straw from underneath, their nest was open at the bottom. The second reason was that the ropes were undeniably softer to sleep on than a wooden platform or slats. Slats are also prone to breaking because the heaviest part of the person is not distributed. With ropes, the weight is distributed. Another issue with slats is that this pile of mattresses is less prone to slip off the bed if it dips slightly. Beds from previous eras that used slats often had to install decorative posts along the sides to help hold the mattresses in place. The invention of the box spring and self-contained mattress made slats feasible again.

  3. Thank goodness we don’t rely on rope strung beds nowadays! Mine would probably be touching the floor by now! I’m also happy to have a sprung mattress as I imagine straw would be very scratchy? I have to have anti allergy bedding so would really have struggled (and I would have needed a ladder to climb on to all those mattresses)

    • Yes, by the time a year had rolled around the straw and chaff mattresses would be rather musty, but most people had top layers that weren’t straw. But even so, they weren’t hypoallergenic either, so you probably would have struggled. The average mattress even when fluffed up was only about 3″ thick, so even in a wealthier household, the mattresses didn’t usually amount to a daunting climb. Some people did intentionally place the rails rather high, and yes, some people needed ladders to get up to the bed.

    • Interesting! I focused on the Georgian/Regency era, but as I understand it, the next generation of beds had a heavy, stiff tarp-like center cloth that was laced to the frame in a zigzag pattern. It still had to be tightened as everything stretched, but it was less difficult to tighten.

    • That bed was certainly ornate, wasn’t it? I’m so thankful that we’ve moved past rope beds. Growing up, we had some bunk beds where the mattress was supported by a grid of heavy wire pieces that linked together. Those beds sagged horribly and were just short of being like a hammock. They were certainly single-sleeper beds.

  4. This was an enlightening post. I had heard the old rhyme but had never seen how they tightened the ropes. That video was amazing. The curtains around the bed would be drawn at night. They were needed to retain heat and or keep out the cold. Having multilayers also helped with the down or feather mattresses or coverlets. I’ve slept on a feather bed before and you sink to the bottom as the feather envelope you. You would need a sturdy mattress underneath but oh, my. Those feathers were certainly warm on a cold night. Thanks for sharing. Blessings.

    • Your comment about the curtains is a great segway to my next post when I will be talking about the bedclothes and other textile features of the beds. I’ve never slept on a feather bed, but I found myself singing John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed” while I was writing this post LOL.

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