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?
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.
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.
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.
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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