An Elaborate Pile of Comfort: Making the Bed in the Days of Horsehair, Straw, and Feathers

Bedstead, ca. 1840. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Vivian O. Wills, 1979. This double bed was originally in an upstairs bedchamber at the Greek Revival Masterton-Dusenbury House in Bronxville, New York, built in the 1830s for Alexander Masterton (1797–1859). According to a subsequent owner of the home, the family’s sons slept in this bedstead. (A portrait of the Masterton family is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and can be viewed here.)

Everyone wants to wake up refreshed in the morning after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. But in the days before memory foam, fitted sheets, and down-alternative comforters—when straw, horsehair, feathers, wool, and sometimes even corn husks, moss, and leaves filled the lofty layers piled on bedsteads—making a bed was not always easy.

Frontispiece from The Young Housekeeper’s Essential Aid to the Thorough Understanding of the Duties of Her Maid Servants, London, 1852. In her treatise on domestic economy, Catherine Beecher instructed American young women in the 1840s how to make up a bed. “Open the windows and lay off the bed-covering on two chairs . . . After the [feather] bed is well aired, shake the feathers from each corner to the middle; then take up the middle and shake it well, and turn the [feather] bed over. Then push the feathers in place.” More detailed instructions follow on how to add the sheets, blankets, coverlets, and pillows.

So, how, exactly, did people make their beds in the nineteenth century?

To begin with, rope (“bed cords”), canvas (“sacking”), or wooden slats (“laths”) were attached to the bedstead’s side rails to support the mattress, which was stuffed into linen or cotton ticking. More bedding elements were then added to form “the elaborate pile of comfort designed to cushion our motionless forms.” (“Wholesome Beds,” The Health Reformer, June 1873) (Readers of fairy tales might recall the bedstead heaped high with twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” [1835].)

Bedding advertisement for H. N. Lamb, 431 Sixth Avenue, in Trow’s New York City Directory for the Year Ending May 1, 1873

Sometimes the bottom of the bed frame was fitted with a straw-filled pallet called a “paillasse” (paille is French for “straw”). According to the author of The Workwoman’s Guide (1838), “it is very thick and as hard as a board; . . . they are made in a frame and should be covered with a very strong good tick or Holland [a plain-woven linen].” Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes note in their Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (1845) that “when the bottom of the bedstead is made with laths [slats], a paillasse is necessary, as the laths cut the mattress or bed.” But when sacking supported the mattress, the use of a paillasse was not advised. Straw deteriorated over time and had to be replaced every spring.

Bedstead with a reproduction sacking bottom, straw mattress, and feather bed on display at the Winterthur Museum

The mattress came next. Horsehair and wool were the most popular choices. Horsehair was the most desirable, being long-lasting and cooler, but it was more expensive. Mattresses were also filled with straw, rags (“flock”), Spanish moss, cotton, hemp, corn husks, and shredded wood (known as Excelsior). Woven wire supports and coiled metal springs were sometimes employed later in the nineteenth century. Not everyone could afford to buy a good mattress, however, even one made from inexpensive materials like corn husks. The author of You Ask!—I’ll Tell!, published in Philadelphia in 1873, reminds readers that for people living in poverty, “dried leaves from the maple or beech make a clean, healthy bed.” Webster and Parkes are of the opinion that dried beech leaves are even better than straw for stuffing a mattress. Their Encyclopedia claims that in addition to being soft and flexible, beech leaves retain a pleasant fragrance similar to that of green tea. “The only objection to them is the slight crackling noise which they occasion when a person turns in bed.”

Adolph Menzel (German, 1815–1905). Ungemachtes Bett (Unmade Bed), ca. 1846. Chalk drawing. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Striped ticking covers the mattress (which appears to have lost some of its stuffing) in this drawing of a rumpled bed.

A well-stuffed and plumped feather bed (sometimes simply referred to as a “bed”) was then laid on the mattress. (People slept on top of these—not underneath—and they are not to be confused with today’s down duvets.) Together, a feather bed, bolster, and pillows might be stuffed with up to ninety pounds of feathers. Caroline Howard King (1822–1909), who dreaded climbing up and down bed steps as a girl in Massachusetts, wrote in her memoirs about the experience of sleeping on this precarious mound of bedding: “The fear was emphasized by the fact that the bed was piled up very high in the middle, so that unless I landed exactly in the centre of the mountainous island on my first entrance, I passed my night in rolling down hill, or in vain efforts to scramble up to the top, to avoid falling out on the floor.’” Feather beds were taken off or stored under the mattress in the summer—when some areas sweltered under oppressive heat and humidity—because “nothing is more debilitating than, in warm weather, to sleep with a featherbed pressing round the greater part of the body.” (Catharine E. Beecher, Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1843)

Advertisements for feathers and feather beds, A.E. Wright’s Boston, New York, Philadelphia & Baltimore Commercial Directory, and General Advertising Medium, 1840

Feather beds, however, developed a widespread reputation for their alleged “enervating” or enfeebling effect. (This was also a time when some individuals thought that bathing in warm water was debilitating.) They began to be seen as unhealthy, and their popularity declined. By 1855, when Godey’s Lady’s Book discussed bedding in the August issue, this attitude appears to have been well established. “The days of feather beds may be considered as entirely past, at least among people who have sufficient good sense and education to understand their enervating unhealthiness.” But Eliza Leslie,  author of The House Book (1844), did not completely agree. As long as the feather bed was placed on a thick mattress “to prevent the feather-bed beneath from rising or swelling around you, the proper end is answered as far as health is in question,” she explains. “We believe that there are few grown persons who, during the severity of an American winter, would really find their health impaired by sleeping with the feather-bed on the top of the mattrass [sic]; and few that, in the summer, would find themselves too warm by having a feather-bed, instead of a paillasse, underneath a mattrass [sic] of moderate thickness.” Miss Leslie makes a good point, and feather beds continued to be used for a while, but her opinions were soon considered outdated.

Seymour Joseph Guy (American, born England 1824–1910 New York). Story of Golden Locks, 1870. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Daniel Wolf and Mathew Wolf, in memory of their sister, the Honorable Diane R. Wolf, 2013. Square pillows were standard for most of the nineteenth century.
Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). Le lit défait (The Unmade Bed). Watercolor. Musée du Louvre. Sometimes bolsters were wrapped in a sheet rather than being placed in a specially made case.

Bolsters and pillows were also well stuffed with feathers. Miss Leslie warns that they “are not comfortable unless they are large and full,” adding that “it is a pitiful economy to put in so small a quantity [of feathers] that they become nearly flat as soon as you lie down on them.” Horsehair filled pillows as well. According to Godey’s in 1855, “[horse]hair pillows are more generally in use than ever before.” Pillows stuffed with small strips of paper, which were considered to be cooling, were sometimes recommended for invalids and people with fevers, children in the summer to keep their heads cool, and people on a low income. Pillows and bolsters were made in various dimensions, but pillows were usually square for much of the century. “‛I am accustomed to hair mattresses, square pillows, and linen bedding,’” sniffs a well-to-do lady in “Fanny’s Flirtation,” a serialized novella published in Peterson’s Magazine in 1864. Two pillows and a bolster were the norm—which meant that people slept propped up in a somewhat elevated position—but Godey’s (1855) advises that “to use the bolster alone at night, or one pillow, will preserve the figure best against curvature; an almost upright posture, which the use of square pillows makes necessary, cannot be as healthful.” By the end of the century, oblong pillows had become more common than square ones, according to “The Linen Closet,” an article printed in Demorest’s Family Magazine in October 1892.

Henry R. Robinson (American, died 1850), lithographer and publisher. Misery Acquaints a Man with Strange Bed-Fellows, 1848. Library of Congress. Well-stuffed bolsters and square pillows raised the upper body during sleep, but some experts advised against this practice, saying that it could induce curvature of the spine. For example, in 1875, Dr. R. T. Trall wrote in his book Popular Physiology that “sleeping on two or three pillows, or on a bolster and pillow, is a prevalent yet pernicious custom. If long continued, the effect is surely a distortion of the spine to some extent. If the head is raised high while sleeping, the stomach and lungs are injuriously compressed, and the upper intestines pressed downward on the pelvic organs.”

Linen sheets and pillowcases were preferred by those who could afford them and, as Eliza Leslie puts it, were “universal in genteel families.” Cotton sheets did not last nearly as long as linen ones, but they were warmer and were sometimes recommended for use during cold winters. So-called Russian sheeting was long-wearing (but coarse) and was sometimes chosen for servants’ beds or by those on a limited budget.

Left: Harry Tyler (1801–1858). Coverlet, 1839. Jefferson County, New York. Wool and cotton. Center: J. Wright. Wholecloth whitework quilt, ca. 1815. Massachusetts. Quilted cotton. Right: Star of Bethlehem quilt, ca. 1835. Possibly made in Maryland. Cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Linens were marked with cross stitch and other embroidery (mostly earlier in the century) or with ink to identify the various sets of sheets and pillowcases that mingled together amidst a jumbled sea of white linen on laundry day. “All the bed-linen should be marked with the whole name of the family, and each pair of sheets and pillow-cases should have the same number or figure,” Miss Leslie instructs. Lavender sachets imparted a lovely scent to snowy white linens after laundering. Finally, a wide variety of blankets, coverlets, counterpanes, comforters, and quilts completed the bedding ensemble.

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854). High-post bedstead, ca. 1815–25. Mahogany. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Justine Bayard Erving, 1956.05. Bedsteads like these are as “a room in itself, with four carved posts, flowered curtains for walls, [and] a chintz tester for ceiling.” (Caroline Howard King, When I Lived in Salem)
Left: Charles-Honoré Lannuier. French Bedstead, 1812–19. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Henry S. Peltz and Mary Nevius. Right: Pierre de La Mésangère. Lit Ordinaire. Engraving from Collection de Meubles et Objets de Goût, 1802

Bed curtains were used with high-post bedsteads and French bedsteads (a style that was placed sideways against the wall). Curtains prevented drafts, keeping sleepers warm in cold weather, and provided privacy. They were also elegant. “For a large and handsomely furnished chamber,” Eliza Leslie writes, “no bedstead looks so well as the square, high post, with curtains.” Bed curtains were usually made of the same (or similar) fabric as the coverlet, window curtains, and valance. “The bedstead in our own spare room was a very beautiful mahogany one, with richly carved posts and legs, and hung with a canopy and curtains of lovely soft India cotton, with counterpane and valances to match,” Caroline Howard King recalled. Watch pockets kept timepieces handy and were made of the same material as the bed curtains or of dimity, muslin, velvet, or buckskin. Mahogany bed steps—with a compartment for a chamber pot—were sometimes needed to climb up into these high beds. The treads were covered in Brussels carpet to prevent slipping. (Today, antique bed steps are often used as end tables, and the carpet has been replaced with leather.)

John Claudius Loudon (Scottish, 1783–1843). Illustration of a so-called French bedstead and bed steps from An Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture

“Mattress, blankets, as well as sheets, soon become foul, and need purification,” owing to the large amount of “poisonous matter” that escapes through the body during the night, cautions the author of “Importance of Wholesome Beds” (New England Farmer, August 1861). In order to keep bedding and bedchambers fresh, “all beds, pillows, etc., should be exposed to a current of fresh air a few minutes every morning. Pillows and bolsters ought to be placed in the sun now and then to remove all tendency to unpleasant effluvia,” Godey’s advises. Turning the mattress and dusting the bedstead helped to deter infestations of bedbugs and other insects.

Advertisement for English brass and iron bedsteads, R. Shepherd, 661 Broadway, New York, from How to Furnish a Home by Ella Rodman Church, 1881

Metal bedsteads made of brass and iron became increasingly prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century. These were considered more sanitary than wooden ones, because they are easily cleaned and do not attract insects. Modern spring mattresses also made their way into many households and were topped by hair or wool mattresses (straw mattresses also continued to be used). Housekeepers must have been delighted when they no longer had to plump and air out bothersome, old-fashioned feather beds or replace the straw in paillasses.

Making the bed is still a daily chore that no one looks forward to, but it is certainly much less trouble than it used to be. And let’s not even get started on washing the sheets. We will save that investigation for a future post.

Margaret Adams Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian

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