Saturday, January 27, 2018

Questions You Always Wanted To Ask About Life in Colonial New England: Beds and Sleeping Arrangements

My previous blog post cover the delicate issue of early American 'restrooms.' The idea of going in a chamber pot is enough to convince me that I would not do well living in the past. Time machines are great, but only if I can come home at night for a hot shower and a flushable toilet. But what if the time machine malfunctioned and I was forced to have a pre-revolution sleep-over, what would my accommodations be like? Let's find out.

So, I just read a fantastic book called Dissenting Bodies by Martha Finch. It's a superb reference on the daily lives of our Great Migration ancestors. She delves into the nitty-gritty of daily life for these hardy people, including their bedroom furniture. Have you ever read a pre-1700 estate inventory? They are amazing documents which frequently feature all things bedding. Every sheet and pillowcase was documented and bequeathed to someone.  These wills also give details on various types of beds, although I have yet to see a Beauty Rest listed. 

The original colonist built small single room houses. A 20 x 20 square house might be home to ten people. Clearly each of these people did not have a bed to themselves. There was a lot of sharing going on. What you slept on had a lot to do with your economic status and your rank in the household. Parents typically had the best bed, servants the least comfortable. When houses began to expand into the two room hall and parlor style, the parents moved their bed and their best furniture into the parlor, everyone else slept in the hall. Babies usually slept in a cradle near it's mother. Young children often slept on a trundle bed near their parents. Older children and servants slept in the hall or in the loft built inside the house. Privacy was all but nonexistent. The parents, if they had the means, might have a bed with curtains or hangings around it, providing some degree of privacy. According to Finch, few people at the end of the 17th century slept alone. Everyone shared a bed with someone. 

Pallet/Flock bed
A pallet was probably just as awful as it sounds. A flock bed was basically a coarse linen 'bag' filled with rags and straw. This would be placed directly on the floor. Depending on it's size it might be shared by several people. 

Feather bed
This was a bed to aspire to, a linen sack filled with feathers. I'm not sure how many birds had to give up their feathers to make a bed, but I'm betting it was alot.

If you were lucky, your bed was not on the floor but placed on a bedstead. Again, you got what you paid for. The bed might be little more than a wooden frame strung with rope. The finer beds had headboards and foot boards and the best beds had an upper frame from which could be hung curtains. The curtains afforded a small bit of privacy and keep out drafts. 

Settle bed
A settle bed was a bench by day, but opened into a bed at night, thus making the most of the small space. 

Trundle bed
A trundle was a small bed frame that was pushed under a larger bedstead to get it out of the way when not in use. 

Linens also were listed in the probate inventories along with the beds. Sheets were made of linen, in various degrees of quality. Like today, the colonist slept covered first with a sheet and then a blanket. A coverlet, if they had one, went on top of the blanket. The sleeper had a pillow in a pillow case. There might also be an item called a bolster on the bed. No one seems to be exactly sure what a bolster was but Finch guesses it might have meant an extra firm mattress or a some type of pillow used to give extra support to the head. 

Status symbol
It seems hard to believe, but a bed could denote your status to visitors. Guest were entertained in the parlor when the housewife showed off her most prized possessions, including her bed. Rich embroidered fabrics let everyone know that you were someone to be reckoned with. Beds and linen were so valuable that they often made up a sizable portion of a colonist's estate. 

Martha Finch, Dissenting Bodies, (New York : Columbia University Press, 2010).

More burning questions:

What did they eat?

Where did they use the toilet?

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