Notes on Bed Hangings

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the bed was one of the most important pieces of household furnishings in America. In a period that began with one and two room dwellings with pounded dirt floors, a bed, a chest and maybe a table might make up a family's inventory of furniture. A bed was actually made up of the bedstead, a full set of bed hangings, a mattress, sheets, bolster, pillows and a quilt or coverlet. Bed hangings provided the earlier Colonists with a modicum of protection against cold drafts and a semblance of privacy. As the colonies prospered, they reflected the financial and social status of a household. There was a custom of receiving visitors in a room showing off a fine bed. Often the hangings were of more value than the bedstead upon which they were arranged. Bequests of beds and hangings are found in old New England probate records with the "best" going to a wife or oldest son.

Reproduction of a bed by the Goddard family of Rhode Island

The fabric parts of the bed were called the furniture. A full set of hangings consisted of a tester,valance, head cloth, head and foot curtains and a base or skirt. The mattress was topped off with a quilt or spread. The tester or canopy was tacked to a frame that was supported by tall posts. The head cloth was a panel that hung down from the tester frame behind the head board. The valance was attached with tacks to the tester frame and hung 12" to 20" deep along the sides and foot end of the tester frame. The valance was made up in many styles and methods. Valances might be single or double, lined, stiffened with buckram, bound with tape or braid or fringes. They might be shirred, festooned, layered or pleated. They were a natural place to work crewel embroidery. The head and foot curtains were the only moveable parts of the hangings. Curtains were made to completely enclose the bed when fully drawn. The foot curtain would often be twice as wide as the head curtains and completely hid the foot post from the view of everybody but the occupants of the bed. Curtains might be hung on iron or wooden rods or even string or wire. A narrow casing was provided for a string or wire. The curtains slid on the rods with tape loops or on brass rings sewn to the top of the panel. During the day the curtains would be pulled to the posts and either hung free or were tied to form festoons. As houses became more comfortable, the use of foot curtains diminished, the use of hanging became ornamental rather than practical. The base or skirt hung from the bedrails to the floor. The base when present hid whatever a household stored under the bed. The bed was furnished with mattresses, linen sheets, a bolster and pillows. All this was topped off with quilts, blankets, coverlets or bed rugs! With this kind of investment in fabrics it's easy to understand putting the best bed out for everyone to see!

Beds were hung in various combinations of pieces. A folding half-headed would have a small valance and curtains to conceal the folded bed during the daytime. Another bed might have a valance only or a valance and head cloth or skirt. Children and servants usually had no hangings. The master of the house and his wife had the best and most that they could afford. A fully dressed bed would often be relieved of some of its curtains in the summer.

Most fabrics were imported. Some came from France or Holland but the majority came from England and India. Domestic textile production was not of the imported quality and went largely to clothing. There was experimentation with the weaving of wool, linen and silk but it was not until after the Revolution that American manufacturing acquired the technical knowledge to make their fabrics competitive in the economy.

Smooth finished wools were prominent in bed furniture. Bright red or green damasks, moreens and satins were popular. Silk was used primarily for clothing but occasionally a bed set was done up by the very well-to-do. Some plain dimity curtains could be found. Furniture check linen was used in the later 18th century. Cottons were printed with woodblocks in large floral designs or were copperplate printed in bright purple or indigo blue with domestic and commemorative scenes. Fabric was narrow and repeats were large. Not much attention was paid to matching repeats until the early 19th century. A fully dressed bed made quite an impact on the eye. Considering that a complete set of bed furniture could take 50 yards of fabric, families had quite an investment in their beds. Rabbit Goody at Thistle Hill Weavers has photos of some fine bed hangings.

Bed Curtain Hardware

Although few examples of early bed hanging hardware exist, those that do indicate that the curtains were hung by brass rings from wooden or iron rods. Due to the lack of reproduction hardware for this purpose it has been common practice, both by museums and the general public, to use modern brass curtain rods. We felt that this distracted from the appearance of the bed. We are now able to offer bed hanging hardware to complement your original or reproduction bed.

The hardware can be made in various configurations according to the style of hangings you are using. A basic set consists of rods and either threaded or clinch pattern hooks. The rods are made to the length desired with a forged button on each end so as not to slide out of the hooks.

For further information please contact us with your hardware requirements.


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