A Brief History of Beds

Since our specialty is beds, a few historical notes may be of interest. Of the earliest American bedsteads 17th century American bedvery little is known. Only one American bed exists from the 17th century; however, contemporary inventories indicate that both tall post beds with drapes and low post beds were in use. It is assumed that tall post beds of this period were quite plain with the drapery providing all the visual form. The early beds were not held together by any secure means. Long tenons on the rails were fitted into deep mortises in the posts and the rope spring held everything together. All was well until the rope stretched and slackened and then the entire bed became wobbly until the rope was re-tightened.

straining wrenchTo assemble these beds must have been quite a project requiring several people to hold the parts in place while one strung and tightened the rope with a wooden straining wrench. This wrench resembles an low post bed with drawbore oversize clothespin with a crossbar through it for additional leverage.

Low post beds were made with the end rails tenoned and drawbored permanently to the posts. This reduced the number of parts that needed to be held together while it was being roped and later, the number of bolts need to hold the bed together.

antique bed boltThe earliest known bed bolt in America was found in Jamestown however bed bolts did not come into general use until about 1700. Bolts allowed the bed to be set up by one or two people and held the bed rigid even when the rope began to sag. Some beds utilized four bolts, fastening the side rails to the drawbored head and foot pieces while others used eight bolts, one into each end of the rails. This is how we make our beds today. Of course bed bolts were expensive and many country beds were made without them well into the 19th century. More information about bed bolts is available on the bed bolt page.

bed with sacking bottomRope was not the only type of spring used. During the late 17th century the canvas spring or "sacking bottom" began to be used. By the mid 18th century this would be the prevalent style spring, at least in urban areas. The sacking bottom consisted of a piece of canvas or sailcloth with eyelets along the edges. This was laced to a similar piece that was tacked to a rebate along the inside of the rail or to wooden pegs in the top of the rails. This type of bottom appears frequently on daybeds from the Queen Anne period on.reproduction Queen Anne bed

About 1720, with the beginning of the Queen Anne style, the footposts of beds began to be ornamented in keeping with the styles of the day. Although Queen Anne beds are exceptionally rare, one must assume that the work put into the cabriole leg and the turned upper post was not intended to be entirely hidden by the bed hangings, although they may have been exposed only when the lighter summer curtains were placed on the bed.

reproduction pencil post bedCommon people, who could not afford ornate posts, often settled for the pencil post bed. This style required neither a lathe for turning or labor intensive carving. Perhaps because of its simplicity of design and construction it remained a popular style through the early 19th century.reproduction of a chippendale bed

The Chippendale style, beginning about 1745, would see further attention paid to the design and decoration of the footposts. The classical style held sway and beds often had head curtains only, exposing the entire footpost. Fluting and reeding became popular on the upper section of the post while the ball and claw, as well as the Marlborough foot, were the style for the lower post. Carved leafage, shells and drapes ornament the post according to customers wishes and wealth. Mahogany was by far the favored wood of the period although walnut, birch and cherry often were substituted, particularly outside urban areas.

The bed chamber of the time was usually located on the second floor of the house, the master bedroom located at the front. Contemporary inventories indicate that the bedroom was equal in importance to the parlor or drawing room and was probably used, in addition to the lower rooms, for entertaining guests. The well appointed bed chamber of the period would contain, in addition to the bedstead and its curtains, a highboy and a lowboy, six to a dozen chairs, a table, several looking glasses as well as several portraits or landscape paintings.

The Revolution would mark the end of the Chippendale period in America. Although the style would a Federal style field bedcontinue, Federal styles, influenced by the designs of Sheraton and Hepplewhite, would soon supersede it. New motifs were added and earlier ones were modified. In addition to the introduction of the spade foot as a major lower post treatment, the baluster turned upper post predominates. The carving of the post becomes more restrained, with drapery on the vase section being the primary motif and any leafage becoming quite stylized. Reeding was the primary decoration of the posts while fluting was almost entirely dropped. Inlays often appear in the square section of the post, and the testor frame becomes an important element of the bed. Although mentioned as early as Queen Anne, the field bed really comes into its own during this time and if surviving examples are any indication, it becomes the more popular form.interior of Old Schwamb mill, Arlington, MA

As the new century began, pressures were already building that would bring about the demise of the small cabinet shop overseen by a master. The country was expanding rapidly in size, population and wealth. Steam power was being harnessed, the circular saw invented and nascent factories started. More goods were produced for more people than ever before but unfortunately design became, in part, a function of what the machine could produce.

The one-to-one relation with the customer was lost and the craftsman became simply a person who produced parts for the assemblers. This new system would help create one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but in the process, much of the charm, individuality and attention to detail would be lost. We hope that in our small way we can help keep the spirit of an earlier time alive.


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The Country Bed Shop
Alan W. Pease
328 Richardson Road
Cabinetmaker
Ashby, MA 01431
(978) 386 - 7550
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