Bed Lingo

The Lewis bedstead, which had been on display in the Chamber since March, has temporarily left the building.  It has gone to the studio of Williamsburg Art Conservation, Inc., where Tom Snyder will be performing a variety of treatments and repairs.  Among other procedures, reproduction bolt covers and castors will be fabricated and attached to the bedstead to replace the missing originals, replacement wooden “buttons” (which once held the sacking bottom of the bed in place) will be fitted to the bed rails where the originals were cut off, and the entire surface of the bedstead will be cleaned.  Once the bedstead returns to Kenmore later this summer, it should be looking ship-shape!

In thinking about our bedstead, I realized that there is quite a bit of terminology from the 18th century that we are fairly unfamiliar with these days.  Especially when it comes to beds! What is a “sacking bottom”, for instance? In the 18th century, most

A modified version of a sacking bottom. Image courtesy of Natalie Larson.

 bedsteads did not have slats that ran between the bed rails, rather they either had ropes strung between them to support the layers of bedding above, or they had sacking.  Sacking was a sheet of sail cloth or canvas, with grommets along its perimeter.  The grommets were fitted over wooden buttons along the bed rails, and together they held up the bedding.  A sacking bottom needed to be strong, and you will see why.

Even the word “bed” itself did not mean the same thing then that it does now.  You may have noticed that whenever I talk about the Lewis bedstead in these blog posts, I’m rather careful to say “bedstead”, and not “bed”.  We tend to use the term “bed” to describe the whole thing – frame, mattress, box spring, etc.  In the 18th century, “bed” referred to what we would think of as a down-filled mattress topper, or feather bed.  It was just one component of the sleeping apparatus.  That’s why there are often so many “beds” listed in 18th century probate inventories.  In Fielding Lewis’s inventory, there are 9 beds listed on the second floor, in addition to 3 bedsteads.  That does not mean that there were 12 total beds on the second floor, but rather there was a pile of 9 toppers (probably thick linen bags, filled with feathers) stored in a room, while there were 3 bed frames in the other rooms. 

However, things get even more complicated when we look at the 18th century usage of the word “mattress”.  Yes, they used that term, too, just not the way we do.  An 18th century mattress was a thin matt made of woven straw, or sometimes a thin pad stuffed with hair, or even moss.  The mattress could be placed on top of the bed in warmer months, so that any occupants wouldn’t sink into thick down when trying to stay cool.  In colder months, the mattress might be placed under the bed, just to add some support, or it might be rolled up and stored elsewhere until needed. 

The bed and mattress, combined with a tick (another thick linen bag, this time filled with straw for support; analogous to our box spring), a bolster pillow, at least two personal pillows, and the bed curtains, comprised the “bed furniture” in an 18th century bedchamber.  Bed furniture is often listed separately from a bedstead in a probate inventory, because it had its own value.  Bed furniture was often more valuable than the bedstead itself, and could be very difficult to replace.  The feathers alone required to fill a bed were a major investment. 

Despite the different uses of all of these terms, the names for bed linens in the 18th century are remarkably similar to the names we use today.  Sheets then are the same thing as sheets now (they used a bottom sheet and a top sheet, just like we do).  A blanket was put over the top sheet, just as we do, but a second one was usually added as well (keeping warm at night in the 18th century was a challenge).  The whole arrangement would be topped off with a counterpane (a word we use interchangeably with

A basic diagram showing all the layers of furniture and bedding.

“bedspread”), or a quilt.  The only unfamiliar item in the 18th century linen closet might be a “bed rug”, which is almost exactly what it sounds like.  Earlier in the 18th century, heavy rugs (much like our modern area rugs for floors) would be made to cover the top of a bed.  They might be shaggy, decorated with looped needlework, or they might be flat, woven pieces, with embroidered decoration.  Betty Lewis’s 1797 probate inventory lists a “silk bed rug” among her possessions at Millbrook.

We are all looking forward to the day that visitors to Kenmore will be able to see all of this for themselves in our Chamber!

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