I do love a comfy bed. There are so many delightful things to do in between the sheets, some of which are sleeping, reading, writing, thinking, doodling; and some of which are…um, not. Ahem. Beds were not always the comfortable refuges they are today, but for opulence and beauty as well as comfort, the 19th century might have us beat.
While the middle and lower classes, and servants in large houses, had to make do with hardwood floors, unadorned furniture and hand me down rugs, the master or mistress of a great house slept in beds of rare woods furnished with feather mattresses and fine linens. The newly rich would purchase matching bedroom furniture like this rosewood suite from the 1860s. The armoire, washstand and commode on the left side were necessities in the days before built in closets, clothes hangers and bathrooms!
In a large house, the latter two items might have been placed in an adjoining dressing room. Still, a number of grand houses had commodes and washstands in the bedroom itself, due to the age of the house itself or to family custom. Retrofitting pipes into house built in the 18th century or earlier often resulted in the toilet or bath being tucked into a former linen closet or under a staircase – not something people wanted to wander down the hall to in the middle of the night!
The dressing table had some kind of cloth protecting its surface from dust. Girls and women often received matching sets of brushes, combs, hand mirror, and bottles or jars, all resting on their own tray. The materials for these ranged from horn or carved wood to elaborate silver. Ivory, plain or carved, was also popular in the days when people considered wildlife a commodity.
Victorians out of necessity used their bedrooms for a lot more than we do. A hundred and fifty years ago, most people were born at home and died at home. Medicine cabinets could be mounted on the wall for people suffering from chronic diseases.
The custom of separate bedrooms for wealthy couples continued throughout the 19th century in both Britain and America, giving the woman a refuge from household duties. If she was lucky enough to live in a really large house, she also had a boudoir, or small sitting room, as part of her apartment. Otherwise, wealthy women and their middle class sisters often had a writing table, chairs, and a chaise longue or sofa in their rooms.
One thing you would not find, even at the highest levels of society, is a bed table. Instead, a lady set her candle on a chair placed beside the head of the bed. Reading in bed was frowned upon, for what if one fell asleep before blowing out the candle? A good draft could send the flame into those lovely curtains, endangering the sleeper’s life. Gas jets came in before the end of the era, but their light was often dim and unsteady. It wasn’t possible to curl up in bed and read after sundown until electricity became common in the 20th century.
Just to end up, here is a link to a fascinating article on box beds, which I made use of in Her Scottish Groom.
What kind of bedroom appeals to you? Small and cozy or large and sumptuous?
2 thoughts on “To the Bedroom!”
Interesting information here about bedrooms through the ages, Ann.
I think a lot of people in Europe still have bedroom sets like this 1860 one pictured in your article. When I lived in Belgium, I bought a second-hand set that looked similar to it, sans the chest of drawers. Built-in closets aren’t common in older houses, as are stay-behind light fixtures. You bring your own.
As for bedroom preferences, me, I remember the Holiday Inn in Hastings NE. About four years ago, it was brand new–tall, white, billowy bed, well lit with windows, and a plate of chocolates waiting. It doesn’t get much better than that, unless one could go back in time about 30 years.
I know I saw some lovely sets when I’ve visited Europe. The one pictured might be American-made, though, and my father’s wife has a couple of antique beds that were made near her home. The quality isn’t as high as that of the set pictured, but they’re also decorated with all sorts of carved work.