Artifact Corner: 19th Century Rope Bed

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a bed from the 1820’s. This beautiful piece of furniture came from the Webb family. Henry Webb married our Frances Henrietta Delord. They had one daughter, Fannie Delord Webb Hall, who inherited a lot of the pieces we have in our home from the Webb family, and this is one of them. This bed is all hand turned, and the craftsmanship is superb. This bed is a rope strung bed, meaning it does not have box spring. A rope bed is a type of platform bed in which the sleeper (and mattress) is supported by a lattice of rope, rather than wooden slats. The bed would then have a mattress or two placed on top. The ropes would need to be tightened regularly, because they would stretch out. This is where the saying “sleep tight” comes from, the tightening of the ropes on rope strung beds. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of beds.

Humans have been trying to find the best way to sleep for millennia. Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, discovered 77,000-year-old bedding made from grass-like plants called sedges. These beds of sedges could be as much as a foot thick, but were on the ground, not raised in any way. “The sedges had medicinal plants on them, presumably laid there to serve as an insect deterrent.” Fast forward a few thousand years, and and the Egyptians began building raised wooden platform beds, and then topping them with what we would consider a mattress. Around the same time, the peoples of Ancient Scotland were making raised beds from stone, and created mattresses made from wool. Sometime between 3,600 BCE to 1,600 BCE, the Persians developed the first waterbed. They filled goatskins with water, warmed them in the sun, then moved them back into the home. It seems that their waterbeds were not used for most people in Persian society, but rather mostly for the sick or elderly. Moving forward in time again, wealthy Greeks and Romans had metal bed frames with feather or wool mattresses. Average Greeks and Romans had wooden framed beds with wool or straw mattresses. The most poor of society would have just had a mattress on the floor.

In the Middle Ages, the wealthy again had beautiful wooden platforms, and mattresses stuffed with only the softest down feathers. Meanwhile the average family would have a bed with a mattress likely filled with wool, but the entire family had to share it. During the Renaissance, not much changed, except, if you were super wealthy, you now might have a room entirely dedicated to the bed, known as a bedroom. In the 1870’s a new idea was to add springs to mattresses, in an attempt to make the more comfortable. This idea didn’t really take off for another 60 years though, as innerspring mattresses didn’t gain a ton of popularity until the 1930’s. Memory foam was originally invented by NASA in the 1970s to create seats that could conform to the astronauts’ bodies for every flight, even as their body shapes changed over time. It wasn’t until the very early 1990s that it became popular in consumer products like mattresses.

I’ve slept on a rope strung bed, and the only way I can explain the experience is like sleeping on an air mattress with a slow leak. Initially it feels comfortable, but when you wake up, it’s far less firm, and very saggy. This bed is in great condition, and will stay that way, since we won’t be sleeping on it any time soon. This is a beautiful piece of furniture and history, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,