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Four-Poster Beds And Others
I must dwell for a little on the subject of old bedsteads. Although their size and high value make them less common possessions, a study of other kinds of old furniture gives a slighter clue to them than to high-boys and sofas. Even the early nineteenth-century bedsteads are rare and valuable, and, if your house is large enough to accommodate them, you may well aspire to own one or two.
While there are few, if any, seventeenth-century bedsteads now in existence in this country, it may not be uninteresting to consider for a moment the styles that were made in England during that period, and that were used by the wealthier families in this country.
After the huge built-in beds of earlier days there came into vogue in Europe a movable bed that was, set in the middle of the chamber and was heavily curtained to protect the sleeper from drafts. These curtains and draperies persisted long after the real need for them had disappeared.
This cumbersome affair gave place to something like the four-poster, that was developed during the Tudor period into a massive bedstead of carved and paneled oak, with posts, head-boards, and testers.
Oak continued popular through the seventeenth century. During the Stuart period four-posters were sometimes made without the canopy, though this remained in general favor until the middle of the last century. Jacobean bedsteads, like those of the Stuart period, were of oak, but carving gave place to paneling, and the use of moldings became general.
Walnut became the most popular wood in Queen Anne's day, and, as in the case of chairs, the Dutch influence began to be felt more strongly. The cabriole leg and ball-and-claw foot appeared, together with the broken-arch cornice on the headboards. The parts were held together with wooden bolts or pegs, and the side pieces were pierced with holes for the ropes which served in lieu of springs.
A few of these Queen Anne bedsteads may be in existence in this country, though I have never seen any. It is doubtful, however, if any of the earlier oak bedsteads are to be found.Nevertheless, there were undoubtedly some used here, though they were large and hard to transport.Especially in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, these English bedsteads were used in the homes of the wealthy planters. During the last half of the seventeenth century they were not uncommon in the better homes in the North.
Most of our Northern forefathers, however, were content with something much more simple. Many of the bedsteads were merely frames, usually furnished, however, with curtains and valances. The beds or mattresses were stuffed with feathers, hair, hay, straw, or chopped rags, and must frequently have been placed directly on the floor.A few cupboard or press-beds were also in use, designed to be pushed into a closet, or built in a curtained alcove. Rude couches or settles, called couchbeds, were also used.
The oldest kind of bedstead you can hope to run across is the walnut Queen Anne. The chances are, however, that your experiences will be confined to those dating no farther back than 1750, when four-posters of an early Georgian type became fairly common in this country. These were more lightly constructed than formerly, with slender turned posts. Those made in England were usually elaborately carved, those made here generally plainer. Even toward the latter part of the century plain posts were common, depending upon draperies to cover them. These were round, square, or octagonal. The bedstead at Mount Vernon in which Washington died has perfectly plain turned posts.The head-boards were plain, and were intended to be concealed by draperies.It might be added that you will probably never find two four-posters exactly alike, unless they are twin-beds.The beds were made on laced cords, covered with heavy canvas, as springs were not used until well into the nineteenth century. Many were narrow-not over four feet wide-though most were broader. Mahogany, cypress, sycamore, maple, cherry, Virginia walnut, cedar, ash, elm, pine, poplar, and hickory were all used to a greater or less extent.
Most of these bedsteads were undoubtedly intended to be used with curtains and valances. Often two sets of curtains were used an outer and an inner the latter to be drawn in winter for warmth. Silk, damask, calico, chintz, and linen were the usual materials.
Among the various styles of the middle of the eighteenth century we find the tent-bed and field bed. These are perhaps the oldest Colonial bedsteads vou will have occasion to examine. The field-beds had light, curving bars overhead, in place of the heavy tester. This was called a sweep, and when covered with draperies it produced somewhat the effect of a tent. The tent-beds had straight side and end bars. They were quite plain and inexpensive, little wood being used in their construction. The posts were usually slender and twisted or reeded.
In England, after 1740, a handsome bedstead was made, with slender plain or fluted posts, cabriole legs with a shell at the knee, and ball-and-claw feet. Sometimes the two legs at the head were straight and plain. Later Georgian variations of this style came to America, but few cabriole legs or ball-and-claw feet seem to have been in use here as early as 1750.Later in the century came the more decided Georgian styles, though the hand of the Georgian cabinetmaker is less easily traced in old bedsteads than in chairs and tables. There were a number of miscellaneous mahogany four-posters, with slender fluted or carved posts, that are truly Georgian in style, and yet vary more or less from the well-known Georgian types. Chippendale made bedsteads, but it is doubtful if there are many of his in this country, though his influence is to be traced here and there. His posts were tall and slender, and elaborately carved.A favorite design was a fluted column, with garlands of flowers and ribbons entwining the posts in raised carving. He apparently used the ball-and-claw foot but seldom on his bedsteads. His foot-boards and side pieces were carved and paneled, the head-boards being often plain. A well-known post design of Chippendale's was the clustered bamboos.
Bedsteads were designed by the Adam brothers. These were smaller and lighter than those of Chippendale, the posts lower, and the carving less elaborate. Such ornamentation as they used was Classic in style. Heppelwhite's bedposts were delicate and attenuated, growing very slender at the top. He used less carving than Chippendale. Delicate beading, carved rosettes, and drapery festoons constituted most of his decorations, aside from his typical fluting.
Sheraton's designs are in his usual simple, restrained style. His posts were somewhat larger than Heppelwhite's. Few of his finer inlaid bedsteads found their way to this country. In fact, authentic bedsteads by the greater Georgian cabinet-makers are so rare that the average furniture-collector will be hardly likely to run across them, and should be wary of pieces whose owners attach to them one of these great names. Their work, however, influenced that of their contemporaries who made most of the bedsteads of the day.It need hardly be pointed out that the whole subject of Georgian bedsteads is one that does not lend itself to accurate classification, as do the chairs of the period, for example.If you are sure your old four-poster is genuine, and can determine its approximate age, that is about all you can hope for. Any four-poster a hundred years old or more is valuable. If it is a mahogany bedstead with tall, slender, fluted posts, and with light carving in Georgian motifs, it is likely to be one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty years old and worth a high price.
Most of the old four-posters that you will be likely to come in contact with date no farther back than 18oo, and belong to the Empire period. Many of them are so beautiful in their carving, and in such a good state of preservation, that they are well worth hunting for, and it would perhaps be best for the amateur antiquarian to confine his quest, for a time at least, to four-posters of this type.
In general, the large, heavy bedsteads with richly carved posts, usually of mahogany, belong to this Empire period or later. Four-posters of sixty or seventy years ago may be classed with this group, and are already valuable. The larger the posts, generally speaking, the later the manufacture.
These bedsteads were made in similar styles in England, France, and America, and it is not often easy to tell their origin.
The tester was often dispensed with on these fourposters. The posts were carved in heavy patterns, the anthemion, acanthus leaf, pineapple, laurel leaf, horn-of-plenty, and feather pattern being common characteristics from 1800 to 1840. The acanthus appears on earlier bedsteads, but the pineapple did not come into vogue until about 1810. The headboards were often handsomely carved with drapery, flowers, fruit, and sometimes the spread eagle, though plain head-boards were more common. Sometimes there were foot-boards to match; sometimes there were none.
The ball-and-claw foot, seldom found on bedsteads, had entirely disappeared, but a lion's foot was occasionally used after i8oo. The posts became more and more elaborately carved up to 1830 or even 1840, but the testers continued to be plain when used.
With the decline of the Georgian styles, and the advent of the Empire, all furniture became heavier and more ornate. The bedsteads became big, wide, and high, so high, sometimes, with their feather beds, that steps were required to mount them.
During this period a lower bed, however, enjoyed some popularity. This was developed from the low Napoleonic French bedstead and is known as the low-poster. It reached the height of its popularity about 1825, though it continued to be used until the later American bedstead developed from it. The posts extended but slightly above the head and footboards, which were usually comparatively plain. The acanthus style of carving appeared frequently on the posts, and pineapple terminals were common.
French and English bedsteads were popular up to the middle of the century, but American manufacturers were fast gaining the upper hand. They made use of a sort of modified Empire style, as they did in chairs. The proportions and general shape were Empire in feeling, but they dropped most of the Empire carving, the majority of their posts being turned. They made use of mahogany, oak, cherry, cypress, walnut, and other woods. American bedsteads of rich San Domingan mahogany, with turned posts eight or ten inches in diameter, and with plain, slightly scrolled head-boards, are somewhat in de mand. There was much variety in the form of the posts, from elaborately turned patterns to plain hexagonal or cylindrical pillars.American-made low-posters were also common from 1820 to 1840.These were usually of maple or cherry and had turned posts.The head-boards and foot-boards were plain, surmounted usually by a turned piece, scroll effect, or heavy row of molding. One form, called the sleigh-bed, was a more direct descendant of the Napoleonic bedstead.It had rolling, curved head- and foot-boards and no posts.The handsomest ones were ornamented in ormolu, but for the most part they were massive and plain.
With the Victorian era came the decline of mahogany and a revival of Queen Anne styles. Black walnut, poor machine workmanship, cheap moldings, and ugly shapes marked the lowest stage of our American cabinet-making, and the beautiful fourposter disappeared.
Before passing on to the concluding paragraphs of this chapter, it might be worth while to mention cradles. These were used always beside the bedsteads of our forebears, and their collection is interesting if not altogether satisfactory. Modern science has decreed against their use today.
Of the early cradles in this country there seem to have been two kinds-one resting on short rockers,and the other swinging between stationary uprights. Many of them had hoods, and they were made of oak, walnut, mahogany, and other woods, as well as wicker. The styles were so varied as to make brief classification impracticable.
Later on our grandparents, graduating from the cradle, often slept in low trundle-beds, which were pushed under the four-posters during the day. These trundle-beds, by the way, were a relic of the days when every nobleman needed a faithful and armed guard to sleep at his feet all night.
Like all other antique furniture, old bedsteads are made by counterfeiters. The commonest method is to take parts of several dilapidated old four-posters, and put them together into one salable piece. This usually means a mixture of styles, which the careful student can detect. Another trick is to carve the plain posts of American-made bedsteads in elaborate Empire patterns, but unless very carefully treated these carvings will show marks of recent workmanship, and will usually look brighter than the rest of the wood.
Originally the four-poster bedstead was put together with wooden or iron bolts, and many of them show rope-holes in the side pieces. Although it is often customary now for the renovator to replace the bolts with new-fashioned bed-locks which are more convenient, the beds thus altered should show the bolt-holes and give evidence of the alteration.
The prices paid for old bedsteads vary widely. The oldest types bring the most money, though they are really no more satisfactory to the modern householder than the late Empire four-posters. Genuine Georgian pieces are very rare and sometimes bring enormous prices. Empire four-posters of mahogany are priced, according to their condition and the beauty of the carving.