Four Poster Beds
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AT no time since the days of the Renaissance has interest been so keen in interior decoration as it is at the present day, not only as regards the main living rooms of the home, but the sleeping apartments as well. This has resulted in a revival of old-time features, and the chamber fittings of the present in many cases are similar in type to those of early times, when purely classical designs were in vogue, — models that have never been surpassed in beauty by later designers, though many a fine piece of furniture has been made since then by expert cabinet-makers.
Early specimens showed a delicacy of touch and a mastery of thought that gave to them a lasting place in the world of architecture, and while the coming historian may dilate upon twentieth-century models, he cannot make any comparison that will in any way be derogatory to these wonderfully fine old pieces. In early days, labor was a very different problem from what it is to-day, years being often spent in the making of a single specimen of furniture, and, indeed, in some countries, a workman has been known to have spent his whole life in the fashioning of a single piece.
Taking these points into consideration, one can-not wonder that early century pieces are still as perfect as they were the day that they left the makers' hands, and it is with regret that he views the hurry and rush of modern times resulting in the practical abolition of hand carving, and the introduction of machinery that has helped in the deterioration of the art. Reproductions, as they are made today, while in many cases very beautiful, cannot equal in finish the originals fashioned at a time when art was the first consideration.
Fortunately, many genuine antiques are still in existence, and present interest for the most part centers in their types and periods of manufacture. With so many periods and so many makers, it is not surprising that mistakes in these respects are sometimes made, especially as regards the bedstead. For the best of these, one need not search farther back than the seventeenth century, for the most valuable specimens were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of these today bringing from two to three hundred dollars apiece.
Of course, these fine beds were not the first beds used here, though no doubt the earlier types, as well as these later specimens, were imported from England, along with the other household furnishings. If any bedsteads were made here, they were undoubtedly simple and unpretentious, along the lines of the settle and board tables.
The articles of furniture devised by people of different countries for comfort in sleep vary according to climate and the progress of civilization. The bed of our primeval ancestors consisted of dried mosses and leaves, with a canopy of waving leaves above. Later, through the need of shelter from the frost and protection from crawling insects, a rude structure consisting of a framework of poles, covered with branches, was substituted. Probably the first authentic representation of a bed is found on ancient Egyptian tombs, depicting a long, narrow receptacle, suited for but one person. Greek and Roman beds, representations of which have also been found, are of the single type, resembling in shape the Flemish couches made in the latter half of the seventeenth century, while the Greek thalamos, another type, showed a framework of great beauty, curiously carved, and decked with ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones. Roman luxury outvied that of Greece, as is shown by specimens that have been found in Pompeii, and the hangings of the bed, while receiving special attention, seemed to be less highly prized than the frame, probably on account of the mildness of the climate.
The eleventh century saw the half-savage people of northern Europe building beds into the walls of their rooms, and fitting them with doors and sliding panels to insure against the cold. These cupboard couches are reproduced in a modified form in many summer homes to-day, being arranged like steamer berths.
After the Norman Conquest, beds of this type came into favor in England, though they were quickly superseded by a great oaken bed with roofed-over top. This was arranged in the center of the room, and heavily curtained for protection against the wind that blew in through the cracks of the poorly hung doors and the unglazed windows, closed only by loosely fitted shutters. Many of these beds were of prodigious size, the most historic, "The Great Bed of Ware" to which Shakespeare alludes, being twelve feet square, built of solid oak, and finished with the most elaborate carving imaginable. This bed is known to have furnished sleeping accommodations for twelve persons at one time, and it has stood for nearly four centuries in an ancient inn, located in the town of Ware. In style, this is a four-poster, and doubtless marks the induction of this, the most expensive but the most popular bed of its day.
Old-time four-posters consisted, as do those we see today, of four posts, supporting a tester, and connected laterally by sidepieces which were almost always undecorated, as the bedspread was supposed to fall over the sides of the bed and cover them. A headboard was considered almost indispensable, although it is absent in some cases. It was usually rather low and decorated with carving, more or less elaborate. The footboard was sometimes used, but was quite often omitted in the older specimens, and seems to have come into favor later on, as an additional detail. When the posts were lowered, the footboard rose into prominence, but this was not until after the first quarter of the nineteenth century had elapsed.
Many of the beds had a canvas bottom, held in place either by iron rods or ropes, or sometimes by both. It was "sackcloth and ashes" at house-cleaning time in those days, for either kind required spun counterpane added the finishing touch, and often the hangings of the bed were of this same material, the curtains being drawn back loosely so that, on cold nights, they could be permitted to fall about the bed. Often both counterpane and hangings were finished with a hand-made netted fringe, varying in width from five to eight inches.the united strength of several muscular arms to put it together. The hair mattress was unknown at that period, and in its place was used brown linen sacking filled with straw and buttoned at one side, so that the straw could be easily removed at any time. This formed the lower strata of the bed, and above it were laid innumerable feather beds, piled one above the other, so high that often steps were necessary assistants in getting into bed.
In colonial homes, where bedrooms were fireless, curtains and hangings were important accessories of the bed to shield the sleeper from drafts. These were often made of linen, handspun by some member of the household, and while many were white, some were in colors. One of these, of blue and white homespun pattern, edged with hand-made ball fringe, has been in constant use for generations, and as yet shows not the slightest sign of wear. It is now owned by a fortunate Salem woman.
Many of these hangings were made of chintz and hand-embroidered linen, and in homes of limited means they were also made of patch, following the style of the quilt. Blankets were likewise home-made, of handspun wool, adorned with roses in each corner, which gave them the name of rose blankets. A blue and white home-spun counterpane added the finishing touch, and often the hangings of the bed were of this same material, the curtains being drawn back loosely so that, on cold nights, they could be permitted to fall about the bed. Often both counterpane and hangings were finished with a hand-made netted fringe, varying in width from five to eight inches.
While beds were a scarcity in the rude homes of our early ancestors, still they were sometimes brought here from over the seas, as is proven from an account written by Rev. Robert Crowell in his History of Essex, in which he speaks of two bedrooms in Darius Cogswell's house. These were divided off from the main room by handsome curtains that were stretched the whole way across, and, in the bed reserved for visitors, the guests of the night lay inclosed with curtains to exclude the night air; these, when drawn in the morning, allowed one to peer through the cracks in the shrunken logs at the world outside.
Most of our ancestors, however, were content with much simpler beds than this, for mere frames, with curtains and valances, were most frequently used, the beds stuffed with straw or feathers plucked from live geese, or poultry, and laid on the floor. Among these early types are "Cup-board" or "Presse" bedsteads, frequently mentioned in the inventories from which we gather much of our information. These, when not in use, were fastened up against the wall, proving valuable space savers where space was limited. Bunks were another type of the early bed in use here, one specimen, used in early days for slaves who were in the family, being still shown at the Adams house at Byfield.
Possibly the early settlers may have used a bed that is still in fashion among the Kentucky mountaineers, known as "Wild Bill." This is a one-poster, rather than a four-poster, and occupies a corner of the loft in a log cabin. The side and end of the cabin serve for headboard and one side of the bed ; saplings nailed to the solitary post that runs from roof to flooring supply footboard and sidepiece ; springy poles, running crosswise, uphold the home-made straw mattress and feather bed. Doubtless the rest of the mountaineer who uses this is sweet, but to one unused to it, it seems a diabolical bed !
When life in the new country became easier, furniture of all kinds was brought here from England, much of it of the Queen Anne period. This comprised, among other details, four-posters made of black walnut, this wood having superseded English oak in popular favor during the preceding reign of William and Mary. Panelings and moldings that had done duty during the Jacobean period were retained in all their splendor, and to these were added the new feature of the claw-and-ball foot. Our oldest beds belong to this period, unless we consider Presse bedsteads or Cupboard bedsteads, already spoken of, as real beds. The Dutch name for such contrivances was "slaw-bank," and they might be said to be the forerunner of the latter-day folding bed.
Mahogany was first used in England in the year 1720, and therefore it belongs to the Georgian period. Four-posters of this material, as constructed in the early days of their popularity, had slender and delicate posts, which were sometimes fluted and sometimes carved. In these earlier specimens the headboards were simply made and left undecorated. At this time great advance in the designing of furniture was made, for cabinet-makers published books of designs, and Chippendale, who was doubtless the greatest English exponent of his craft, designed beds with footpieces and sidepieces, carefully paneled and carved. He used tall and slender posts, and carving of the most elaborate nature. Genuine Chippendale beds are rare in America, and they are not common in England, seeming almost as if he had executed this piece of furniture less frequently than any other. We have, however, beautiful specimens which were modeled after Chippendale designs.
In English furniture making, the brothers Adam held the supremacy from 1775 until the end of the century. They endeavored to restore the simply classical styles of Greece and Rome, with Greek ornamental figures, such as the acanthus, urns, shells, rosettes, and female heads. They made a smaller bed than the Chippendale pattern, with lower posts and less abundant carving.
Hepplewhite's influence culminated some ten years later than that of the brothers Adam. He designed four-posters of attractive delicacy, used carved rosettes and a delicately carved beading by way of decoration, and delighted to place an urn-shaped section, lightly festooned with drapery, on the post where the sidepiece joins the standard.
Sheraton was the last of the noted cabinet-makers of the Georgian period, commencing to publish his designs in 1790. They were distinguished for the use of inlaid work, and later on he developed painted designs. In his work he introduced many light woods, such as whitewood, satinwood, and sycamore, which, when painted green, was termed harewood. The trend of sentiment at that time seemed to be toward simplicity and delicacy.
The last great change in the old four-poster was made, curiously enough, in deference to Napoleon, for it was through his influence that ancient Roman decorations, such as the laurel wreath and the torch, were revived. England had her mental reservations regarding this type, however, and by the time the fashion reached America it simply lowered the bedposts. It was the beginning of the end, however, and forty years later came the Renaissance of black walnut, and with it the relegation of the old four-posters to attic and storehouse, or else to the chopping block. Saddest of all, their owners were glad to see them go, on account of the difficulty of putting them together. In the revival of colonial fittings, the four-poster has again been restored to favor, and in many modern homes the old four-poster is the chamber's most pleasing feature.
There are some wonderfully fine old four-posters in America. One of these, in the Howe house at Haverhill, showing slender posts, surmounted by the ball and eagle, is made of brass. Originally it belonged to the first owner of the dwelling, Dr. Nathaniel Saltonstall, a contemporary of George Washington, and a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall. It has never been out of the family since its importation, the present owner being the widow of the first owner's great-grandson.
Historic through the fact that it once graced the chamber of Oliver Wendell Holmes is the exquisite four-poster now in a Salem house. This is characterized by a richness of design that is most attractive, and the hangings are in keeping with the exquisiteness of the whole. In this same dwelling is another old poster, this time of the low type, that came into vogue about 1825. This shows but little of the carving that is a feature of the older types.
Other fine old four-posters can be found in Salem. One is of Hepplewhite make, showing the slender posts and fluting of his type, while another is considered one of the best specimens in New England, with a drapery of patch that is probably all of a hundred years old.
At Dunbarton, New Hampshire, in the old Stark mansion, is a fine example of the Field bed stead, standing exactly as it did when Lafayette occupied it so many years ago, and still known by the name then given to it, the Lafayette bed.
In the Middleton house at Bristol is a most interesting four-poster, done in white, the gift to a bride of long ago. Lately this has been repainted exactly as it was when first placed in the house, the design depicted, that of the bow and arrow, showing as clear and dainty as when first traced. In another chamber in this same old home is another four-poster that was brought direct from Leghorn. Both of these rare specimens have been in the family since the building of the homestead.
Examples of these fine old beds are growing scarcer and rarer each year, and their value is correspondingly increasing. Some years ago they could be had almost for the asking, but with their revival in favor, their worth has increased. They depict an era that is associated with the best in the way of design and craftsmanship, and not a few of them have historic associations that render them particularly notable.