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Bedsteads And Chamber Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE bedstead is surely the most important as well as being, as it was at one time, the most imposing piece of household furniture. Around it centres the romance of domestic life ; it was the resting-place of tired humanity. It is in the evolution of the bedstead that the connoisseur tries to picture the domestic home life of the ages which have gone. He pieces together the story little by little, but he finds the evidences left scanty. The old four-posters fill us with awe at their grandeur, and their faded hangings tell of times which were not on all fours with those in which we now live.

The root idea of the four-poster is found in distant days when conditions were strangely different to those prevailing now, and yet in the four - posters of the Middle Ages and Tudor days there is nothing new, for they have their counterpart in the simple bed in the middle of the tent, or a little private apartment with its central couch, in a larger room. The early beds of the Middle Ages were just that—a canopy and tester covered with curtains, and a plain bed in the middle ; sometimes the tester or tent was affixed to a ceiling hook or beam. In earlier times the beds were of straw or chaff placed on the floor, or laid upon an oak chest or bench. Recesses were built into the walls, and curtained off in late Saxon and early Norman days. The roofed bed seems to have come in soon after the Norman Conquest. The furnishings of that time differed much according to the position of the householder. As a rule they were plain enough, and the bedsteads and bed furniture meagre ; but there were exceptions. The bedstead of Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, was set amidst beautifully wrought pictorial hangings of needlework, representing the conquest of England. Her bedstead was ornamented with groups of statues indicating Philosophy with Music, Astronomy, Arithmetic, and Geometry ; Rhetoric with Logic and Grammar ; and Medicine with Galen and Hippocrates. The ceiling of the bedstead imitated the sky, and upon it were seven planets and constellations. The mosaic floor represented a map of the world with seas, rivers, mountains, and the chief cities.


The Middle Ages have left no bedsteads behind. The fare of the people other than the wealthy was poor, and the sleeping accommodation far from luxurious. There was no privacy. Writing in reference to old beds Harrison, the historian, says : " Our fathers have lien full oft upon straw pallets, or rough mats, covered onlie with a sheet, and under the coverlets made of dogswain, with a good round log under their heads instead of a bolster or pillow. As for servants if they had one sheet above them, it was well ; for seldom had they anie under to keep them from the pricking straw, that ran oft through the canvas of the pallet and rased their hardened hides."

The Tudor bed has been referred to in chapter vi. It was panelled head and foot, and often had a massive tester of wood supported by the four posts, the two front ones being handsomely carved. Not infrequently part of the floor of the bed-chamber was raised, the bed standing upon a low dais, the two front posts being handsomely carved. The state beds described in old documents as beddes of tymbre" differed from the "truckle" bed of the attendant. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff's room is said to have held a standing bed and a truckle bed. Low truckle beds on wheels when not in use were wheeled or trundled away, often being placed under the large standing bed. They were used by servants or children, and when in use stood at the foot of the larger bed, and were often curtained round.

Wayside inns contained bedsteads on which wayfarers could rest, but travellers of importance carried their own beds with them. They were stuffed with swansdown, and when placed on the bedstead were hung round with curtains, which were drawn by the occupants when in bed."

The bed in Elizabethan times was often a fixture attached to the fabric of the Tudor mansion ; and now and then a hiding-place was contrived in the tester top, which was double, and often the panelling of the bed head gave access to a secret chamber or a priest's cell. The bedsteads were of oak and often inlaid, like that from Sizergh Castle (see p. 71) and other old bed-steads in the Victoria and Albert and other museums. Mention has already been made of the great bed of Ware, of historic renown, referred to in Twelfth Night, a bed capable of accommodating twenty-four persons. Other beds were of enormous size, and many very costly.


In each succeeding period wood bedsteads were made in accord with the then prevailing style. They became in turn decorative, plain, and richly upholstered. Sometimes the hangings, as in the extravagant periods of Louis XV of France, and Charles II of England, were of more importance than the bedstead, at others the furniture was held to be of greater value than the upholstery.

When English furniture makers began to issue pattern books they had something to say about bedsteads. Chippendale very fully described those he illustrated ; about one design he says : " The bedstead should be six or seven feet broad, seven or eight feet long, and the whole height fourteen or fifteen feet." This magnificent bedstead, for which he advocates such massive proportions, was to be made with pedestals, pillars, cornice, and the top of the dome gilt with burnished gold ; and in reference to the pattern, the sizes and details of construction of which were left to the artificer, he naively adds : "A workman of Genius will easily comprehend the Design."

About 1750 the bed columns were mostly fluted shafts, and not infrequently rested on spirally fluted bases. If any carving was added it was of the acanthus-leaf type ; in some of the finer examples the front columns were supported by cabriole legs, and sometimes by lions' paw feet. When Chippendale introduced Chinese taste fretted squares served as legs. Running floral patterns or ornaments were seen on the cornices of 1760. A little later the mahogany shafts of the four-poster were eight-sided or reeded, if carved the ornament consisted of wheat ears or husks, and there were square terminations to the columns.

The relative cost of furniture at different periods is not easy to ascertain, because of the change in the buying power of money. As an instance, at the present time it varies considerably from that of a century or two ago. Then wages were low, and men worked long hours, thus cabinet-makers earned twopence per hour in 1775, and worked twelve hours per day. In another quarter of a century, in the year 1800, wages had risen to three-pence per hour, and ten and a half hours were deemed enough for a good day's work.


The cost of a four-post bed fully equipped with hangings was excessive in the eighteenth century. In the light of the expenditure upon bedding and bed hangings today — having regard also to the buying power of money then—it is difficult to understand the lavish expenditure of our economic ancestors upon their beds. It is true the bedstead and its hangings constituted the chief cost of the bedroom furniture ; but even allowing for that the bill for a complete bedstead must have been an eye-opener to the young couple who might well put off the furnishing of the spare room or guest chamber until a later date. In analysing old accounts the difference in the cost of things is very startling, and the figures placed against certain materials contrast strongly with the cost of manual and skilled labour. Textiles were costly, very costly, especially cotton and linen cloths —all bedding was expensive, and out of proportion to the prime cost of the bedstead. In a bill paid in 1770 a mahogany bedstead with fluted posts was charged £4, 4s. ; for that bedstead a large feather bed and bolster and flock mattress were charged £11, 11s., and one hair mattress £3, 3s.; blankets were then £1, 10s a pair, and a white calico quilt was charged £4, 4s. Then came the upholstery, including 34 yards of printed cotton at 6s. 6d. per yard (adding about £14 on the cost), the whole total-ling, with other necessary bedding, nearly £45.

In another case 33 yards of printed cotton at 4s. per yard, and 35 yards of lining at 2s. per yard were sed in upholstering another bed. Truly, bedding and bed hangings were costly !

In Fig. 2 and in Fig. 104, two very beautiful bed-steads, complete with antique upholsteries, are illustrated. Fig. 2 is a bed of Sheraton style with carved and inlaid cornice, with fluted posts and acanthus-leaved terminations and square feet. The upholstery is of the typical large pattern with fringed valences.

Fig. 104, of mahogany, is a similar four-poster, measuring 7 ft. in length by 5 ft. 6 in. in width, and 7 ft. 7 in. in height. It is now at the Manor House, Hitchin.


In times gone by there was not much privacy in the bedroom ; indeed the bed was often placed in the chamber where receptions were held. It was used by day as well as by night, and therefore when a change came about in social and domestic arrangements, and the bedstead was installed in the sleeping or retiring chamber, it was no longer available as a couch in the living-room. This took place in the days of the Stuarts, and as people could not suddenly break themselves off the habit of using a bed as a couch, or of reclining during the day, there came into being those beautiful day-beds, which have already been referred to in an account of the furniture of the Stuart period. Many of the day-beds were extremely ornamental, the rails being carved, and in the later examples much ornamental turning and decorative embellishment was applied to the caned heads and foot rails, and also to the reclining couch upon which cushions were used.

Fig. 105 is an oak day-bed of the time of Charles II. It has turned rails, slightly carved head with lowering chains, and caned seat and back.


As it has been pointed out, the chest which eventually became a piece of bedroom furniture was not confined to bedroom use ; neither was it used exclusively for clothing and bed linen. The linen presses of old England were zealously guarded, and the store of household linen —table and bed—was replenished from time to time, its purity and freshness being assisted by sweet lavender freely distributed among its folds. Old linen presses are rare ; their place in the home was, however, in the house-place rather than in the bedroom, although linen presses frequently stood upon landings.

The wardrobe of modern days can be traced to the chest, it having evolved on somewhat different lines to those on which other types of chests of drawers, tall-boys, and the like, travelled. The early armorie has been described as " a chest upon a chest " ; some say the early armorie began with shelves in a recess over a chest, such shelves becoming an armorie when shutters or doors were added. When military or armed men no longer needed a cupboard in which to keep their suits of armour other uses were found for the armorie which became a wardrobe.

The wardrobe, referring rather to the clothing of a person than to the place wherein the wardrobe was kept, is the more modern use of the term. Originally, the wardrobe meant a room and then a cupboard, a cup-board in which clothing was stored. The Keeper of the King's Wardrobe was an important official. Edward III. bought a house in Blackfriars which had previously belonged to Sir John Beauchamp in 1360, and he turned it into " The Wardrobe." For centuries the clothing worn by English kings was stored there—what a hunting ground it would have been for the London Museum Keeper ! James I. appears to have been disgusted with so many " old clothes," and he gave the contents of the wardrobe to the Earl of Dunbar, by whom they were sold ; and it is said they were " re-sold and re-re-sold until many fortunes were made thereby."

The sundry furniture of a bedroom was scanty indeed, and the toilet arrangements were primitive, in olden time. The daily tub was not appreciated, and our ancestors were content with very scanty ablutions. The small wash-stands or basin-stands of the end of the eighteenth century only held a very inadequate jug and basin. The collector delights in those jugs and bowls of blue and white oriental taste made by Spode, and in the highly coloured wares of Mason of Lane Delph. Collectors are now and then able to obtain a rare jug and basin—those of genuine oriental make, especially the famine rose porcelain of about 1723 ; but most of the ewers and basins of oriental origin used in this country on basin-stands of mahogany during the last few years of the eighteenth century were of the Keen-lung (1736-1796) period.

Some of the stands were made with little drawers and trays, and were more correctly defined as wig stands—not stands for wigs as often wrongly imagined, but basin-stands with glasses before which wigs could be adjusted and powdered by the gallants of the eighteenth century.

The small chests, often on high feet, standing perhaps 2 ft. 7 in. high, were used as toilet chests, and on them were placed the looking-glasses with small drawers, so many of which were made according to the patterns and designs of Sheraton and other noted cabinet-makers of his day. Some of these chests had long clothes' drawers, others were made with two half-length drawers, mounted on high legs. For further mention of toilet-tables and mirrors.

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