Monday, December 31, 2012

Beds and Bugs Through the Centuries

by Debra Brown

I recently ran across a statement about mint placed in straw bedding. How pleasant, I thought! It reminded me of having lain in a pile of fresh-smelling straw in a friend's barn in childhood, listening to the rain hitting the metal roof.

In this day of foam mattresses- though I must say mine is quite welcoming- we have gotten away from the sounds and smells of nature. And that means we've gotten away from the negative ions that rolling in the hay kicked up. I've read that there was less insomnia in a time when a person was 'grounded' electrically by sleeping on natural bedding- even on skins on the ground- and wearing cotton nightclothes rather than polyester. The things we've done to ourselves! (I'm not complaining- I love my bed.)

The earliest beds were piles of straw, leaves or simply animal skins on the ground. These things were plentiful and easy enough to come by. They could be replaced regularly as needed. In time, large bags (tick) of fabric (ticking) were made to encase straw, leaves, pea shucks, moss, cotton, wool or feathers. These were used at home, but travellers might bring along a rolled up tick and stuff it full of straw wherever they needed to lay down their heads.

Some early houses had built in frames, like boxes or tubs, where straw could be piled up and contained. Eventually, frames were built of wood or stone to elevate the bed materials in order to keep the damp and pests away. (You don't mind vermin, do you?)

Replica of the "Saxon Princess" bed burial at Kirkleatham Museum, Photo by

Noble Anglo-Saxon families evidently had better beds. Bed burials, usually of young women with rich grave goods dating back to the seventh century have been found in in the southern counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire, but a few have also been found in Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. These beds were wooden frames with iron fittings. The quality of the jewelry found in some graves indicates that the deceased may have been princesses. Some of the young women buried on their beds in the Ixworth, Roundway Down, Swallowcliffe Down and Trumpington areas have pectoral crosses or other emblems buried with them which suggests that they may have been abbesses, who in the early Anglo-Saxon period were recruited from noble families.

Box beds, or beds enclosed in an alcove built into the wall, were common (for the living) in the Scottish Highlands. Though I don't know where I got the idea, I built such beds in a room for my children years ago with a closet at the foot of each bed. They remember their special, cozy beds fondly. 

Early medieval lords and their families slept in the manor's great hall, but in time, they began to want more privacy. The first step in this direction came with the hung bed- beds perhaps built into alcoves with drapes hanging from the ceiling or walls around them. They would have a fabric celure at the head of the bed, the fabric matching the drapes and coverings. During the day, the curtains might be pulled back or folded to permit the bed to be used for seating. Such beds became a symbol of wealth or prestige from the thirteenth to fifteenth century.

By the 13th century wooden frames began to be decorated by carvings. By the 14th century, the carving was less important in some countries. The wood was being covered by drapings of Italian silk, velvet or even cloth of gold, sometimes lined with fur and richly embroidered. By the sixteenth century, the bedstead might have posters and rods called testers above which held the drapes.At first there were two posts at the foot of the bed along with the celure at the head, but in time, four posters and a wooden headboard became common. This was called a sealed bed or wainscot bed in Elizabethan times and was still used only by the wealthy, but shortly thereafter, yeoman farmers began to use them, too. This Pinterest page has pictures of beautiful hung and poster beds.

Southampton Medieval Merchant's House bedroom, Photo by Hchc2009

In the 14th century, wealthier people could own feather beds, or what we would now call feather mattresses. When the middle classes began to prosper, they wanted the soft beds as well. Downy breast feathers from the guest of honor at a duck or goose dinner were saved up over the years, as were their other feathers, though those would need some trimming to be comfortable in a bed. Servant girls might be allowed to save the feathers they'd removed from poultry over time for their future marriage beds. These beds were placed over something firmer, perhaps a straw bed. Feather beds were something to be passed on in a will, as were poster beds.

Every third year or so the feathers would have to be pulled out of a mattress to clean them. So, I wondered, where would they put them? Out in the sun or on the floor to air, while they washed and waxed the ticking cover. Wax or even soap would be rubbed onto the fabric to keep the feathers from poking through. The beds (mattresses) could be sent out for steam cleaning in later years. Shaking and plumping was a regular housekeeping process with feather beds.

Down comforters, or "continental quilts" as they are called in England, were common on the continent long before they were used in England, where they are a fairly recent addition.

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock

By the 16th century, bedsteads became lighter in weight though beautifully made. Why? Royals and lords would take them along when they went a-calling. Can you imagine the chore traveling became? It is no wonder a large household required many servants. England had simpler beds than some other countries, though often with four posts.

This Elizabethan bed looks anything but lightweight.

Cast iron beds appeared in the 18th century, sold as beds that would not harbor some of the little critters and vermin which were commonly found in wood.

A rather ritzy French ceremonial bed: Anca Pandrea from Bucharest, Romania

In France, the bed was a place where a woman would visit with intimate friends surrounding special occasions such as marriage, childbirth and even mourning, and the bed was richly designed and decorated.Starting with Louis XI, ceremonial beds were placed for honoring guests such as ambassadors or great lords. Louis XIV loved staying in bed and often held court in his bedroom. He had 413 beds.

Less expensive beds in Victorian times were stuffed with wool flocking, which became lumpy. The wool might also become fodder for moths. Therefore the mattresses would have to be disassembled and the wool washed, boiled and teased. After that was finished the mistress would hire someone to come in and stitch the mattress back together.

No matter their station in life, one might be visited by the bed bug, and it was no picnic to get him to move along. One could probably blame it on the maids, but it did not give them a better night's sleep to do so. Bed bugs are not easy to be rid of. A woman in the 19th century wrote about tossing 20 pails full of water on the kitchen floor trying to drown them. All the parts of her bed were then immersed in water, after which they were laid out in the sun for two days. The bed's joints were painted with mercury ointment (they were unaware of the mercury vapor's toxicity and probably blamed the maids for the onset of illness) and the curtains were taken down and washed. Bedroom curtains were often thick, heavy fabric to help keep the cold out, and just getting them into the boiling pot would have taken a bit of energy. Bed bugs can live within the walls of a house, so depending on whether you lived in a stone castle or a stuccoed Belgrave Square mansion, you may have to learn what could be done to evict them from between the stones or plaster.

The first coil-spring mattress was patented in 1865- what luxury! I'm sure you appreciate the advances in beds as I do. It is time for me to go and enjoy mine right now. 


Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, now available in paperback, on Kindle, on and iTunes iBookstore.


  1. A very interesting article - thank you!

    Reminds me of Will Shakespeare leaving his 'second-best bed' to his wife Ann Hathaway.

  2. Very interesting! Bed bugs, unfortunately, are making a big comeback. And they are still very difficult to get rid of!

  3. Thank you for sharing such amazing information. I have recently read that the place they find most bed bugs is in Library books. Now even though I love libraries for their content I will continue to purchase books either on by lap top or hard copies, as I would abhor bringing those little critters home...!

  4. That's good information. I can believe people traveled with their own bedding, but to bring the whole frame? Wow!

    Thanks for sharing your research!

  5. So, how do bed bugs get into books? That's horrible.

  6. Ha! I was enjoying the article immensely until I scrolled down to the bug picture! Suddenly, I got very itchy. When we were doing an archaeology stint in Jordan, our group stayed in a vocational-school girls' dorm that had been vacated for the summer holiday. The seriously-old, cheap mattresses we covered with our old sheets (the kind you put on frost-tender plants) were stuffed full of not cotton, but bed bugs. We had to smear ourselves with DEET to survive. Blech.

    Some bugs, even roaches, get into books because they eat the sizing in the binding glue, or the paper itself.

  7. Interesting post love the facts and yes it would be a hassle to travel in general.

  8. There were horsehair mattresses well into the 1970s here in the UK. I slept on one in my cottage in St. Andrews. Before me, it had been slept on by a very large, round person who'd been a housekeeper in the 'big house'. She'd been known as Bubble, the cook, and had left a bubble-shaped indentation in said mattress. Unlike foam mattresses today, horsehair does not resume its original shape. Hence I'd start the night on the side, and by morning would be deep in the dimple in the middle. (I eventually bought a new mattress, yes...)

  9. I'm afraid to say my son has had a recent and extremely unpleasant encounter with bed bugs - so they are most definately not a thing of the past. He moved into student digs and it turns out the mattress was infested. The poor chap was biten so badly he could hardly walk (they bit his feet amongst other places). It's taken two fumigations to get rid of the little blighters.
    Grace x

  10. In this day of foam mattresses- though I must say mine is quite welcoming- we have gotten away from the sounds and smells of nature.

  11. Bed bugs get into books it's horrible, few years ago I have to destroy one of my bed bug affected mattress.


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