Before the Box Spring:   Mattresses in the Regency

There have been mattresses on this planet for nearly as long as there have been humans living anywhere on it. In fact, the mattress maybe the oldest furniture form made by humans. Certainly, by the Regency, mattresses had come a long way from their primitive origins, at least for some people. However, the mattresses used on beds during the Regency were nothing like the modern mattresses on which most of us sleep today. Regency authors may find it useful to understand the particulars of the beds on which their characters would have slept.

Before the box spring, or the inner-spring, mattresses in the Regency . . .

The very first mattresses, made by our primitive ancestors in the Neolithic period, were piles of grass and leaves, sometimes covered with an animal skins, if they were available. About 4,000 years later, in Persia, the first waterbeds were introduced, when goat-skins filled with water were used as mattresses. In ancient Egypt, most people slept on palm fronds piled against a wall in their homes. However, the pharaohs and the aristocracy of Egypt are believed to have been the first to raise their pallets of palm fronds off the floor, placing them on wooden frames. By so doing, they could avoid the worst drafts, as well as dirt and vermin. Some of these bed frames were very elaborate and ornamented with fine woods and precious metals. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened, one of the beds found there was made of ebony and gold, though the palm frond mattresses had long since moldered away.

The raised bed frames of the ancient Egyptians became popular with the upper classes of the Roman Empire. But the Romans added yet another improvement, making mattresses for these bed frames from large bags of strong cloth, filled with yielding but resilient materials. The stuffing materials used for Roman mattresses ranged from straw or reeds, to wool; while the very wealthy stuffed their mattresses with feathers. Right through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the use of mattresses made of strong cloth, stuffed with anything from chaff to straw to wool or feathers, had spread throughout Europe. By the thirteenth century, in England, these cloth sacks made for mattresses were known as ticks. The mattresses made for the wealthy were usually made of higher quality cloth and stuffed with feathers. The mattresses on which the poorer classes slept were typically made of low-quality, coarse cloth and they were filled with cheaper materials such as chaff or straw. These mattresses were sometimes placed on simple wooden bed frames, while others were used on the floor.

Certainly by the sixteenth century, even the poorest people had some kind of mattress on which to sleep, some even had a plain wooden bed frame to support their mattress off the floor. It was at about this time that the wealthy found a new method by which to improve their comfort in bed. They continued to use wooden bed frames, but instead of placing their mattresses on a solid wooden board, the mattresses were supported by a woven mesh of rope or leather. This mesh support was strung through holes drilled in the wooden rails of the bed frame, then the rope was woven over and under, back and forth, across the bed frame, to create a sturdy but yielding support for the mattresses which were placed upon it. The woven rope sling was much more yielding than a plain wooden board and therefore, more comfortable. This open mesh also had the advantage of reducing the available hiding places for the vermin and pests which liked to infest the beds of the period.

Before the early eighteenth century, most mattress ticks were made of linen. But in the early decades of the eighteenth century, cotton was being imported into England in large quantities, and mattress ticking was woven of linen, cotton or a blend of the two fibers. Ticking was usually produced with a twill weave, which resulted in cloth which was particularly dense and strong. The strength and density of the cloth was very important, as it would stand up to the wear and tear of use and would prevent the stuffing materials from poking though the cloth to the discomfort of the bed’s occupants. In addition to improved strength and density, as the century progressed, stripes in muted colors were introduced into the cloth, with grey or a soft blue the most common colors, though red, brown, green and yellow are also known, all against a natural or white ground. Ticking was also used to make pillows and bolsters right through the nineteenth century. Because it was such a strong cloth, ticking began to be used to make other things, such as aprons and smocks for working people.

From the turn of the nineteenth century, the mattresses of most people in Britain would have been made of ticking. However, the materials with which they were filled would have partly depended upon the budgets of those who were using the mattresses. It is important to understand that with the exception of the very poor, most people would have had more than one mattress on their bed. Remember the story of the princess and the pea? In that story, she had multiple mattresses stacked on her bed, because that was the custom when that story was first told, just as it was during the Regency. But these mattresses were nowhere near as thick as modern mattresses. A filled tick mattress was usually between ten to twelve inches thick, but it would be compressed to only a few inches under the weight of someone lying on it. Therefore, it had become the practice to pile more than one mattress on a bed to provide the most comfort possible. And, in cases of extreme cold, some people would actually sleep under one or more of their mattresses, using them much like we use a comforter or a duvet today.

Those of the lower classes might have two or more mattresses on their beds, but all of them would have been filled with chopped straw or chaff. Chaff-filled mattresses were usually softer, so the chaff mattress would have been placed over the straw mattress. In middle class homes, each bed might have three or four mattresses, depending upon what the household could afford. Chopped straw or chaff mattresses would have been topped with one or two mattresses filled with flock, which was finely chopped wool fibers. Flock-filled mattresses were much softer than straw or chaff, so they would have been the top-most mattresses. In even the best homes, each bed might have at least one chopped straw or chaff mattress, which would be the bottom-most mattress. Next would come one or two flock-filled mattresses, which would be topped with one or two mattresses filled with feathers. In the wealthiest homes, the feather mattresses would be topped with a mattress filled with down, the softest and most comfortable of all mattresses of the period.

Unlike today, all those Regency mattresses would have required regular care and maintenance. Down and feather mattresses would have to be shaken to fluff them up. The top mattress was usually shaken and turned each time the bedclothes were changed. The lower feather mattresses were probably shaken and turned once a month. Flock mattresses would have received similar care. If a flock mattress was the top mattress on a bed, it would be shaken and turned each time the bedclothes were changed. Flock mattresses at lower levels would usually be shaken and turned once a month. Similar care would have been taken with chaff or chopped straw mattresses in well-run households, regardless of their income level. Another maintenance requirement for those bed frames with a rope mesh support for the mattresses was that the rope mesh would have to be tightened as the ropes stretched, to keep the mattresses from sagging. A special wooden tool, many of which looked like a large wooden clothespin with a handle set perpendicular to the shaft, was used to pull each section of rope tight until all were tightened. This process could take as much as a half hour or more. In poorly-run or slovenly households, little care was taken with the mattresses, and they would become increasingly hard-packed and uncomfortable over time, regardless of the materials used to fill the ticks. If the bedframes had a rope mesh for support and that mesh was not tightened as needed, the rope would gradually stretch until the bed was no longer flat and hung down at the center much like a hammock.

Further maintenance was required for chopped straw and chaff mattresses. Each year, at harvest time, the ticks would be opened and the straw and the chaff would be dumped out, to be replaced with fresh contents. The empty ticks would all be washed and dried before they were re-filled and sewn closed again. In most cases, the discarded chaff and straw would not go to waste. The chaff would be used to feed the pigs or other farm animals and the chopped straw would be added to the compost heap for use in the kitchen or flower gardens. Many people looked forward to harvest time, when the contents of their mattresses would be changed. They enjoyed the fresh, clean scent of the new filling and mattresses were usually the most soft and comforable when the filling was fresh.

Now that you know how Regency beds were assembled and maintained, Dear Regency Authors, how might you use one in an upcoming story? Perhaps a character who has a very high opinion of what is due them is a guest at the home of another family. Will s/he be horrified to discover that the top mattress in the bedchamber which has been assigned to them is not down, but only feathers? Or, even worse, might it be just lowly flock? Can that insult be borne? Mayhap the heroine, who grew up in the country, has just taken a position as the governess in a grand manor house in the autumn. Will she be comforted by the scent of the fresh chaff mattresses on her bed, which reminds her of home? Then again, the hero might be taking the heroine to saftey because her life is in danger. In order to protect her, do they share a bed at the inn where they stop for the night? Will he be very sorry that the rope mesh on the bed has not been tightened so that the dip in the middle brings them togther?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Before the Box Spring:   Mattresses in the Regency

  1. dianabirchall says:

    What wonderful research! Always wanted to know more on this subject. Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the rope-mesh technique (that’s when her Ma says, “I declare, I’m so comfortable it’s almost sinful!”, and filling ticks. I actually slept on one once, in an Edwardian castle hotel on a Scottish island of all places. But this informative post really laid it out for me, so to speak. Thanks.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know you enjoyed the article. What a treat to have had an opportunity to have slept on a tick mattress! Something which few people today will ever have an opportunity to do.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Funnily enough I was researching Regency bedding for my recently released ‘Jane and the Hidden Hoard’ where Jane and Caleb are posing as Housekeeper and Butler to uncover stolen goods, and not only is Jane searching bedding she’s also having to teach the slovenly maids how to deal with them. One of the household has a, by then, old fashioned rope bedstead, most have the more recent Georgian invention, the stretched sacking bed base. [incidentally I can attest to the comfort of a rope-stretched bed bottom, as when my bed base went, I temporarily used washing line to replace it, and it was so comfy the temporary became permanent]. In a well regulated household the mattress should be turned daily and beaten with the bedstaff or bedpost, a wooden rail that also slotted into the frame to hold the mattress in, giving rise to the term ‘in the twinkling of a bed post’ as used by Heyer. This was another 16th century innovation. Flock would be more common in centres of weaving, when the odd bits of fluff from the looms, known as ‘throwsters waste’ were readily available.
    Generally, old rope was preferred for roping a bed, as it had already stretched. This could be obtained readily from port towns, and sailors sold it on giving the phrase ‘money for old rope’. Rope that was too stretched to be safe in a gale in the Atlantic was perfectly good to sleep on, where the pressure wasn’t measured in tons per square inch but merely pounds… In earlier times, rope from cranes could also be sold, the cranes in which a man walked in a hamster-wheel used for building churches or loading ships, where the tolerances were less than for ship’s rigging but still greater than for sleeping on.
    Feather or down mattresses need to be emptied and refilled once a year to maintain full comfort, and any that have clogged into lumps removed and replaced. I have to say I hate shooting ticks, as this action is called. It needs to be done outside as feathers get everywhere.
    The ticking is sewn with waxed thread to make it downproof, and the seams are also treated by being rubbed enthusiastically with beeswax.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for sharing your research. I found a couple of vague references to the bed base which was first developed in the Georgian era. It was called the “cane box,” and sounds like it was similar to the sacking bed base you mentioned. But I could not find enough detail to be able to understand exactly what they were; how they were made or used. Since there would have been miles of used rope from sailing ships at that time, it makes sense that the rope was recycled for use in beds. To add to the old sayings collection, the term “sleep tight” is said to have originated from the tightening of the rope mesh in a bed frame.

      I was very interested to read that mattress were beaten and turned daily. The very few sources which I found relating to bed making indicated that the top mattress was only turned when the sheets were changed. It would seem there were different practices in different households. Beds with the mattress shaken and turned daily must have been the most comfortable. With regard to feather and down mattresses, the only sources I found suggested they were not opened every year, but only when new feathers or down were added. Again, it would appear there was a range of practice for managing bedding, which is to be expected in any effort which involves many humans.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • The turning of the mattresses was in the servants advice book from 1826, and the feather beds was what my great gran insisted on, so was a habit I grew up with. I confess nowadays I just open them up and tease out the lumps!
        I found a picture of the bed with the stretched canvas and I think it was on Jane Austen world [I used the search Georgian beds] but! what I copied to my search file was part of my lost data [of course!]

  3. Claire says:

    Hands down best bed I have ever slept in was a 1608 wooden sleigh bed that had two feather mattresses. This very delightful bed lives at a friend’s family house in Southern Germany and her ancestor built the house in 1607. I was assured that the feathers had been changed since then.

    I currently have a 1820-1840s American cherry wood bed frame that still has its ropes. My mom had a lower metal frame installed in it so that a box spring could be used, but I like it with just a custom mattress on the ropes. My family jokingly calls me the Princess and asks where the mattress pea is.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      What a great experience to have had a chance to sleep on the 1608 bed, in a house of similar date. I envy you your real slice of history!

      Your cherry wood bed frame should be able to take the weight of a modern mattress, since cherry wood is very strong. However, that modern mattress is almost certainly heavier than a period mattress, or mattresses, would have been. It would be a good idea to check the bed rails though which the rope is threaded at their joints with the bed posts from time to time, to be sure there are no signs of stress on the wood.

      Years ago, when I was a historic house curator, I made a set of bed hangings, as well as a mattress, bolster and pillows for a late 18th century bed. In order to reduce the strain on the rope and the bedstead, I filled the mattress and bolster with packing peanuts. That way, I got the shape and height I wanted under the counterpane, but put very little strain on the bed rails of a historic bedstead.

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your experiences.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Pingback: Regency Bed Linens | The Regency Redingote

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