Beds through the ages: most important piece of furniture?
Spoiled for choice when considering a new mattress? Puzzled by the claims for memory foam, pocket springs, toppers, zoning, cores… When you come to think about it, the bed(s) is (are) probably the most important pieces of furniture in your home. Because while you manage without a table or a wardrobe, who wants to sleep on the floor?!
According to the National Bed Federation, the oldest known bed in the world dates back 77,000 years. Though it wasn’t till about 3,000 or so years ago that anyone thought to raise them off the ground.
So, beds through the ages have always been important. And as a good bed doesn’t come cheap, it’s no surprise that our ancestors made special mention of them in their wills.
The bed in the kitchen
Bridget Dixon, of Harras, Ainstable, made her will in 1767, ‘being sick and weak in body’.
It would seem she wasn’t as sick as people thought, as she didn’t die until seven years later.
She was then aged 90 – a reminder that the ‘average age of death’ in 1774 didn’t mean everyone died young compared to today. As my post on life expectancy in 1776 and 1845 shows.
Her daughters Mary Nicholson and Jane Socalt (sic) were left £5 each… her sons Thomas, John and Caleb Dixon the sum of one shilling (1/20th of a £1) each.
Son-in-law James Wesdale (sic) also got one shilling. But his daughter Bella Westdale (sic), Bridget’s granddaughter, was left £20.
Spelling wasn’t exactly consistent in 1767, even among the solicitors (or their clerks) who drew up wills.
Bella Wasdale was also left: “the bed in the kitchen”.
As you do.
It’s actually possible that this was the best bed in the house, despite what seems a strange location.
Beds through the ages: Shakespeare’s time
As Bill Bryson’s excellent, and entertaining, At Home book explains.
(Shakespeare famously bequeathed to his wife his ‘second-best bed’. Which wasn’t at all the insult it might seem).
Beds in Shakespeare’s day were expensive. A canopied bed cost £5, half the annual salary for a teacher. The best bed might be kept in the living room, for guests or to be shown off as as status item, rather than for family use.
Curtains were for privacy as well as to keep out drafts: servants would sleep on the bedroom floor of nobles.
Inns expected beds to be shared by strangers.
Ok, 1767 was 151 years after Shakespeare’s death, but the concept of ‘best’ household possessions isn’t so unfamiliar today.
We may not have a ‘best bed’, but how many of us have a crockery set, or glasses, that we keep for special occasions? With an everyday set for daily use, so it doesn’t matter too much if one cup or one wine glass gets broken?
Beds through the ages: the Victorians
Esther Cowen, of Hutton Sceugh, Caldbeck, died almost a century after Bridget Dixon, in 1869, aged 63.
She left a LOT of beds, with son John getting not only a feather bed but also the ‘bedstead in the parlour loft’.
Son Isaac got ‘the bed on which he sleeps’ (with the hangings). Which conjures up an image of a lawyer telling him: “It’s ok mate, no need to get up”!
Sheets mattered, too
Bed linen was deemed valuable enough to bequeath as well. My maternal great-grandparents weren’t short of money but didn’t believe in wasting any on fripperies either, ‘recycling’ flour sacks from their farm into pillow cases. And that was in the 20th century.
Thomas Dixon, yeoman, of Froddle Crook, died in 1812, aged 73.
Now it seems likely that he had a first wife who died some time after 1780. And there is an 1804 Wetheral marriage of a Thomas Dixon to a Rebecca Newton.
What is certain is that Thomas Dixon left ‘my wife Rebecca the furniture and bedding that were hers before marriage’.
That is a reminder that a woman’s property became her husband’s when she married: he was leaving her what had been her own goods.
It also means the sheets he was so kindly letting her have back were at the very least eight years old.
The main image, by the way, is of a patchwork quilt my mother made.