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Box-beds and Bed-recesses: 
The use of closed-in beds was formerly widespread both in the towns and the country districts of Scotland. The old type of completely enclosed beds, usually with folding doors like a cupboard, has, in the main, disappeared from the towns, though its existence is noted in the evidence from certain northern districts, particularly Orkney and Shetland; but the bed-recess, which is frequently enclosed for part of its length, is still common.
1918, Report of Royal Commission on the Housing of the Industrial Population of Scotland

Simple box bed from Potter's story

...there was Mrs. Tittlemouse's bedroom, where she slept in a little box bed!
Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910


Press beds

Box beds, bed recesses, press, wainscot, wardrobe and cabinet beds

pair of beds with kitchen table in frontThis pair of beds takes up the whole of one side of the main living-room/kitchen in a Scottish Highlands cottage. And, yes, the second one is even shorter than the first - presumably for children, since even the main bed is small by modern standards. Scotland has a strong tradition of box beds, which are more part of the architecture than pieces of furniture. (See cottage floor plan lower down page.)

Beds built into recesses and attached to the panelling and roof timbers are warm and semi-private, especially when curtains are drawn across them or they're fully enclosed with door panels, like the famous lits clos in Brittany. Some areas of the UK also had free-standing box beds, like this Welsh wainscot bed. Both kinds were familiar in regions of Northern Europe, but people not used to the tradition might find them strange. When Mr. Lockwood stayed the night at Wuthering Heights he looked round for his bed, and found it inside a "little closet". (See bottom of page) He sounds surprised, and unused to life in northern England.

simple pine bed attached to cottage timbers The free-standing box or press bed developed into a very sophisticated piece of furniture in the 18th century, when cabinet-makers designed "secret" press beds disguised as wardrobes or sideboards, or hidden behind rows of bookshelves and drawers. Even when there was no pressure on space, and no need to provide a mini-bedroom within a shared living area, these were fashionable items, said to be particularly popular with young gentlemen in London.

In the 19th century press beds - (press means cupboard or closet) - took on a new form, as various kinds of folding bed were developed and tidied away into wardrobes and cabinets. This unusual American folding bed is designed for the parlour, and this cabinet bed has become almost famous. If the folding bed was wanted in a bedroom it might be tucked into a wardrobe, like one advertised in late Victorian England as a "servant's press bedstead".

pair of beds with carved decoration Some early settlers in North America constructed houses with enclosed or recessed beds. The Dutch tradition was evident in New York, where building a house for the Brooklyn ferry-master in 1655 involved an agreement to "wainscot the east side the whole length of the house, and in the recess two bedsteads, one in the front room and one in the inside room, with a pantry at the end of the bedstead".   Samuel Pepys met this tradition in the Hague and wrote in his diary, "After supper the Judge and I to another house, [...] and he and I lay in one press bed, there being two more in the same room, but all very neat and handsome, my boy sleeping upon a bench by me." floor layout with 2 box-beds and description

Not all these beds were as plain as the 19th century pine box (higher up). The engraving (above) of a pair of nicely-carved Scandinavian beds shows how they could be quite elegant. This Scottish bed is simpler, but with mouldings that set it well above the plainest kind.  In 1893 Litchfield's History of Furniture commented on  "the old-fashioned box-like bedsteads which the Norwegians had retained from early times, and which in a ruder form are still to be found in the cottages of many Scottish counties, especially of those where the Scandinavian connection existed". This included Shetland box beds.

As the 19th century brought a concern for hygiene alongside a belief in fresh air, there were doubts about luxuriating in featherbeds and sleeping in curtained four-posters, and the fully-enclosed press or box bed was criticised as unhealthy. Not only did the limited access make it unsuitable for invalids, and difficult to clean, but the air inside was stale; it was seen as a breeding-ground for bed-bugs, germs and dirt. All the same, it was considered a fact of life in some places. In Scotland, for example, cottages and urban tenement houses were being designed with box beds or bed recesses until at least 1900. The 1841 plan for a farm labourer's cottage (right) came with this comment:

It is not probable, however, that box-beds, which are really warm and comfortable within, will ever be laid aside, though of inconvenient construction for sick people. Modifications of their form have been recommended by medical men, consisting chiefly in having the back and ends to open on hinges, and the top made movable, for the sake of promoting ventilation, as well as of affording easy access to patients. Curtains suspended from movable rods, which may be drawn forward, have also been recommended to be placed in front, instead of sliding panels, to screen the people while dressing and undressing, in cases where the beds do not occupy separate apartments.
Henry Stephens, The Book of the Farm, 1841

openings in a wall of cubicles, bedlinen visibleLet's end with this picture from a Japanese capsule hotel. Like traditional wooden press and box beds, the capsules sit on a blurred dividing line between bed and bedroom: a private space for those within the capsule, a place to sleep, but is it truly a room?

... I fastened my door and glanced round for the bed. The whole furniture consisted of a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows. Having approached this structure, I looked inside, and perceived it to be a singular sort of old-fashioned couch, very conveniently designed to obviate the necessity for every member of the family having a room to himself. In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of a window, which it enclosed, served as a table. I slid back the panelled sides, got in with my light, pulled them together again, and felt secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff, and every one else.
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, 1847

Footnote: there seem to be no hard-and-fast definitions of press beds, box beds, and all the other names. The dictionary (OED) says a box bed has "two sliding panels or shutters", but the name is often used for beds open or half-open on one side. A press bed may be free-standing or built in when a house is constructed. And so on ...

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18 July 2007  

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