Four-poster in a cottage

Four-posters, four post beds

Dark wooden bed in cluttered small room Four-poster beds in carved dark wood are an easy way for a film director to suggest a grand household in Elizabethan England. But this one belonged in a 19th century Yorkshire cottage bedroom. Admittedly it's far too small to suggest grandeur. At only 4ft 6inches long, it's shorter than most 20th and 21st century beds, and suggests that some not-very-tall people slept curled up or half-sitting against bolsters.

It's also very roughly constructed. Though the carved posts show some skill at woodturning, the top is hardly more than a varnished plank. It would be interesting to know its history. Was it put together from discarded bits and pieces?

Fashions in beds change from era to era. Some people were starting to turn against fourposters in the 19th century. When curtained, they excluded draughts and created privacy just like box beds. But the curtains were the main reason for objections by Victorian health campaigners, including Florence Nightingale. As well as a new trend towards believing in the virtues of well-ventilated rooms, there was always the need to control insects. Bugs preferred wooden beds to uncurtained metal bedsteads. Hangings collected dust and moths.

Elegant curtained four poster

In the month of February, in this latitude [North Carolina]... The bedsteads should be taken apart, and every portion wiped over with pure cold water, and when set up again all the joints and cracks should be filled up with turpentine-soap mixed with red pepper. Your chambermaid should have a dusting-brush, and every morning, when she moves the beds to make them up, she should thoroughly brush every part of the bedstead. This prevents the lodgment of insects.
Mary Mason, The Young Housewife's Counsellor and Friend, 1875

19th century traditionalists, some in the USA but especially in England, still enjoyed a substantial fourposter with feather mattresses, though feathers were also disapproved of by progressive 19th century thinkers on hygiene.

"Why didn't you tell me that there wasn't a decent inn on the whole route?" ... "If I had known that there wasn't a good four-post bed with chintz curtains to be found at every sleeping place, and a rich soup, turbot with lobster sauce, or cod-fish with oysters, and fat roast-beef or mutton, I'd never have been such a fool as to come to France or Italy.
Marguerite Blessington, Strathern, a novel, 1845

22 August 2007

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