Friday, October 15, 2010

Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite!

Good night
Sleep tight
Don’t let the bedbugs bite!

My mother used to say that to me before I went to sleep. It was just a silly rhyme that made me smile as I snuggled beneath the covers. But for a nineteenth century young lady, the rhyme had greater meaning.

“Sleep tight.”

Before the nineteenth century, many bed frames were strung with ropes. You had a little wooden or metal tool that allowed you to wind the ropes tightly enough that your mattress didn’t sag. So, sleeping tight meant the ropes were wound just right, and you’d get a good night’s sleep. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, most beds had wooden slats holding the mattress in place.

Of course, not everyone even had a bed stead (the wooden or metal railings around a mattress). A lot depended on your social status. Poorer young ladies were likely piling on a tick (a cotton bag stuffed with straw or leaves) with other members of their families with wool blankets and homemade quilts. The stuffing was changed periodically (and that might be your job as a teen). If you were fortunate, the tick was set on a wooden frame with slats to hold it in place.

The daughter of a gentleman farmer might go to sleep in a box bed built into the wall of her cottage, particularly in the north of England.

But if your family was well-to-do, or had been, you might sleep on something more substantial. Your mattress might be covered in linen and filled with cotton, feathers, wool, or horse hair. You might sleep in a walnut tester bed like this (the tester being the canopy that covers part of the bed).

Or a bed with fancy hangings like this one from a duke’s castle.

Or this one from a more modest manor house.

Or if this you just wanted a little nap or to relax with a good book, you might curl up on one of these.

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

As the century wore on, beds became less ornate and more simple; mahogany and satinwood replaced walnut. The first coil spring mattress wasn’t invented into 1865. Wood frames were gradually replaced with metal frames. Why? They took up less space, and they were less likely to attract bed bugs. Bedbug bites were nasty things like welts. No one wanted the bedbugs to bite!

Which reminds me of the second verse of our rhyme, which a good friend once taught me:

And if they do
Take your shoe
And beat their little heads in two.

Sleep well tonight!


Marissa Doyle said...

Alas, bedbugs are no longer quite a thing of the past, if the news stories I hear are any indication!

QNPoohBear said...

I'm glad you posted about this topic because I've heard it mentioned in several historic house museums but it doesn't seem to be widely known. FYI for those interested in buying antique slat beds - modern mattresses don't fit. You must have a mattress custom made or take it apart and try to jerry rig the headboard and footboard to a modern frame. (Live and learn from my parents' mistake.)

Regina Scott said...

Ooh, Marissa, I know! They sound so horrid! And from what I hear, they aren't easy to get rid of.

QNPoohBear, good to know! Those antique beds look so beautiful. I guess it's a good thing my wallet always protested. :-)