Antique Beds – What Holds Them Up?
By Fred Taylor
Beds are of great interest to most people. We spend more time in bed than we do anywhere else, except, maybe at work. So where we spend roughly one-third or our lives should be of great interest.
In medieval times, beds for most people were little more than nests of blankets on the floor or on a small platform of earth or stones. The problem was that were other critters at that same level of inhabitation; the cats, the dogs, the cattle and various and assorted vermin and varmints. In the castles of the times, it was easy to build a large panel bed incorporated into the structure of the room because these people weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. But the peasants had to be prepared to move out in a hurry.
In Colonial America, mobility was key factor in bed design. America has been a nation on the move since before it was a nation, so a bed that could be disassembled, transported by wagon or boat, and reassembled was a valuable asset.
One early solution to the portable sleeping platform problem was the rope bed—a suspension system of ropes pulled through or tied to a frame of most often maple or cherry. But rope beds are singularly uncomfortable and the rope suspension must be periodically restrung to take up the slack generated by the stretching of the rope. All-in-all, a cumbersome solution to the problem whose only virtue was it elevation off the floor with the critters.
Rope beds: Many rope beds had side rails with wooden threads. The threads were reversed on each end so turning the rail in one direction tightened both the headboard and footboard at the same time.
Another solution was the type of hardware and frame found in many late 18th-century and early Federal era beds. This consisted of a frame with a headboard, footboard and side rails, all held together by handmade bolts (as they all were in the early Federal era) that passed through the bed post and engaged a nut implanted in the side rail. As the bolt was tightened with a bed wrench, the post was held snugly to the side rail and the periodic adjustments needed due to wood expansion and contraction were relatively simple compared to the contortions required for a rope bed. This type of rigid frame made the addition of a spring unit and a thick mattress a natural addition to bed comfort.
Federal bed assembly: An early 19th-century Federal bed used a bolt and nut to hold the siderail.
Bolt: The bolt and nut were handmade and matched only each other.
A variation of this frame was used in the construction of Empire-era beds. But in this case the bolt was located within a channel cut in the side rail, invisible from the exterior of the bed. The bolt penetrated into, but not through, the post where it engaged an imbedded nut. Adjustments were a little more inconvenient because the bedding had to be moved to get to the bolts but the trade off was an exterior free of exposed functional hardware.
Empire-era assembly: In Empire beds, the nut was implanted in the headboard and footboard rather than the side rail.
Both of these arrangements resulted in extremely secure bed platforms that were indeed highly portable and easy to disassemble and reassemble—but they did have a common drawback: They were relatively difficult to make by hand because each bolt and each nut had to be in perfect alignment, and each bolt and each nut was handmade and thus not necessarily interchangeable with another piece of hardware. Woe to he who lost a bolt from a side rail or bedpost in transit. The corresponding nut had to be dug out of the matching piece and a new set of hardware installed; not a five minute job.
By the mid 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was well grounded in America and nuts and bolts were no longer hand-made but a great deal of the furniture still was. The great furniture factory systems of the mid-West were not fully cranked up yet, and most beds were still laboriously cut and assembled by hand, including installing and aligning the hardware sets that held them all together. As the factories expanded in scope and capability after the Civil War, those things that could not be adapted to machine production began to fall away, and beds were no exception.
The Victorian solution to bed hardware was extremely simple and easily machine compatible. The most common approach consisted of creating a circular race in a siderail, into which was fitted what looked like a horseshoe with a bar across the end. The result was a piece of cast iron that looked like a capital “D” with two protrusions on the flat side. After this device was installed in the siderail, a cover board was nailed over it so that all that was visible were the two protrusions. These two ears matched up with a fitting installed in the head board post and locked the rail into the post in one downward motion. Brilliant. And all the hardware was machine-made and a good part of the installation was also done by machinery.
The Horseshoe attached to the siderail: The cast iron Victorian horseshoe was implanted in the siderail.
Late Victorian assembly: The horseshoe engaged various types of other metal fittings to hold the rail in place.
The only drawback to this system, which lasted until nearly 1900, was the fact that it used a lot of metal, which made it heavy to ship. So naturally another, machine oriented solution showed itself. This new method consisted of a stamped, not cast, very thin steel fixture inserted into a slit in the siderail and affixed by two steel pins. This fixture had two protruding curved hooks which entered a matching slit in the headboard post and engaged two more steel pins using the same downward motion as the Victorian example thus securing the rail to the post. And it used less than 20 percent of the metal of its predecessor.
This is the system most in use today and represents a technology and an idea essentially unchanged for more than 100 years.
Stamped metal fixtures: Modern bed hardware has been unchanged for over 100 years.
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