Sweet Dreams: Henry Boyd Tester Beds Highly Collectible

This walnut tester bed, made by Henry Boyd, features simply turned posts, a scrolled, curly walnut headboard, and a fine, old, dry surface, made circa 1845. It sold in 2006 for $6,325 (including a buyer’s premium.

This walnut tester bed, made by Henry Boyd, features simply turned posts, a scrolled, curly walnut headboard, and a fine, old, dry surface, made circa 1845. It sold in 2006 for $6,325 (including a buyer’s premium.

What do you sleep in? No, I don’t mean your apparel, but what type of bed? If you own a “four-poster” or “tester” bed with a large head and footboard supported by massive wooden posts that almost reach the ceiling, look it over and see it’s stamped “H. Boyd Cin. Ohio.” More often than not this stamp will be found at the base of one of the posts; look carefully, since the stamping is apt to be fairly tiny. If you find this mark, you’ve got a real treasure, and a great story to tell your friends.

Henry Boyd (1802-1886), in whose furniture shop these beds were made, was an African American, born a slave, and trained as a master carpenter. He bought his freedom from his Kentucky master, and moved to Cincinnati in 1826. Even as a freedman he encountered racism in the Queen City. In his first job, working for a white cabinetmaker, his fellow employees laid down their tools and refused to work with a black man. After taking a job with a local riverman, he soon found himself on sound financial footing, and began buying and selling real estate.

Boyd’s beds are marked on all four posts with “H.BOYD CINI OHIO.”

Boyd’s beds are marked on all four posts with “H.BOYD CINI OHIO.”

Another “H.BOYD CINI OHIO” marking on the posts.

Another “H.BOYD CINI OHIO” marking on the posts.

By 1831, he was back in business as a furniture maker, operating a small factory at Eighth and Broadway, and working on making beds that employed side rails that screwed into the frame, thus providing great strength and limiting hiding places for vermin. Boyd’s patented cherry and maple bedsteads were an instant hit with hotel operators and members of Cincinnati’s abolitionists and elites. In 1844 alone, his factory made more than 1,000 of these beds, shipping them up and down the Ohio River. His invention made him a minor fortune, and drew the ire of competitors; Cincinnati furniture makers who had southern sympathies reportedly attempted to burn his factory on a number of occasions. Census records indicate that Boyd’s shop expanded in the 1850s, and his production came to include other lines. In 1855 he added a showroom, offering fashionable parlor furniture and French “high style” furnishings. We know little of Boyd’s other furniture. As was common for cabinet makers of the day, not much was ever signed with the maker’s name or label.

This Boyd bed, made circa 1840, has block and turned posts, a scrolled, curly walnut headboard and an arched tester.

This Boyd bed, made circa 1840, has block and turned posts, a scrolled, curly walnut headboard and an arched tester.

Boyd’s business prospered throughout the 1850s, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, Cincinnati’s manufacturer’s suffered. Shipping items south was considered unpatriotic, and in 1863 Boyd closed his shop. Thereafter, he apparently supported himself through his real estate investments. He died in 1884, with his newspaper obituary proclaiming him to be “The last remnant of the old business pioneers of color in the city.” Along with his family members, Boyd is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Today, Boyd’s beds are scarce. The Golden Lamb Hotel and Restaurant owns several, and the late Jane Hageman, a pioneer in the study of early Ohio furniture and whose unpublished article on Boyd was a source for the information in this article, found at least one that had been shipped to St. Genevieve, Missouri. If you’re lucky enough to own one, it would likely fetch several thousand dollars in today’s market!

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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