Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Victorian Bedroom

             Flanders, Edith, Inside the Victorian Home, W.W. Norton and Co., 2003
            Mrs. J.E. Panton, From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders, Ward & Downey, 1887
            Mrs. M.E. Haweis, The Art of Housekeeping: a Bridal Garland, Sampson Lowe, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889
            The 19th Century home was expected to provide a separate room for each purpose. Thus, the kitchen, scullery, pantry, drawing room, parlor, dining room, morning room, and bathroom. The bedrooms (and separate nursery) were designed for sleeping, but also served the purpose of dividing servant from employer, adult from child, and male from female. It was common in the era for husband and wife to keep separate bedrooms, or at least for the husband to keep a separate dressing room.
            The older fashion of using the bedroom as a quasi-sitting room was (in theory) disappearing, although in practice, the family utilized the rooms as needed. The bedroom was a place for sleep, sex, and childbirth; but often a young child would have a cot in the parent's room, or the children would sleep in one room together.
            Live-in servants did not always have a bedroom at all. Cooks and housemaids might sleep in the kitchen, while the butler or footman made do with the pantry or scullery. Even when given a bedroom, a servant might be expected to share it with any other servants in the house.
            Books of the time strongly urged that the bedroom remain segregated by function. One ongoing problem seemed to be the use of pen and ink in the room: Mrs. Haweis ("an arbiter of fashionable interior decoration") extorted in one of her books that "Gentlemen should be discouraged from using toilet towels to sop up ink and spilt water; for such accidents, a duster or two may hang on the towel-horse." As the bedroom was the only room containing a towel rail at that time, obviously gentlemen were bringing their writing upstairs with them.
            In actuality, however, the majority of homeowners utilized their bedrooms much as we do today. Bedroom furniture, most books recommended, should include a good carpet, a central table, a wardrobe, a toilet table, chairs, a small bookcase, a washstand, a pier glass, and a "cheffonier" or "chiffonier" (a small, low cupboard with a sideboard top, not to be confused with the American chiffonier, which is a chest of drawers). Larger bedrooms might include a small couch or chaise longue. Much of this furniture would have been recycled from downstairs rooms as they became worn or fell out of style. Carpets, especially, were moved from the parlor to the master bedroom to the nursery to the servant's room until they wore out. It was only after the middle of the century that good carpeting and furniture were purchased specifically for the bedrooms.
            And. of course, there was the bed. This would be a four-poster, although as the century progressed, the curtains retreated to provide access to more healthy fresh air. By the end of the era, most beds had no curtains at all, and headboards and footboards were the smaller size common today. The more wealthy homeowner could afford mahogany furniture (in Victorian England, a mahogany wardrobe could cost from 8 to 80 guineas), while the less fortunate made do with more "inferior" woods.
            Clothes hangers were not in general use until the 20th Century, so wardrobes, cupboards, trunks, trays, pegs, and boxes served to hold clothing. Much of the furniture in the bedroom would have been used for clothing storage. Of the rest, the largest percentage would have been for cleaning. Toilet-ware also came in a range of qualities; in the finer sets, the various containers were decorated in the same pattern. Washstands had a towel rail to each side, and often tiles at the back to protect from splashes. There would be a basin, a ewer or jug, dishes to hold soap, sponges, tooth and nail brushes, and a water bottle with glass. The chamber pot might also be of the same pattern. Mrs. Panton recommended that identical toilet-ware be purchased for all the bedrooms, "as breakages could then be replenished from stock." A hip bath (a portable bath large enough for a person to sit in) might also be stored in the bedroom. This was filled by large cans of copper or brass, called toilet cans, which were used to carry hot water up from the kitchen before the advent of indoor plumbing.
            During the second half of the century, hygiene became the chief concern. This was not only a matter of ridding the house of dirt and dust, but also of vermin. Apart from the kitchen, the bedroom was the most vulnerable room in the house in this respect. Mattresses were made of organic matter: horsehair was the best, followed by cow's hair or wool. A straw mattress could be put underneath the hair mattress to protect it from the bedstead. Chain-spring mattresses were available, but still needed a hair matress over them for comfort. A feather bed could be added on top of the mattress if no springs were available.
            "A brass and iron bedstead furnished with the spring mattress, nice hair mattress and bolster, an four pillows if a double, two if a single ,bedstead, is the beau-ideal of a sleeping place for health," Mrs. Panton wrote, "and should furthermore be provided with two under-blankets -- one in use, one in store in case of illness -- and two good pairs of nice Witney blankets." She also recommends an eider-down quilt for winter, furnished with an extra covering fashioned with buttons so that it could easily be removed and washed. "Three pairs of sheets are the least that can be allowed to each bed; the top sheet of each pair should be frilled ... four plain pillowcases for each pillow, and two or three frilled and embroidered ones for the top pillows."
            With all of these organic materials, it is little wonder that bedbugs were a great problem. By the 1880's, Mrs. Haweis was able to report that fleas were not expected in "decent bedrooms," although "at any minute one may bring a stray parent in from cab, omnibus, or train." Constant vigilance had to be maintained, and the bed itself examined regularly for infestation or any sort. The popularity of iron and brass bedsteads did away with a good deal of the problem -- one typical method of dealing with vermin was to have a carpenter take the bed apart; then take the pieces of the bed, along with all the bedding, into an empty room or outside, wash the bed frame with chloride of lime and water, sprinkle Keating's powder (a pyrethrum-based insecticide) everywhere, then wait and repeat daily for as long as necessary before putting everything back together again. If the infestation was totally out of control, the bed and mattress were left in an empty room that was sealed airtight, and then sulfur was burned to disinfect the bed and surrounding area, to prevent the spread of the problem to the walls and floors.
            Another problem was soot. Most fireplaces and stoves burned coal, and the ash and soot permeated the air -- not only inside the house, but outside in the streets. People returned home truly dirty in a way that we are not familiar with today. It was recommended that the bed furnishings be covered with holland, a hard wearing linen fabric much used in middle- an upper-class households to protect delicate fabrics and furniture. Not only does Mrs. Panton recommend that a large square be tied over the spring mattress (to protect the upper mattress from the springs), but she also suggests that the upper one be covered as well, along with the pillows, to protect from soot and dirt. "Unless this is done, the ticks become soiled and nasty-looking and shabby, because housemaids are but mortal, and will not remember to wash their hands and put on spotlessly clean aprons when they go to make the beds." This suggests all too well that the normal condition of hands and clothing was dark with soot.
            In fact, it was commonly recognized that it was impossible to go to bed clean. Mrs. Haweis, while suggesting that sheets should be washed every fortnight or once a month, noted that pillowcases needed changing "rather oftener, chiefly because people (especially servants) allow their hair to become so dusty, that it spoils the cases very soon." Oddly enough, she thought that blankets only needed washing every other summer. Main cleaning occurred twice a year, during spring and autumn, when it was recommended that mattresses and pillows be taken out and aired -- and every few years, to be taken apart, lumps in the ticking broken up and washed, and feathers sifted.
            "Now there is not one single thing that should be left on the bed once one is out of it," Mrs. Panton states. "Do not be content with turning all the bed-clothes over the rail; see that they are all pulled out from under the mattress, separated, and hung up, if possible. Then remove the pillows, and dot them about on chairs and sofas; hang up separately the under sheet and blanket where they will receive a current of air from the open window wet or dry; and then pull off the mattress, placing it as close to the window as it will go, which only takes about five minutes."
            A third problem in the bedrooms, as in all other rooms of the house, was lighting. Gas lighting was not recommended for the bedroom, because it burned too much oxygen and windows were generally kept closed to keep out soot and dust from the streets. A single candle, brought upstairs at bedtime, was the recommended lighting. More prosperous homes had candlesticks upon the mantel and dressing table, "with a box of safety matches in a known position, where they can be found in a moment," Many household books "worry away" at the location of matches -- in the days before electricity, it was essential to be able to find a match in the dark. Mrs. Panton suggested not only nailing the box just over the head of the bed, but also that it should be painted with enamel paint and "embellished with a tiny picture." Our Homes, edited by Shirley Foster Murphy (the London County Council's Chief Medical Officer during the 1890's), recommended a new invention: Blamaine's Luminous Paint, which could be applied to a clock face, "a bracket for matches, or a small contrivance for holding a watch."
            Poor lighting was complicated by the fact that the bed needed to be carefully positioned to meet the conflicting demands of health and privacy. It was recommended that the bed be screened from view, not exposed by the opening of the bedroom door, but at the same time, it could not be placed within a draft from the window, door, or fireplace. Even without bed hangings, the bed would have been a dark, stuffy place.
            One item of modern bedroom furniture that was conspicuously absent was the bedside table, although Mrs. Panton did mention that "great comfort is to be had from a table at one's bedside, on which can stand one's book or anything one may be likely to want in the night." She suggested a "bed pocket" be made of a Japanese fan, "covered with soft silk, and the pocket itself made out of plush," nailed to the wall within easy reach, to hold a handkerchief or watch. Most homes did have small tables within the bedroom, but more along the order of decoration than bedside convenience. 


  1. Thanks for this! I am writing about a 19th century character and this helps out aplenty!

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  8. I was wondering where they kept bedding that was not in use?

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