Museums Are Trying New Things in the Bedroom

Written by Eve M Kahn

New York Times-June 25, 2016
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Visitors to house museums always ask for details about the original owners’ daily routines, particularly their sleeping habits. So researchers at several of these museums are improving the historical accuracy of furnishings in bedchambers where famous and forgotten lives began and ended.

“There’s so much fantasy and myth around beds,” said Natalie Larson, an expert on historic textiles in Williamsburg, Va. Ms. Larson is helping revamp dozens of museum sleeping quarters. She quoted a favorite 17th-century French poem: “In bed we laugh, in bed we cry, and born in bed, in bed we die.”

She has updated the décor in spaces where American presidents and freed slaves laid their heads. Surviving evidence of tossing and turning can be as vivid as streaks of human blood from the early 1800s, on mattresses where bedbugs feasted.

In the past year or so, major bed restorations have been unveiled. In Ellsworth, Me., Ms. Larson advised the Woodlawn Museum, Gardens and Park on stabilizing curtains from the 1820s draped around a canopied mahogany bed. The original occupant, Col. John Black, a real estate and timber magnate, could admire the creamy cotton fabrics tasseled in shimmery silk as he fought off bedbugs. Connoisseurs of decorative arts make pilgrimages to see this rare example of a lavish antique bed with original textiles. It has never left Colonel Black’s home, said Joshua Campbell Torrance, Woodlawn’s executive director.

“Beds are kind of charismatic in their own way,” he said.

On the outskirts of London, copies of beds auctioned off nearly two centuries ago are being installed at Strawberry Hill, home of the writer Horace Walpole. The museum staff is reproducing a 1710s oak bed where Walpole’s father, Robert, a former prime minister, died in 1745. It will be draped in floral chintz, printed with the Walpole family coats of arms and lined in blue silk. Volunteers sewing the bedding will tie 32,000 knots to create the elaborate fringe. Traditional red dyes for the flocked bedroom wallpaper have been formulated out of crushed cochineal insects.

Kevin Rogers, the historian for Strawberry Hill’s restoration project, said that the paper pigment “has a fantastic richness.”

Horace Walpole applied ancestral coats of arms to his furniture partly out of insecurity; his family had wealth and power but not a stellar aristocratic lineage. Michael Snodin, chairman of the Strawberry Hill Trust, said that the new bed would help evoke how the writer felt “driven by a sense of establishing the Walpoles as a family of repute and renown.”The Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross invited potential customers to see her practical checked linen bedding, as an example of her varied needlework offerings in addition to her famous American flags. At the Betsy Ross House museum in Philadelphia, women in period costumes have stitched a reproduction of her cozy curtained bed.

Mattress layers for the new Ross bed are stuffed with modern foam peanuts. The horsehair padding used in Ross’s day would have attracted pests, including carpet beetles.

“That’s the one compromise” in an otherwise painstakingly authentic recreation, Kim Staub, the museum’s archivist, said.

Mattresses have historically been stuffed with far stranger ingredients, Ms. Larson said, including corn husks, boiled pigeon feathers and the mustaches of slain enemies.

Ms. Larson analyzes holes and gouges in antique bedsteads for her museum clients, who are scattered from Maine to Mississippi. She looks for traces of lost hardware and carved ornaments, frames decorated with wallpaper and alterations to accommodate modern mattresses.

Visitors are fascinated, she said, to learn how beds provided refuge from harsh conditions. Families would have snuggled together under the covers with their cats and dogs to keep warm. They had to watch out for snakes invading pillowcases, rats crawling across quilts and curtains catching fire. Sleeping in taverns was risky, too, because the sheets were rarely changed.

At times, Ms. Larson said, “the stench was overwhelming.”

She lamented that no major scholarly publication had yet focused on beds. “In my lifetime I’d love to see ‘The Great American Bed Book,’ ” she said. Few collectors own beds in large numbers, so there is little motivation for dealers and wealthy patrons to pay for studies.Still, researchers continue to mine the field of bed history. In a new essay collection by various scholars, “American Furniture 2014” (Chipstone Foundation/University Press of New England), the historian Nancy Goyne Evans analyzes finishes on bedsteads from the 1700s and early 1800s. Archival references show that the woodworkers used paints and stains in shades of green, blue, red and gold. But surviving colorful antiques, Ms. Evans said, were not easy to find.

“More of them have been disposed of than other types of furniture,” she said.

Two red beds illustrated in her essay, made in New England around 1800, are now for sale through the dealer Austin T. Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and priced between $7,500 and $8,500 each.

Inventory like that does not exactly fly off the shelf.

“Beds have always been on the difficult side in the antiques world,” Mr. Miller said. His own parents filled his childhood home with antique beds, despite the quirky shapes and sizes. Since there was no place else to sleep, he said, “we just got used to it.”