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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Interiors & Decor » Furnishing a Bedroom in a Colonial House

Furnishing a Bedroom in a Colonial House

Unlike the kitchen, the bedroom is an easy place to indulge in historical decorating and furniture. By Mary Ellen Polson

    The cannonball bed dates to the 1820–1850 period. This reproduction is from

    Given that many homes in colonial America consisted of just one or two rooms that encompassed all of life, it follows that “the bedroom” as a separate space is a relatively modern concept. Where they existed at all, early American bedrooms were sparsely furnished, with often just a bed and its “furnishings” (the bed hangings and coverings), and perhaps a large, lift-top chest for storing extra linens or household treasures.

    Many of the era’s bed styles are familiar and still widely available in reproduction today, including some that are made using traditional methods, as with lathe-turned spindles and legs. The simplest bed style is the low post, which in colonial times featured plain, almost rustic legs and headboards. Often, the mattress was supported by ropes strung from side to side rather than slats. The ropes were woven in and out of holes drilled in the bed frame. With time, the ropes tended to stretch, allowing the mattress to sag, and required tightening with a rope key. Higher style low-post beds with fancier ball-shaped turnings, like the cannonball, first appeared in the mid-18th century, but were at first rare; their popularity ran well into the 19th century.

    High (or tall) post beds were designed to support the bed hangings and canopies that were often more valuable than the bedstead itself. The fanciest of these were tester, or canopy, beds that included an upper framework for holding bed dressings. One of the earliest and most recognizable styles is the field or tent canopy, popular between about 1725 and 1780. Curving side pieces rise in a shallow, bell-shaped curve and are held in place by at least three horizontal slats—the perfect superstructure for the hand-knotted lace canopies so popular during the Colonial Revival of the 20th century.

    Other tester beds had a superstructure consisting of flat, slender pieces that joined together post to post. Especially in the 18th century, this framework was completely concealed by a flat-topped textile canopy with a short overhang. Others were designed to be topped with finials that rose in each corner over the canopy.

    As the name suggests, a half-tester has posts and a canopy over only part of the bed. Most half-testers have canopies that cover far less than half of the bed—usually just a shallow, three-sided enclosure around the head. Despite the suggestion of economy, half-tester designs could be just as elaborate as full testers. A late example, a Gothic Revival half-tester from the 1830s designed for Andalusia in Philadelphia, had a deep overhang over a backboard brimming with lancet arches and trefoils.

    An antique Pennsylvania German painted chest in the home of a collector. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

    Chests were considered valuable pieces of early American furniture in 18th-century homes, but were more likely to appear in the keeping room rather than a bedroom. This is especially so if the chest was highly decorated, like the painted chests of the Pennsylvania Germans, or carved, as were many early heirlooms dating from the 17th or early 18th centuries. Most of these early chests were lift-top styles, with a top made from just one or two wide boards. The finest from the 17th century were often elaborately carved in S, leaf, and scroll patterns. Patterns include intricate inlays and carvings, and painted decorations in floral and other symbols. The tulip was an especially popular motif. Plain joined chests (e.g., Shaker), with or without drawers, appear in the early 19th century.

    Counterpanes, like all textiles before about 1830, were an indicator of household wealth. In the finest homes, this purely decorative, single-layer cover for the bed might be made of imported silk, cotton, or worsted wool. Toiles—copperplate prints of pastoral scenes in a single color like green, brick red, brown, or blue—were especially popular after 1750, as were counterpanes finished with crewelwork. Printed cottons and chintzes from India later superseded toiles.

    When colorful imported fabrics disappeared during the Revolution, patriotic women everywhere began to use white linen and cotton for counterpanes and quilt tops. By about 1790, these all-white spreads were hand-decorated with silk embroidery, hand-knotted tufting (or candlewicking), and cording. Leaves, flowers, and vines were stitched in raised relief around a central motif, such as a medallion or urn. Chenille and Martha Washington-style all-white spreads are the descendants of these hand-stitched treasures.

    This is an antique-reproduction cannonball bed from

    Coverlets were usually woven at home on a shuttle loom. The most common pattern was overshot, which consists of a plain woven background with a fancier pattern “overshooting” the ground cloth. The ground color (in wool or cotton) was often dark blue, brick red, or occasionally mustard or brown. The top pattern usually appeared in a light or contrasting color (oatmeal over blue, for example). Names are evocative of time and place: Old Ireland, Bonaparte’s March, Virginia Snowball.

    Quilts didn’t begin their epic rise in popularity until late in the 18th century, and even then they were often made of whole cloth in a solid color like deep indigo blue. Pieced quilts made from scraps of precious fabric debuted about the time of the break with England. Patterns were simple: usually blocks of squares that could easily be sewn together. Not until the 1840s, when inexpensive cotton calicos became widely available, did colorful and exuberantly patterned quilts become an American phenomenon.

    Published in: Early Homes Spring/Summer 2012



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