Thursday, November 2, 2017

What's In A Mattress?

Please enjoy this installment of New Stories From Old New Castle: Student Perspectives on New Castle’s Past, Present, and Future. Students created the blog entries as part of the Spring 2017 University of Delaware Museum Studies Class, Historical Properties (Museum Studies 605), taught on-site in partnership with the New Castle Historical Society

Sarah McNamara

As part of the Historic Properties course, in collaboration with the New Castle Historical Society and the University of Delaware Museum Studies Program, students were encouraged develop “interpretive interventions” for the historical society to use in one of the historic homes. These interpretive changes were intended to be small-scale and low-cost while complementing and extending the existing interpretive framework. I walked through the Amstel House with Dan Citron, the Executive Director of New Castle Historical Society to develop a small addition to the furnishing plan.
View of the exterior of the Amstel House located in Historic New Castle. Image courtesy of the New Castle Historical Society.

One of our final stops in the house tour is the upstairs bedroom. The most notable piece of furniture in the room is a large bedstead with a small, empty trundle bed peeking from underneath.

The current furnishing of the upstairs bedroom in the Amstel house includes this bedstead with a smaller trundle bed peeking out from underneath. Image by author.

This detail of the trundle bed provides insight to the bed's construction, but the addition of a mattress would give visitors a better understanding of its purpose in the room. Image by author.

Seeing the naked trundle bed inspired my project of creating a reproduction mattress to give guests more context for understanding function this piece of furniture. I decided to volunteer my time and effort to make a simple stuffed mattress. How hard could it be to create what I thought was just a larger version of a pillow?

I rolled up my sleeves and dug into research because I wanted my mattress to be as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, I found since mattresses are heavily used utilitarian objects, few historic examples have survived. This did not stop me! I soon learned that making mattresses in the past often required the skilled labor of upholsterers, and the upholstery trade was one of the most prestigious and lucrative craft professions in the 18th century. Using Thomas Webster’s Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy and other secondary sources, I determined the typical materials of period mattresses were ticking fabric for the exterior and feathers, wool, or straw for the stuffing.

This schematic in the Winterthur Museum Galleries displays the many layers that may have been present in historic bedding. The feather bed rests on a straw mattress, and both are encased in ticking fabric. Image by author.

Each material choice had an influence on the comfort, cost, and status of the object in the past, with feathers being the softest and therefore most expensive. This research brought me to the crux of my recommendation: What materials should be used for the reproduction mattress? I had to consider many variables including historical accuracy, affordability, and ease of maintenance. All museums face these issues while developing their interpretive plans.

New Castle Historical Society will ultimately decide whether the reproduction mattress will be added to the furnishing plans of the bedroom in the Amstel House. Regardless, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the time, research, and thoughtfulness that goes into even the smallest of interpretive changes in historic house museums.

For further information on historic mattresses, I recommend:
Crowley, John E. The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Miller, Marla R. Betsy Ross and the Making of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010.

Webster, Thomas. Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1845.