From the huge, panelled constructions of the late Middle Ages to light, elegant and tastefully decorated Edwardian pieces, beds have reflected the
social status of their owners as well as contemporary furniture styles.
From the Middle Ages to the latter part of the 19th century, the bed was a status symbol. Poorer people spent the night on mattresses stuffed with straw, either on the floor or in crude, box-like constructions, while the wealthy slept in some splendour.
Most splendid of all were oak four-posters, with high, panelled bed
heads embellished with carving, and tall, bulbous columns on pedestals at the base. The head and columns supported a wooden canopy or tester, from which hung rich
tapestries and other fabrics to keep cut the draughts. Some were panelled on all sides, with a door for access, so that the bed effectively became the bedroom.
Four poster beds were prized family heirlooms.
In the 18th century, beds were made of walnut, mahogany and beech among other materials. The half-tester or angel, where the canopy did not stretch the full length of the bed, first appeared at this time. Other beds were made without a canopy at all, though they were still usually fairly massive.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Around 1830, people became aware of the health risk of wooden beds. Their inaccessible corners and dusty drapes harboured pests, while hot
warming pans occasionally set them ablaze. For a few decades, brass and iron bedsteads all but ousted wooden ones. Many splendid old beds were broken up and the timber re-used.
Demand for wooden beds picked up again in the second half of the century, as the middle classes began to appreciate their former role as a symbol of wealth and status. Most beds made for this new market were in reproduction styles, but gradually a new, standard shape, with a headboard and tailboard joined by a pair of side rails, evolved. The head and tail were shaped and decorated to match one another, though the tailboard was usually smaller. The mattresses were supported either on wooden slats or, more usually, on a lattice of wire attached by springs to a drop-in metal frame.
Designs and decoration were influenced by contemporary furniture styles, particularly that of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris & Co's hand-made, ebonized and inlaid beds were beyond most people's means, but other manufacturers, notably Heal's, adapted the movement's ideas to produce beds at much more affordable prices. These continued to set the style for bedrooms until the inter-war years, when they were gradually supplanted by fully-upholstered and sprung divan beds.
Though nothing like as substantial as a medieval four-poster, a late Victorian or Edwardian wooden bed has a reassuring solidity about it. Despite this, it's still light enough to move around without much difficulty, and has the advantage, unlike modern divan beds, of having room for decoration at the head and tail.
Early four-poster beds rarely come onto the market, and are usually just too big for modern houses. Those who wish to sleep in the grand style should look out instead for reproduction Victorian beds.
Problems of space mean that few dealers stock them, and you'd be lucky to find them for sale outside of an auction house or, sometimes, a
second hand furniture warehouse.
You're much more likely to find - and to be able to house - the simpler single and double wooden-framed beds from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. While Arts and Crafts' beds by Morris & Co fetch high prices, those by Heal's and Liberty's, for instance, are more reasonable. Less expensive, but still attractive and stylish, are the simple, late Victorian and Edwardian beds
produced by unknown makers.
Whenever you're thinking of buying an old bed, do remember that there were no agreed standard lengths or widths until well into the 20th century. You may find that you'll have to get mattresses and linen
custom made to fit your bed, which will greatly increase your costs. Also, modern sprung mattresses tend to be much thicker than old ticking ones, and this may present problems if there is only a narrow gap between the frame and the bottom of the headboard.
Before buying, check that all the decorative work on the headboard and tailboard is present and undamaged. If there is a metal frame, be sure that it slots together well and that there are no cracks in it; these tend to appear near the joins. The lack of a drop-in, sprung frame need not be a problem. Pieces of timber, or even a board, can support a modern mattress very well.