The bed and the emotional landscape of the household

Angela McShane and I have worked on beds (as it were) for quite some time now and one of the things that has increasingly fascinated us is that the main bed of the household – the marital bed – was a location for family and home that was both literal and figurative. So in this post we’ll think a bit more about this question: how did the bed and its dressings act as both a metaphor and stage for household and family relations?

Overall, the bed was a space whose use was directed by wider family and household concerns. Historians have become much more spatially aware recently, and what is important for those of us who study domestic space is that spaces obtain meaning mainly through the ways in which people use them. One of the things that struck Angela and I again and again was that the space of the bed in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century households was very mutable. The bed could hold different meanings at different times for different individuals because it was so intimately bound up with the form and function of the household. Just think about it – the bed regularly changed its use in a number of short-term, temporary ways. So a bed had different meanings according to whether a wife shared the marital bed with a female servant due to her husband’s absence, or when she lay with her husband. It changed again when it was given over to child care or nursing the sick.

L0019348 A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips.

Many historians will know that there were times when the bed had a ceremonial role to play in key life-cycle events like ‘bedding’, childbirth and death, at which points its function would be symbolically transformed. Very often, the dressings on a bed themselves played a vital part in the reshaping of its use. The classic example of this is the way that the function of the chamber in which the bed was placed changed to a child-bed and lying-in space. This was done by blocking the key hole, and by using fabric to close off the light from any windows. The space was thus transformed into a secure, safe environment ready for the female-only experience of giving birth (The image above illustrates this: Wellcome Library, A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips, seventeenth century).  Male midwives eventually caused a draft by entering this closed-off haven in the eighteenth century, of course!

Bed curtains c. 1690

As such, the bed and its textiles could become invested with emotional meaning for individuals and families. A great article by Janelle Jansted reveals that wealthy women, for example, had special hangings that were used during their lying-in, the period following child-birth when they received guests from their bed.[i] These textiles gained sentimental connotations and were shared between the aristocratic women’s family members.

We can see the emotional investment of parents in the quilts made for children’s cradles too. Made or commissioned for the birth of a child, some embroidered with the child’s name and date of birth, they represent the human capacity of hope in the face of adversity. In lots of autobiographies and print culture children were frequently referred to as the repository of parental hopes; precious conveyors of familial and personal qualities on to the next generation.

Cradle

Wikimedia Commons, Two Women By a Cradle, 1670

Yet children’s lives were unbearably fragile. One demographer calculates that from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries around a third of all children died before reaching their tenth birthdays in England and Wales. Mortality for infants under a year old could be even higher. And the same memoirs are often full of the language of grief that testifies to the shattering blighting of parental hopes when a child died. Yet what astounded us was that in the face of this knowledge, parents did not fear marking the precarious arrival of their offspring through textiles that would be placed on cradles or beds, or indeed displayed nearby. In part the possibility of loss might itself have motivated parents to make permanent their children’s lives through a material object that could be passed on to future generations. As with family portraits, or written memories of family members, textiles offered another way to try and heal the irrevocable discontinuity caused by frequent and sudden mortality.

All this testifies to individuals’ interest in what scholars rather pompously call the ‘diachronic’ family – that is in situating themselves within the family as it stretched before and after them. And this too can be seen in some quilts and coverlets. One of the quilts which was displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Quilt Exhibition (2010) is a great illustration of this.

CIS:T.615-1996

It is a cot quilt (held at the V&A), thought to date from 1690 to 1720 as most of the textiles used in it are late seventeenth century. Yet it has a particularly early textile at its centre, probably from the 1660s). The likely maker was Priscilla Redding, and research on this quilt by Claire Smith in preparation for the exhibition suggests she probably made it for her first born child Susanna. Priscilla herself was born in 1654, which means that the textile may have been from her own childhood (or could have been inherited from another family member). The fact that it sits at the centre suggests it has a particular emotional resonance for the maker. We don’t think it is unreasonable to speculate that it represents emotional lineage, the handing down of memories of family from one generation to another.

To read more about the quilts on beds you can read Sue Prichard (ed), Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories (V&A, 2010)

We’ll think more about the curtains around the bed in our next post.


[i] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: the Lisle letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:2 (2004)

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