If you're feeling conflicted about choosing a new bed and can't decide between a Sleep Number, all-foam, pillow-top or other fancy mattress type -- pity your ancestors. They didn't have to decide among a variety of mattresses, but there were many more styles of beds from which to choose during the 1800s than you may imagine. Some bed designs were downright luxurious. Others were simply creations made from a variety of natural resources. Some even proved ingenious answers to small sleeping spaces.
1800s Primitive Wood Country Beds
The natural wealth of America's forests meant wood was plentiful for furniture building in the 1800s. Farmer-built beds ranged from barely functional to beautifully crafted. Pine and birch were particularly bountiful and while elegant 19th century beds made in Europe were fashioned of mahogany or rosewood, a handy farmer not only built sturdy beds, but also crafted stacking bunks to bed down farmhands. Graining was a popular technique for making beds look expensive: it was done by painting a bed one color, repainting it another and then running a comb over the wood before the two colors dried.
1800s Louis XV Style Beds
Those who could afford the luxury of an imported bed in the 1800s ordered theirs from French cabinetmakers, but immigrants setting up their own shops in large cities could also make one for you if you fancied the latest European-styled bed. Solid and burled walnut woods were shipped by sea, so you might wait for a year given shipping and construction time. Louis XV beds featured ornately carved details, tall headboards and carved foot boards that made these beds gorgeous heirlooms destined to be passed down through generations of family members.
1800s Iron and Brass Beds
You see them in the movies and you run into them at antique shows: 1800s iron or brass beds hand-crafted by metal workers who elevated shaping and bending materials into headboards that were as sturdy and practical as they were artistic. Minerals mined in the west provided the raw materials; smelters processed the ore to make solid and hollow shapes re-formed by artisans into scallops, rails, frames and ornate shapes. Just about every family owned at least one metal bed and originals can still be found in antique shops.
1800s Victorian Beds
The contrast was stark: on one end of the continuum, a homeowner might show off his beautiful Victorian bed made in the popular Regency style that combined simple construction with elegant, ornately carved rails posts and a headboard accessorized with silk canopies, linens, lace, fringe, ribbons and tassels. On the other end of the continuum, the Murphy bed, born out of necessity when families migrating to big cities to work during the 1800s needed a bed that took up very little space. The pull-down Murphy bed remains an 1800s tribute to ingenuity.
1800s Style Swing Bed
It's a swing – no, it's a bed. Small houses and big families often produced innovations out of necessity and the swing bed is one of them. Built of wood to the dimensions of a single bed, the swing bed could be hung outside in good weather and inside the remainder of the year. Painted, stained, grained or unfinished, the 1800s swing bed relied on strong rope and stronger iron ceiling hooks to keep sleepers aloft.