It is claimed that during the 18th and early 19th centuries, Dutchmen (Pennsylvania Germans) slept on their backs in a somewhat sitting position. It is said that they thought dangerously unhealthy to sleep lying flat. Whether this belief prevailed in the Dutch community I do not know. To maintain that sleeping position, the upper body was supported by one or more bolsters. These bolsters rested on the “bed,” which today we might call the mattress.
The bed lay on the ropes of the bed frame. The bed was a large, flat bag called a tick. Usually made of course tow fabric, the bed was commonly three or four inches wider than the bed frame. The usual width was about 55 inches and the length about 75 inches. In the early years, this coarsely woven tick was filled with goose feathers, and in later years either chaff, straw or cornhusks. Usually twice a year, at house cleaning time, one end of the tick was opened, the old contents were emptied onto the barnyard manure pile and fresh new bedding was put in.
The bed was most commonly refilled with rye straw cut to two inch lengths in the barn with a straw cutting bench. Many farms, however, had no straw bench, so they might have used a plank and sharp broad ax to render the straw usable. Or, the family might collect corn husks and, sitting at the kitchen table, cut them into strips a few inches wide with a scissors. The newly stuffed bed was again sewn shut, and it might now be two feet high in the middle. But after one slept on it a while, “hot mer ein graawe neigewore” (one wore a ditch into it).
The straw-bag bed was covered with a single homespun linen sheet, which was tucked under on both sides. This sheet is what the people slept on. Homespun sheets, incidentally, had a seam down the middle since homespun fabric can only be about 40 inches wide. The weaver sent the shuttle to and fro on his loom by hand, and his reach was about 40 inches, so his finished fabric formed a roll as wide as he could reach. This homespun yardage was sewn into sheets by the woman of the house. (Incidentally, all weavers were men, and weaving was a cottage industry at their homes. There were no “itinerant” weavers. The looms were huge and to move them would be an undertaking).
Bolsters were similar to long pillows that stretched across the entire bed. Researcher Alan Keyser notes that the late Clarence Kulp, Jr. had “in his possession a homespun tow bolster from Bedminster Township, Bucks County, which still retains the old straw filling. Since the bolster is sewn shut with two-ply homespun linen thread, it is safe to assume that the filling has been in the bolster tick since some time in the last quarter of the last [19th] century. The bolster measures 55 inches by 20 inches and weighs 8 pounds 10 ounces and is filled with straw from one and a half to two inches in length.”
In the old times, resting atop the straw bolster was a feather bolster and then feather pillows lay atop that. This mound of bolsters and pillows supported the sleeper’s upper body at close to a 45 degree angle, it was said.
The sleepers covered with a featherbed. Similar to a modern sleeping bag, the featherbed was a flat bag filled with goose down. In a questionable practice, the soft downy feathers were ripped from live geese, which were then released to grow a new crop.
The featherbed, bolsters and pillows all had linen cases. These were originally matched sets woven in two, three or four colors. The most common colors were blue and white, but there was no end to the pattern variations.
Laundering practice varied, but usually twice a year at housecleaning time, the bedroom walls were whitewashed, floors were scrubbed, bed linens were washed and new chaff was put into the beds.
For most farm families, nine o’clock in the evening or sooner was bedtime. Some families held evening devotions such as reading from the Bible with a hymn and prayer. Then, as they sat together after a hard day’s labor, someone might doze off or someone might say, “Die Schloofleis sinn am beisse” (The sleep lice are biting). Then someone might say, “S iss Zeit fer der hilse Barrick nuff” (It’s time to climb the wooden hill). Shoes were removed in the kitchen and left near the stairs. Candles were usually not used, and people went upstairs in darkness. Early drawings such as Lewis Miller’s show men and women ready for bed wearing white, almost knee length shifts. These were more than likely the shifts and shirts worn as underwear during the day. Night clothing is not mentioned in estate inventories.
Most Pennsylvania Dutchmen slept from six to eight hours, so morning came around 4 a.m. The head of the household was the first one up. On his way to the barn, he might build up the kitchen fire so his wife could start breakfast when she got up. Small children were the last to get up, but everyone was up and dressed by 7 a.m. and ready for the new day.
The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.