Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Paca Bed: Bedrooms in the late eighteenth century

The William Paca House might be closed for the winter, but take a tour later this year, and you will see our forthcoming exhibit: an eighteenth-century bed with possible Paca connections, newly conserved and awaiting assembly in the second floor of the house.

A few months ago, Historic Annapolis staff members and interns piled into several cars and took a weekend trip to Williamsburg. We were off to pick up the Paca bed!

The bed; loaded into our curator's car (with Natalie's supervision, and some custom-made padding!)
and ready to return to Annapolis

Recently donated to the William Paca House, the dismantled bed pictured above will soon be assembled in the room that is currently interpreted as Mrs. Paca’s lying-in chamber. The bed has been confirmed as dating from the 1780s-90s by textile expert Natalie Larson. It is thought to have been bought by the donor’s grandfather, one James Bordley, from his uncle. There is therefore reason to believe that the bed has Paca connections; the Bordley family shared Wye Island with the Pacas after William Paca moved to Wye Hall.

Dr James Bordley, Jr. (1874-1956), a collector of fine American antiques and early champion of historic preservation in Annapolis, might have been the buyer. Perhaps he was trying to preserve for posterity an important piece of Annapolis' history: William Paca's bed.

Eighteenth-century beds are exciting objects, not least because a bed like this would have been the most valuable possession in a household when it was first bought.

The Paca Bedchamber
The Bed in the Bedchamber

There was rarely more than one elaborately decorated bed in a late eighteenth-century house. As the most valuable item in a household, such a bed was designed to be seen. Bed hangings were therefore extremely important. They were indeed so important that they warrant a blog post all to themselves. Look out for that!

A good and complete bed [see: "bed & furniture" in the glossary at the bottom of this post], owned by a wealthy Annapolitan in the 1760s and 1770s, would usually cost between £3 and £6. This would not have included a feather bed; feathers were incredibly expensive, and a feather bed would usually cost more than a bedstead.

Feathers needed to be properly cured and oil-free. If not, they would start to smell pretty awful after a while. Accruing enough feathers for a bed, and treating them properly, was no mean feat.

Excerpt from the Inventory of Henrietta Maria Dulany, 1766.

Key: ££.ss.dd (pounds; shillings; pence)

7 ¾ yds Irish Linnen 1/10: 14.10 ¼.0
8 ½ yds ditto 1/8: 14.2.0
24 ¼ yds cotton check: 2.5.0

9 prs. yellow and white cotton and wasted window curtains: 2.18.8
1 rich suit of bed curtains of yellow silk damask tester, valences, head piece, 4 large window curtains, 1 dozen mahogany yellow damask bottom chairs, feather bed mattress blankets bolster, 2 pillows and calico quilt: 50.0.0

1 tent bedstead and suit of curtains: 3.0.0
1 bed and bolster upon the tent bedstead: 3.0.0

Henrietta Maria Dulany (née Lloyd) was Paca's mother-in-law; she bought her property in Annapolis, on 162 Conduit Street, in 1761. Among the items listed in a 1766 description of her £50 matching bedroom furniture (see above), the yellow silk and feather bed mattress would have been most expensive new.

In the 1780s, Samuel Grant, a Boston upholsterer, charged between three and four shillings per pound for feathers. To put this into perspective, a complete bed required roughly sixty pounds of feathers, which would have cost between £10 and £12 in England at the time. In contrast, a bed frame alone typically set back an individual just over £3. The feather beds we see in the Annapolitan inventories are not priced at £10 each – but then, they are not new. It is very unlikely that the societal elite of Annapolis would buy a used mattress, and - like a new car today - mattresses and bed sheets would have quickly depreciated from their first day of use.

Camp bed with sacking bottom, from Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803.
Feathers for me, flock for you

In the inventory of Robert Eden, the last Governor of Maryland, of the furniture &c. ‘left on his departure in his dwelling house at the city of Annapolis taken the 26th day of June 1776’ contains good examples of beds at the extremes of wealth.[1] A ‘Servant mans Bed Room’ contained ‘1 Corded Bedstead, flock Mattrass, Bolster, 1 Rug, 1 Windsor Chair’, valued together at £3. ‘Flock’ was waste or surplus wool, sometimes combined with old rags, used to stuff mattresses or upholster other furniture. A ‘corded bedstead’ was a bedstead strung with ropes, which required regular tightening in order to hold the weight of layered mattresses – and, of course, the weight of a sleeper.

A bed currently in the Paca House, featuring a sacking bottom,
in the room that is interpreted as a child's sick room
Eighteenth-century bedsteads, especially the cheaper examples, would often be corded or feature sacking bottoms. Regularly tightened rope would create the tension needed for a bed that wouldn't swallow the sleeper whole.

The coming Paca bed features slats to better support mattresses. Slats were a more expensive alternative to a rope-based bed support, but they were available to those who could afford them.

Another interesting bed in Robert Eden’s house is his own, recorded as belonging to 'His Excellency's Bed Room'. On top of the ‘Mahogany 4 post Bedstead with white Dimothy furniture ornamented Cornice with vases compleat’ were the layered mattresses that ensured the comfort of a wealthy man or woman. Ordinarily, a straw-filled tick would form the base of the bed, followed by a feather bed and a mattress, a bolster, the bottom sheet, two pillows, a top sheet, blankets, and a counterpane (bedspread). Eden’s hair mattress (£4) probably sat atop his large feather bed, which – together with a bolster, and pillows – cost £10. A mattress of hair, wool, or straw would have been a much cooler surface to sleep on than a feather bed in hot summer months. It is likely that Annapolitans would only have layered their feather beds on top of their mattresses during the winter, when extra warmth in the night was welcomed.

Things that go bump in the night

The bedchamber was the scene of all sorts of night-time activity. It seems needless to say that a bed (and before public hospitals, one's own bed) was central to life’s ultimate moments: birth and death.

The Paca Bedchamber
Less monumental events, though just as essential, also occurred in the bedchamber. In January of 1775, Charles Carroll (III) ordered “a very neat night chair, with its furniture formed with such a deception as to appear anything but what it truly is … but not troublesome to use”.[2] An equivalent in the Paca House is not quite so glamorous, but is more akin to the usual receptacles used by men such as Paca and Carroll.

Indeed, Carroll ordered many chamber pots from England - often several dozen (highly breakable!) pots at a time. Those readers who witnessed the November 2013 installation of the carpet in the Paca dining room will understand the drama of knocking over a full chamber pot, and watching in horror as the contents pour onto your luxurious woolen carpet!

Shortened shut-eye

Contemporary literature and modern studies suggest that it would have taken much longer to get to sleep at night before the introduction of artificial light. Whilst today lying awake for two hours before drifting off is frustrating, in the mid-eighteenth century it would have been the norm.[3]

Surprisingly, before artificial lighting sleep patterns in the Western world were not so uniform as the conventional c.11pm-7am of recent centuries. In the early modern period and into the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon to have a 'first sleep' and a 'second sleep', the alert period in-between used for study or prayer among other activities. One explanation for such a routine is that a fire intended to last throughout a winter night would require tending in the early hours. As a man with servants to tend his fire for him, and as a man whose work was conducted in daylight, Paca was likely to have slept through the night.

Henry Robert Morland, Woman Reading by a Paper-Bell Shade, 1766.

Away from prying eyes

A four-poster bed, surrounded by a canopy, had a variety of practical benefits. Not only would the canopy provide privacy, but it would also protect the sleeper from cold drafts and insects. Rooms would often be shared by several occupants; and it was not uncommon for families to sleep in one room. In the house of a man like Paca, however, privacy would have been important. Increasingly over the eighteenth century, the bedchamber ceased to be a public arena for entertaining. At a time when social elites were increasingly concerned with appearances, Paca and his wife Mary would have required private spaces.

Whilst William Paca was wealthy enough to afford matching curtains in the bedroom, it was not uncommon for a room to be without window hangings in the late eighteenth century. There were few window curtains in comparison with bed hangings before the American Revolution. When privacy within a room was as significant as protection from prying eyes on the street, bed hangings become the priority; they provided a little of both.

Privacy behind curtains in the room currently interpreted as Mary's lying-in chamber, where she might have slept apart from her husband during pregnancy
It is likely that William and Mary shared the same bed. Peter Earle writes, ‘it is clear that the wife was expected to sleep in the same bed as her husband and be available for his embraces, though under some circumstances, such as catching the pox from his whores, it was accepted that a wife may well want to ‘part beds’’. One does not suppose that any such "circumstances" afflicted the Paca House.


Bed and furniture’: A bed, fully kitted out. i.e. with a mattress, bolster, pillows, sheets, pillowcases and hangings.
Similarly, a ‘tea table and furniture’ referred to a tea table complete with the objects needed for the service of tea.[4]
BolsterA long, thick pillow used at the head of the bed for support. It would be placed under other pillows to stop them shifting out of place or falling behind your soft feather bed.
Tick(en)/ticking: A linen twill fabric used for cushion cases, which would have enclosed feathers[5] – or any other filling material.

With thanks to Samantha Dorsey, Curator of Historic Properties and Museums at City of Bowie; Carter Lively, Executive Director of The Hammond-Harwood House; Tara Owens, Research Intern/Education Programs Coordinator at The Hammond-Harwood House; Paul Koch.

Keep reading the curatorial blog in the coming weeks to learn more about colonial bed hangings.

Written by OUIIP intern, Elena Porter


A. Roger Ekirch. At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime. (London, 2005). Orion Books. (Kindle edition).
Clive Edwards. Eighteenth-Century Furniture(1997). Manchester University Press.
Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. (New York: 1990) Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 
R.T.H.H.‘Textiles as Furnishings in Early American Homes’. Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jennifer N. Johnson.‘The Upholstery and Chairmaking Trades of Eighteenth-Century Newport, 1730–1790’,  May 14, 2012. Thesis for the MA Program in the History of the Decorative Arts and Design: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum,Smithsonian Institution; and Parsons The New School for Design.
Whitney A.J. Robertson. ‘Sleeping Amongst Heroes: Copperplate-printed Bed Furniture in the "Washington and American Independance [sic] 1776; the Apotheosis of Franklin” Pattern’, Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings.
Peter EarleThe Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society, and Family Life in London, 1660-1730. (Berkeley, 1989). University of California Press.

[1] All Robert Eden inventory information is taken from: Graham Hood. The Governor's Palace in Williamsburg: A Cultural Study. (1991). Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, p.299-300
[2] “Anywhere So Long as There be Freedom”, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, His Family and his Maryland. BMA, 1795.
Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy, At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. p.109
[3] A. Roger Ekirch. At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, loc. 5082 (Kindle edition).
[4] ‘A Guide to Reproduction Fabrics’, The Old-House Journal: Restoration and Maintenance Techniques for the Antique House. Vol V, No. 11, November 1977. p.131
[5] Jennifer N. Johnson.‘The Upholstery and Chairmaking Trades of Eighteenth-Century Newport, 1730–1790’,  May 14, 2012. Thesis for the MA Program in the History of the Decorative Arts and Design: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design 


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