Sunday, June 18, 2006


The topic for today's Sunday Scribblings: Bed

I think of feather beds and divan beds, bunk beds and water beds, beds of flowers and a ginger cat asleep in a bed of leaves, in a small patch of winter sun. I think of the bed in which my baby brother was born, and my mother propped up in bed receiving our visits with bunches of irises. But most of all I think of the beds that are mentioned in the wills of my ancestors.

When William Shakespeare died in 1616 he left his wife his "second-best bed". Not quite sixty years later, my eight times great grandmother Elizabeth Robertson died in Scotland, then a much poorer country than Shakespeare's England. She had outlived her husband Maurice Miller and their sons. Her grandsons, who had already inherited their father's property, were barely men. Among Elizabeth's few possessions were "ane oak standing bed". Research revealed this to be a four-poster bed. Possession of even one bed was a sign of relative prosperity in Scotland, where most beds were cupboards built into the walls of the house. The thought of having a "second-best bed" must have been undreamed of wealth for all but a few nobles.

When her greatgreatgreatgrandson, Thomas Miller, died in 1808, the inventory of his goods mentioned three beds: a chaff bed with two pairs of blankets, an old bed cover and two feather pillows: a fixed bed (probably one built into the wall as I have mentioned) and "an old feather bed". Three beds - but he had seven children, and probably farm servants - where did they all sleep? I imagine various possibilites - Thomas and his wife in the chaff bed, the girls in one and the boys in the other of the remaining two beds. Or perhaps some of the children slept in the hay barn with the farm servants. Much later in the century, a huge proportion of the Scottish people still lived in one or two room cottages. Thomas and his wife were well-off in their four roomed house, but by modern standards they were horribly overcrowded. How much lucker we are, or are we? With a bed each, even a bedroom each, would they think us lonely?

More Sunday Scribblings here


utenzi said...

Michele sent me way off to New Zealand. Imagine that!

I've been having a lot of trouble sleeping lately and I've been thinking of buying a new bed. My current one is about 15 years old. I can't imagine having a bed handed down in the family for generations!

As for how that many people could use 3 beds, I bet they didn't. Many people used straw filled ticks, I think they were called. Not named for the insects, as far as I know, though the two probably went together. The beds were probably only used by adults in the family, not the kids or servants. Just guessing, of course.

I really like this post, Catherine. And you're probably right about the "lonely" question at the end. We're a lot more isolated now.

Catherine said...

Yes, they probably shared the beds with bed bugs! I can remember my mother saying to me "Night night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite - but I never seriously expected them to :)

paris parfait said...

It's fascinating to think about how different things were then and how beds were a symbol of wealth or social status. Thanks for this lovely peek into the past!

Kay Cooke said...

You sure know your history! Clear and interesting. Thank you.

vicci said...

Catherine....This is lovely!

Jennifer S. said...

Interesting to read! And good thoughts to ponder my kids each have their own bunk bed in there own room and my daughter has a trundle too. So 5 beds for 2 kids! But usually they sleep in each others rooms - alternating from time to time. Good for slumber parties though.

Unknown said...

What an interesting way to trace family history. Things have changed so much in all those years...and it's great that you can go back so far.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. I don't even know who my eight times grandmother was, or what she slept on. Or where she lived, for that matter.

Catherine said...

Lynn, I don't go that far back in most of the lines I have tried to trace, I was lucky with that one because they owned the same farm in Scotland for three centuries (though I come from a line that sprung off from a younger brother about halfway). Property records are about the only way to trace a common name like "Miller" that far back.
On the other hand I have a greatgreatgrandfather who was supposedly a lamplighter in Glasgow, but I can't find him anywhere. I think he was abducted by aliens :)
I have been researching quite intensively for several years

Endment said...

What a fun way to relate to your family. Thanks for sharing.