A ramble through domestic history in the 20th Century
Inspired by the fact I’ve just added a lovely pure wool Witney blanket to my bed for winter cosiness I thought I’d do a bit of investigation into the history of bedmaking…
What surprised me was how little information I could find about the traditional ways to make a bed. Even my giant Mrs Beeton from 1869 doesn’t say anything at all about how to make a bed – just some very basic information about how to clean beds and bedding. This seems to be the case in almost all my books throughout the century. I can only imagine that making beds is such basic hand-me-down information it’s assumed you know exactly what you need and why, but here’s what little I’ve been able to glean.
How to Own and Equip a House, published in 1927, offers some handy advice about what kind of sheets I’ll need for making up the beds in my home.”Some people object to linen sheets on account of their cool slitheriness, which to others represents their main charm. The housewife will probably have to cater for both tastes and include linen as well as cotton sheets in her well-stocked cupboard. Linen sheets undoubtedly wear well and keep a good colour in use but they are also considerably more expensive than cotton ones, the best qualities of which prove satisfactory both in appearance and wearing capacity.”
It comes down firmly on the side of linen for pillow slips though – and adds an interesting titbit about bolsters. “A second pillow is now often used in place of the old-fashioned bolster, in which case bolster slips will not be necessary. Where a bolster is preferred, however, the old practice of rolling it in the end of the sheet to be deprecated, a separate slip of its own being far more comfortable.” My Victorian Mrs Beeton does indeed advise tucking a bolster under the sheet. It’s the last time I hear of this so let’s assume that by the 1930s bolsters had been completely replaced by pillows.
The typical bed of this era would have started with an underblanket to protect the mattress, then a bottom sheet. Then top sheet, before layers of wool blankets. Then either bedspread, topped with eiderdown, or eiderdown topped with bedspread. There were clearly two schools of opinion on that one as we’ll see later…
A feature in a 1931 edition of the magazine Town And Country Homes a writer wrote an article entitled “If I Had A Daughter” and she describes how she would teach her how to keep a home using a dollshouse, saying “I would cut out…sheets from scraps of cambric and blankets from scraps of flannel and together we would turn down and hem the ends of the…sheets, embroider the dolls monogram in one corner of the sheets and I would show her and help her to blanket stitch the blankets with red or blue wool according to the colour scheme of the bedrooms.”
I’ve been able to find surprisingly little about blankets – no advice whatsoever about how to pick them or how many you’d want. But there’s a fabulous site all about the blanket making industry in Witney. The Witney Blanket Story.
However, the Newnes book Better Home Making (c1950) is very firm that blankets should be pure wool, but does warn that “heaviness is not necessarily a sign of warmth. Very light weaves are often cosier.”
It also mentions the “new” types of sheets that manufacturers are producing with “coloured frills, pretty candy stripes and attractive embroideries.”
It tells us that when it comes to bedspreads, they should not be ordinary – ie, these are a decorative item, rather than functional so most people prefer a fitted cover that matches their colour-scheme.
When it comes to the eiderdown Newnes is pleased to report that you can get them with a slightly rough material on the back so they don’t slip off the bed – can’t argue with that! They are very much a decorative item as well as offering extra warmth without the weight of extra blankets. I guess very often a bed would have the eiderdown but not necessarily the bedspread – which serves no functional purpose at all. Expensive items though, and there’s lots of advice to be found on remaking them to replace worn covers – the same goes for feather pillows. These were not disposable items in these days!
1963 – Polypropolene blankets
By the 1960s we start to see man made fibres arriving in bedding. Even in the early days nylon blankets don’t seem to be popular – the advice seems to be that they are OK for guest beds, but you wouldn’t want them for yourself. It’s also the first time I see mention of the innovation of fitted sheets. The 1966 Ideal Home householders guide says “Fitted sheets, available now in both cotton and nylon stay in place well.” So they sound a pretty new invention at this point.
Terence Conran is generally credited with first bringing the duvet to Britian in the 1960s and certainly by the early 1970s they seem to be getting a foothold in interior design books – although when I was a child in the 70s blankets were still the norm in our house.
1975 – Duvet and valence
I particularly love this picture because it shows the duvet with the matching valance sheet. The valance is surely something that didn’t exist until the duvet arrived because the bedspread would have done the job of covering the ugly under-bed area. Bring the simple duvet in and you suddenly have a problem – nothing to cover that yawning emptiness with! So unless you wanted a bedspread on top of the duvet – which of course many people did and still do – the valance arrived to give that bedspready look without the bedspready-spreadyness.
1995 – futons
The classic 1990s bed, the futon, shows how that 1990s minimalism and simplicity even extended to beds. Just a plain duvet and plain pillows – functional and off you go, but not entirely inviting.