J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water

A while back I read this article by Mary Miley Theobald in Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine about common myths of American historic sites. Then I listened to a podcast interview with the author (MP3 download and transcription). And that in turn told me about her History Myths Debunked blog. Which all, to be accurate, cover the same ground.

My favorite item is “Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.” People were shorter, but not that shorter. Alternative explanations I’ve heard, referring to earlier centuries and different places, is that people tended to sleep propped up instead of flat, or that shorter beds don’t have so many cold spots.

Theobald offers a different debunking based on looking at actual eighteenth-century beds. It turns out they’re not shorter after all:

Visitors to historic houses are often surprised if the tour guide takes a measuring tape to a “short” bed and they find it is as long or longer than today’s standard 75" double bed. In 1981 Colonial Williamsburg curators surveyed the antique beds in the exhibition buildings and found that all of them equaled or exceeded 6'3", the standard today. Some are as long as 80", the length of today’s king or queen size.

So why do we think the beds are shorter? Because the high bed posts, fabric hangings, canopy, and plouffy mattresses make beds appear shorter in comparison than they are.
The photograph above comes from another Colonial Williamsburg article that debunks the other myth that “sleep tight” refers to rope beds, and comes with a bonus Wizard of Oz reference.

10 comments:

Chaucerian said...

Hi there -- This is just a typo alert. I think it should read "beds" (not "bed"), and perhaps "not that much shorter" (not "not that shorter"). But perhaps the latter is dialect . . .

Pvt.Willy said...

In fact all the furniture from 17th and 18th c.which survives today is virtually the same measurements as modern articles.Chairs,tables,chests,etc. are not miniaturized at all,but the same height as today.I have owned quite a bit of 18th c. furniture and it has all been full sized.There are surviving examples of children's or youth's chairs,etc.but the typical chair is still the same.Often chairs and tables have worn down over the years from use,but they were indeed made full size.
Many folks are larger today because of a more protein-rich diet but many colonials were large also like Washington and Franklin for example.

Anonymous said...

Height also depended on where the colonials lived. Men of New England tended to be a little shorter than Pennsylvania Riflemen and also Virginians. It did have a lot to do with diet and also climate. But this was not always the case.

RFuller said...

But- but...JL- what will sleeptalking tour guides and historical society grande dames do when they are confronted with the fact that people weren't actually shorter back then, people didn't live close to the ocean, and that "sleep tight" doesn't come into the English language until around 1920? ....;)

pilgrimchick said...

Historical myths debunked--I appreciate that a lot because of my time at Plimoth Plantation. Myths of all kinds were part of the job, including this one about the bed.

Bella F said...

Took the kids to Hearst Castle last week, and my 11-yo son asked exactly this question. To her credit the (excellent) guide gave the same answer you have here.

She also noted that while mattresses are about the same size in 18th c and modern beds, the bed *frames* are often now a few inches longer, to accommodate our taste for ridiculously giant comforters and piles of pillows.

Timoteo said...

Thomas Jefferson's bed at Monticello was indeed shorter than today's typical bed. The tour guide stated that it was in vogue at the time because people thought it was healthier...sort of like keeping the window open while you slept.

I would imagine that many aristocrats with their fancy food might have suffered from what we now know as "acid-reflux"

J. L. Bell said...

According to this article from Monticello, Jefferson’s bed “appears small but is 6' 3" in length,” or the standard size for a modern double mattress. Being tucked into an alcove in a big room naturally makes it look smaller.

Andy Hall said...

Thanks for this. Now can we please skewer the old saw that old houses don't have closets because they were taxed on them as "rooms?"

J. L. Bell said...

The Colonial Williamsburg podcast refutes the closets myth, as I recall.