Early 19th Century Bed Rails & Mattress Support

Examples of the various methods of support for the mattress from early 19th century beds (1800-Msueum cut away display of of a 17th century bed with a sacking bottom. 1840). There are three basic methods of support, rope, sacking and slats. Of the three those designed for sacking are the most common. Although beds were designed for sacking they were not always used with a sacking bottom.

To the right is a cut away display of an 18th century bed at Winterthur Museum. The sacking bottom is just visible laced to a piece of sail cloth that is tacked to the bed rails. On top of this is a tick filled with straw and a feather bed or mattress.


The rail has a rabbet or groove to accept the sail cloth tacked to the rail. The heads of some tacks can be seen having been driven flush with the surface. antique bed rail with rebate for sacking bottom.
This rail has rope holes and shows the "shadow" of the rope. This bed was in a fire and the rope may have protected the wood from heat and smoke leaving the shadow on the rail. The bed Antique bed rail with rope holes
This rail has wood pegs and shows the marks from the cording that held the sacking bottom. Note that the pegs were pounded into the rail at a later time to get them out of the way. An antique bed rail with pegs and marks from diagonlal lacing.
This rail most likely held a sacking bottom, it was just laced a little differently. It appears the cording went from the grommet in the sacking, around the peg and back through the same grommet. Antique bed rail showing marks from cording.
This rail has a single cord mark at each peg. I suspect that the cords ran across the bed similar to a rope bed. This would have been much less expensive than a sacking bottom. See the story below for anecdotal evidence of this method. antique bed rail showing a single cord mark per peg
On this rail the holes were drilled diagonally from the top through the side of the rail and a groove is added for the cording to lay in between the holes. The holes are smaller than those used for rope. The bed Antique bed rail with diagonal rope holes
This rail was rabbeted out to take wood slats. The rabbet has Roman numerals along it which presumably matched the numbering on slats. Note the V in the center of the photo. No other form of support is evident. The bed antique bed rail with groove for wood slats
Someone had a change of heart here. The rope holes are original and the hand cut notches for slats are an old modification. The bed antique bed rail with ropes holes and later notches for slats


Living History excerpts from an email recieved in 2011

Your website is quite interesting.  I am 83 and have been sleeping on rope beds almost all of my life.  As a youth, my bed was a peg bed that was roped (not sheeted) and had a hard cot type mattress.  I graduated to a rope hole bed with an innerspring mattress. 

As to rope, I have tried hemp, manila, nylon and cotton.  Nylon is impossible because it never stops stretching.  I found cotton to be the best and cheapest.  But only after an old Chesapeake Bay waterman told me his trick about how to take the "stretch"and "shrink" out of any rope.  He would let it out behind a boat and it would not only "unwind" but when it dried it would have "shrunk".  I have never had a cotton rope get any slack since. 

A lot of nostalgia from my past went through my mind as I wrote this.  Few people today have any clue when they see holes and sawed off pegs in the rails of old beds. The term "rope bed" means nothing to but a few of us. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

George W.
Richmond, VA