Victorians were developing a mania about clean, undisease-laden fresh air. One of the reasons for having a fireplace in the bedroom was that the chimney flue helped ventilate the room.
“I take it for granted that every one understands the enormous importance of having a fireplace in each sleeping-room in an English house, for the sake of the ventilation afforded by the chimney”. The author of Bedroom and Boudoir (1878), went so far as to suggest that perhaps a brick in the wall might be loosened, or perhaps some holes drilled by an auger into the panel of the bedroom door.
If for some reason, one couldn’t sleep with an open window, then they should leave their door open at night, as long as there was a window open in the hallway all day and night, no matter what the weather.
If one cannot afford carpets, bare wooden floors with a simple animal skin will suffice.
It was advised that you paint or paper bedrooms in delicate colors. One author advised the walls be painted for washability with “harmoniously contrasting lines” at the ceiling. She also advised patternless cretonne curtains of the same shade as the walls, edged with stripes matching the ones near the ceiling. For those who preferred wallpaper, “…let it be all of one soft tint, a pearly gray, a tender sea-shell pink, or a green which has no arsenic in it; but on this point great care is requisite”.
Chintz, stretched tightly in panels, so it could be taken down for cleaning was another decorating idea for the bedroom wall. Yet another scheme mentioned was for panels upon which gathered white muslin was stretched over pink, blue or apple-green silk.
On the other hand, sometimes dark colors were desirable. The following paragraph illustrates a case.
“This pretty room is in a handsome, moderately sized country house, that was built and furnished by the occupants after their own cherished ideas. The result was eminently pleasing; and the bedroom in question, having plenty of windows and sunshine, was not furnished in the light colors that usually predominate, as this would have made it altogether too glaring. It was a large, square apartment; and the dark, brilliant coloring seemed to produce the effect of a gorgeous tropical bird. The ebonized furniture was relieved by scarlet cushions, and the curtains were in stripes of Turkey-red alternating with cream-colored stuff, and finished with a plaited ruffle of the red. The wall was covered with a particularly rich French paper, the pattern wrought in bouquets of poppies, daisies, and morning-glories“.
Assorted kinds of lightweight fabrics, generally washable cottons, were used for curtains.
If cheesecloth was used for the bedroom curtains, it was recommended that it be lined with a fabric the same color as the trim, with perhaps a simple straight lambrequin or valance.
Described as a Dutch bedstead
The old four poster beds were out of style, replaced for a time by “…frightful and vulgar frames of cast iron, ornamented with tawdry gilt or bronze scroll-work…” . But in 1884, noted design critic Ella Rodman Church suggested that an inexpensive metal or cane bed could be improved with a little gilding.
She gave instructions on how to make 2 kinds of bed canopies.
Head canopies, so much in use, have a very inviting effect. They are not objectionable in regard to ventilation, like close curtains, and they can be arranged with very little expense on almost any bed. Take two upright pieces of wood, two or three inches wide and as high as is desired for the canopy; have two short projecting side-pieces fastened at the top, and with these support a horizontal strip the whole forming a framework which may be covered with colored cambric stretched tightly over it, and afterward with dotted or plain Swiss, or any other thin material that may be desired. The curtain part is then gathered on to the back, sides, and front of this oblong frame, which should project not more than half a yard or so from the head-board ; then ribbon to match the color of the cambric loops them back at the sides, where they are fastened to the strips of wood. The curtains may also be lined with cambric, or silesia, which is softer.
Should the bed stand with one side against the wall, as it must where it is desirable to economize space, a very pretty canopy can be made on a frame shaped like half of a circle with the rounded part in front, and supported at the back with a narrow strip of wood fastened to the side of the bedstead, and also secured at the top against the wall. This is also to be covered with cambric and draped all around, the drapery at the back corning in front of the wooden support to conceal it. If the rounded top can be fastened to the wall (bracket fashion) without the strip of wood, it will be all the better; and a pretty finish can be made when the curtains are attached to this frame by a pointed valance of the cambric covered with the thin material, and trimmed with a plaiting or fluting of the same or lace. The trimming on the curtains should be of the same ; and they may be gracefully laid back over the head-and foot-board.
A canopy of this sort gives a peculiar grace and quite an elegant look to the whole room ; and curtains of dotted or figured Swiss, with the same at the windows, have a fresh, airy appearance that is very desirable in a sleeping-room.
People slept on the new, improved mattresses . The author of Bed and Boudoir felt that two mattresses, one of horsehair and another of wool made as soft a bed as anyone could want. “Frowsy old feather beds” were out, as were mattresses stuffed with chopped grass or seaweed. In the US, mattresses were also filled with cornhusks.
With about 8 yards of muslin and 3 bales of cotton-batting one could make a very nice “comfortable” or comforter. This, together with a couple of good wool blankets would keep most any Victorian warm on cold winter nights.
A popular kind of bedroom furniture of the day was painted and enameled, decorated with flowers and gilding.
Mrs. Church describes a bed ;" The bedstead of elder wood is painted white, varnished, and ornamented with red, blue, and green Turkish arabesques. The bedding consists of a spring mattress and a curled-hair mattress. The linen sheet is hemstitched on the ends. At the head and foot of the bed are bolsters, filled with curled hair, the length of which corresponds with the width of the bedstead. The bed is also furnished with a large and a small square pillow and an edredon, or down quilt. The fine linen pillow-cases are trimmed with embroidered insertions and ruffles, and the upper side of the case for the edredon is trimmed besides with embroidered foundation figures. In the center of the case for the small pillow is a monogram."
A draped toilet stand. The box held milady’s face powder, and any other cosmetics of the time that she may have used.
Described as a simple toilet table.
Although the ladies of the day didn’t use make up as we know it ( perhaps a burnt match to darken the lashes), they did use an assortment of creams and lotions to keep their skin soft and white. There were also hair preparations, back in the days before shampoos, to make one’s hair silky smooth.
Toilet tables made of drapery over a pine framework were a popular furniture item in a ladies’ bedroom of the 70’s and 80’s. Male design critics apparently railed against them, but the ladies mentioned them in their books with favor.
“If the room be an essentially modern one, and especially if it be in the country, nothing affords a prettier spot of colour in it, than the old-fashioned toilet-table of deal (pine) covered with muslin draperies over soft-hued muslin or batiste. Of course the caricature of such an arrangement may be seen any day in the fearful and detestable toilet-table with a skimpy and coarse muslin flounce over a tight-fitting skirt of glaring pink calico, but this is a parody…..” .
Ella Rodman Church felt it was “quite an article of convenience”, and described how to make one in detail.
An "antique" toilet table
“ Quite an inexpensive one may be made from a dry-goods box three feet high, four wide, and two feet six inches deep, with four blocks of wood one inch thick and four inches square nailed beneath each corner, to which casters are screwed. The box is placed with open side out, and fitted with a convenient shelf or two. The whole interior should be neatly papered or painted and varnished.
On each side (at the back) of the top are fastened two long, narrow boxes, which may be obtained generally from the drug or dry-goods stores. These should be about two feet long and one wide, and from eight to ten inches deep. By sawing pieces of lath to fit the sides, and tacking them on in proper position, shelves may be made that will be convenient for holding various articles. The covers to the boxes, fitted with small hinges, will make doors ; and the whole must be neatly finished with moldings put on with small brads, and an ornamental top and base made of square boards an inch or two deeper than the cases themselves. To these are screwed a pair of the iron brackets which we can purchase for from thirty-five to fifty cents, or for seventy-five cents to one dollar, fitted with lamps
These cases are screwed or nailed very securely on the top of the table, as they are to sustain the glass, which is of 'comfortable size 'perfectly plain, but of good quality and neatly framed. Such a one can be purchased new for three or four dollars, and at second hand frequently for half of that sum.
Over the top of the glass is fastened a frame …..around which is draped a hanging made of Swiss (figured or plain), lined with rose-color or other tint. First, a width reaching from the top to within a few inches of the floor is fastened to the upper back ends of the semicircular tester, the ends finished with a deep ruffle of the same ; then on the tester above this are arranged two pieces made by tacking a width of the Swiss and lining two yards long, folding it diagonally from corner to corner, cutting and trimming the two cut edges with ruffles of the same, and arranging them back of the boxes on either side. Around the top tack another ruffle made with an edge above the cord, which runs along the center of all the ruffles.
The table-top is covered with a piece of the Swiss over a lining like the curtains, and a drapery arranged around the front made with rings at the top, which slide on a wire beneath the narrow ruffle finishing the edge. This allows access to the shelves within. The wood-work of this table should be carefully polished and ornamented to correspond with the rest of the furniture, which may be ebonized, enameled in colors, embellished with marquetry, ivory inlaying, decalcomanie, painting, bronzing, and gilding, or enriched with carvings at pleasure. Any one of these methods of beautifying will be found elegant, and may be made perfect of its kind."
Some felt that the fashion for draping the mirror above the toilet table was a fire hazard, seeing as it was a time of open flame lighting, but others continued to do so.
A "modern" French washing stand
Folding screens were a favorite item in many Victorian bedrooms. One could dress behind them privately, if one was sharing a room, they could protect one from the ever present drafts, and they were pretty.
A couch or lounge, a low easy-chair or a rattan chair with a bright cushion were some other pieces to complete a room. Another example of seating was described as “ a round box on casters, with a low wooden back attached, curved to fit the back against it, and generously stuffed and padded. This should be covered like the other furniture, and finished with a deep fall of the material all around the seat.”
A round or oval table which could be used for writing or sewing was a very convenient item for the bedroom. In 1882, Mrs. Church described a bedroom table cover.
“A very appropriate table-cover for a bedroom may be made of squares of cretonne. There is a bordering cut from the striped material, and the groundwork of this bordering and that of the central square should be the same. These squares, for quite a large cover, are three eighths of a yard each, and seven in number, the ground of the central one being black like that of the border, and the other six being two each of red, blue, and buff. These colors may of course be varied to suit different tastes. The squares are joined like patchwork, and the seams are covered with a black worsted braid about two thirds the width of skirt braid, herring-boned with gold-colored silk. A lining of silesia, blue, pink, buff, or gray, and a deep edging of antique lace, completes an exceedingly pretty table-cover.”
Every bedroom of the period should have a wash stand, with a large basin and water jug, and space for sponges and soap. If there was no maid, or for convenience sake, one also needed to have a receptacle for the dirty water, which would be emptied occasionally during the day. The author suggested a china one, as tin ones began to smell from the dirty water and soapsuds. Some wash stands were available with a tipping basin feature. They looked rather similar to a sink, with running water, but when you finished washing, you’d tip the bowl and it would empty into a basin inside the cabinet. Of course, later someone had to come and take out the bucket of dirty water.
A wash stand for a corner of a boy‘s bedroom or downstairs corner or closet with a “long towel on a roller behind it”. My boys would have knocked this one over constantly.
If you didn’t have a separate room for bathing, you could bathe in your room behind the ever present folding screen. An oil cloth would be spread on the floor, and the tub placed upon it, then filled.
A small bedroom fireplace.
A fireplace in the bedroom was a desirable item, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, for proper ventilation, but also for aesthetic reasons.
On the subject of fireplaces, “When one thinks either of the imitation marble mantelpiece, or its cotton velvet and of false-lace-bedizened shelves, the artistic soul cannot refrain from a shudder.” The fireplaces now in favor harkened back to the old fashioned looking open hearths, lined with tiles. In England an iron basket for coals would be set within it, in America, where wood was abundant, a different sort of grate or iron “dogs” would be used.
It was a common practice to cover the mantel with drapery, which could match the curtains or the table covering. It could then be covered with china candlesticks, vases and a clock.
To finish off the bedroom, “one or two light stands are always convenient”, and a shelf by the bed for a book for bedtime reading. Some photographs, engravings and brackets for china statuettes or vases of flowers, though “china twisted into such outlandish forms as dolphins, frogs, porcupines, or small pink dogs is not to be tolerated “ as were “slippers with cut flowers in the toe, fishes with open mouths for the same purpose, and a host of other preposterous devices in china“.
A bedroom could be decorated and furnished simply, as seen from this 1880 illustration.
Or as lushly as this example from 1882. The lady is seated in her boudoir, her bed can be seen in the alcove in the background.
Finally, the following is a paragraph on a boy’s bedroom .
“If I had my own way, I would accustom boys as well as girls to take a pride in making and keeping their bedrooms as pretty and original as possible. Boys might be encouraged to so arrange their collections of eggs, butterflies, beetles, and miscellaneous rubbish, as to combine some sort of decorative principle with this sort of portable property. And I would always take care that a boy's room was so furnished and fitted that he might feel free, there at least, from the trammels of good furniture. He should have bare boards with only a rug to stand on at the bed-side and fire-place, but he should be encouraged to make with his own hands picture-frames, bookcases, brackets, anything he liked, to adorn his room.”