The Life of a Bed: Not as Boring as One Might Think

The Life of a Bed: Not as Boring as One Might Think

Take a long look at the objects in the picture below. What do you think they are?

"Mystery" artifacts from Saints' Rest
“Mystery” artifacts from Saints’ Rest

I bet that your first guess was just a little bit off. They are not small hand-cuffs (as they were originally labeled in the lab!), buckles, or tiny horseshoes. They are actually hardware from a little discussed, yet constantly used, object found in every home: a bed stand! If you were wrong, don’t feel bad, I did not know the correct answer either until Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright pushed me toward the solution.

Beds have been around for a very long time. They can be found in most households, and are used every day, yet they are rarely discussed unless you have back problems (Wright 1962).  Especially in college dorms, where beds are one of the few pieces of furniture present, they are essential for every day life. Everything from eating to studying, writing, relaxing, or posing for photos with eleven of your best friends all take place on a bed. They are also the perfect platforms for pranks. Speaking from experience, nothing is better than waking up your friend once he has been thoroughly plastic wrapped to his bed. As such, beds have a story to tell about the past, a perspective that helps us to understand the experiences of early students at MSU.

Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901.
Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901. Image Source.

Recovered during excavations at Saint’s Rest, the objects above provide one of our few glimpses of early beds on MSU’s campus. These “D”-shaped fixtures, typically made from cast iron, were one half of a two-part system to hold pieces of a bed stand together. The circular end was fitted into a similar shaped slot in the side rail, so that the short square protrusions faced outward. These protrusions then slotted into a metal face plate attached to the bed post, forming the first tool-free bed stand (Taylor 2016). This technology, invented after the civil war, made bed stands more portable, as they were easy to break down and re-build in a different location. But, since the hardware was made of heavy metal, it was costly to ship. By around 1900, a lighter version, similar to those used today, was invented (Taylor 2011).

Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works
Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works. Image Source

In these early days, dorm rooms were often filled to the brim with students. Up to 4 students would sleep in a room in Saint’s Rest, using only two beds. Two young men would share one bed, continuing (I assume begrudgingly) the family tradition of sleeping together (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012; Wright 1962). Unfortunately, few images from within Saint’s Rest exist, so it is unknown what type of mattresses these bed frames supported, or what other activities may have taken place on them.

Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. 
Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. Image Source

While it is clear that they were used for sleeping, easily dis-assembled bed frames also aided in at least one early MSU tradition, room stacking. An ingenious form of initiation, freshmen new to the campus would occasionally return to their rooms to find all of their things stacked into one large tower of furniture and personal belongings (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012). Not only were their possessions stacked, but it was done in such a way as to make re-assembling the room and sleeping in it difficult.  As one student who returned to a stacked room recounts, “It was past twelve o’clock that night before I got my bed down so as to sleep on it” (MSU Archives Scrapbook Page, 1902).

Oh, the tales these beds could tell if we could only re-create a bit more of their life histories!

Author: Jeff Painter

References Cited

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:
2012   Exhibit- Dormitory Life: The First One-Hundred Years of Students Living on Campus. Created by Kim Toorenaar.  http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Exhibit/1-6-D/dormitory-life/
1902    Scrapbook Page about Room Stacking Pranks, 1902. Created by George Newnes.  http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-1156/scrapbook-page-about-room-stacking-pranks-1902/

Taylor, Fred
2011   “Furniture Detective: Hardware on Vintage Beds Crucial to Its Design and Function” http://www.antiquetrader.com/antiques/vintage_brass_bed_hardware_design/
2016   “The Nuts and Bolts of Bedding Down Through the Ages” https://www.liveauctioneers.com/news/columns-and-international/fred-taylor/nuts-bolts-bedding-ages/

Wright, Lawrence
1962   War and Snug: The History of the Bed.  Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.



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