With the recession in the past several years, there are a some antiques items that are much for affordable than when they were at their all time high. One of those categories is rope beds. For an nice painted decorated Pennsylvania rope bed, it was not uncommon to pay $1000 on up at auction. Currently that same bed you might be able to pick up at auction that same bed for $300-$500. It is the only exceptional beds with vibrant grain painting or scrolled headboards than can command higher prices.
Bedstead at the Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
For adding to the authenticity of an early American home, why not replace that newer bed with a rope bed? In the early days, there were two methods of construction. One of the earliest and easiest methods was to bore holes in the rail frames six to ten inches apart. The rope would be fed through these holes in a pattern. The later and more common method you will most likely see at auction is using pegs on top of the rails at a similar spacing ratio. Cotton or hemp rope would then be strung around the pegs to support the mattress. Colonial Sense will show you step by step on how to tie the ropes that support the mattress on an 1840's rope bed. Can you tie that double half hitch knot needed on this project?
Use this double half hitch knot to tie the rope to cross pieces
There are two disadvantages to using rope as a support for a mattress. One is sagging. All rope beds sag in the middle. The wider the space between the ropes the more sagging will occur. It is easier for one person than two to sleep on a rope bed. The other disadvantage is the stretching of the ropes. The ropes tend to stretch, and you will be retightening the ropes. But proper layout should help in making the rope bed last longer without retightening.
The direction of the rope is noted on the layout of the rope bed tying
Quarter inch hemp or sisal rope can be purchased in any hardware store. Measure between each of the pegs both from head to foot and side to side. Make sure you have enough rope for making the ties and shrinkage. It is best if you have an assistant to get the ropes as tight as possible. Make sure the rope is soaked in water overnight and dried prior to use. Now you are ready to begin.
Make a loop in the rope and place the loop over the first peg at the headrail of the bed. If you are looking down on the bed, begin on the upper right corner. Stretch the rope to the foot of the bed and go around the first and second pegs. Then stretch the rope to the head of the bed and place it over the second and third pegs, then back down to the foot of the bed over the third and fourth pegs. Repeat this process until the rope is in the upper left corner looking down vertically.
Rope bed direction from side to side.
Once you reach the last peg at the head of the board, wrap the rope around the upper left peg on the side rail. Stretch the rope to the right side rail and wrap over the first and second peg. Stretch the rope over the second and third peg on the left side rail. Repeat the process until you are at the lower left corner. Now you can wrap the rope over the last leg.
This is where your assistant comes in handy. Here you have two options to tighten the ropes in your layout, but you will begin at the first part of the layout. You can push down on the rope towards the floor of the first course while your assistant holds the end of the cord tightly to prevent slacking. As you complete this process, tie the rope to several cross pieces using a double half hitch knot as you go. In colonial times a bed wrench better known as a bed key made of hardwood was used for the tightening. Boys or men usually did this process since it required strength to tighten the layout. Make sure you hit each course. You may find it helpful if your assistant is on one side of the bed while you are on the other.
An antique bed key is used to tighten the rope. In this photo, the bed key will be turned counterclockwise to tighten the second rope below the headboard.
Once you are done, tie the rope off to several cross pieces leading to the center of the bed at a forty-five degree angle. You can gain efficiency and rhythm once you do it several times. If the ropes begin to sag, repeat the tightening process using the same method. The rope traveling in the horizontal direction from side to side can also be interweaved with the rope traveling vertical from head to foot.
Completing the tying of rope using double half hitch knots at cross pieces.
If you ever have a chance to look at the pegs on a rope bed prior to roping the bed. take a look at the wear on each peg. Most likely you will see wear on each side of the pegs. This gives a false impression that the rope was wrapped around each peg individually. Following a layout this way puts too much pressure on each peg. Wrapping the rope around two pegs distributes the stress on the peg. In fact, when the bed was re-roped each time, the layout was started from the opposite end to equalize the stress so the pegs wouldn't be busted off. Carpenters were sometimes called on to replace broken pegs.
In colonial times the bed was covered with a feather mattress or on earlier beds a chaff bag filled with straw, corn husks especially in the South and beech leaves.If corn husks were used, some people would use the entire husk which would be cut and shredded into small pieces while still green. Because of the material used, various vermin including bed bugs were common in bedsteads. The rope would be removed each year the the housewife and boiled in a large kettle. If pests had infested the entire bedstead, a feather was dipped into kerosene and brushed into the crevices. This is where the phrase, "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite" started.
Rope began to be replaced by metal spring mattresses after 1840, although some people preferred rope because they thought the metal would attract lightning. The metal springs mattress certainly made sleeping more comfortable.
Don't be intimidated on how to rope that antique bed you find at auction this year. Nothing is more appropriate in a colonial house than an antique rope bed.
Source: Text, research and photos by Bryan Wright
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