Editorial By: Johanne Yakula | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper
It has taken almost one thousand years for bedrooms to evolve into those which we see today. In the middle ages the great hall was the primary living space. On the side were small rooms. One room was for the mistress plus several of her servants and ladies’ in waiting. The other was for the lord of the manor and his men. Lower servants slept on pallets in the hall by the kitchen or in the area where they worked. Modesty was not an issue. Inns had few rooms for travellers and strangers would sleep together three to four to a bed.
The idea of separate bedrooms and privacy that we take for granted took a long time to evolve. As late as the turn of the 20th century husbands and wives slept in separate but adjoining rooms if they could afford the space. Thus the term “master’s bedroom” came into our everyday language.
Bedrooms were considered private spaces in Victorian homes and as such were much simpler in decoration. Family bedrooms were situated primarily on the second level of the home. Nurseries and servants’ bedrooms were placed on the third floor or attic.
Husband and wives either slept in the same room or in separate rooms that were connected to each other by a dressing room. Larger homes featured a suite of rooms off the bedroom specifically for the purposes of entertaining close friends and family members or spending time alone in quiet contemplation.
It was common for younger children of all ages to sleep together in the same room, even the same bed. Doting parents of the upper classes could purchase the new dual purpose furniture that was so popular which allowed their older children to create a sitting room of their own in their bedroom. Babies occasionally slept in drawers or in the same bed as their parents if the household did not have the luxury of a separate room for a nursery – an idea which developed during this period.
The most important attributes in a successfully outfitted bedroom were practical. The bedroom needed to have a good source of fresh air and be filled with light or sunshine. Above all, the room had to be easy to clean and keep clean. Victorians were totally preoccupied with the concept of cleanliness. “Neat and Plain” became their mantra. This is not surprising when one realizes that this room acted as maternity ward and family sick room. Given the high child mortality rates and prevalence of typhoid, cholera and other infectious diseases it is understandable that cleanliness be “next to Godliness.”
Furniture in the Victorian bedroom: Bedroom suites consisted of any combination of the following: a bed, a chiffonier or bureau, a shirt cupboard (comprising several shallow drawers to store ironed folded shirts), a wardrobe, a washstand for daily ablutions, bedside tables with a cupboard for the chamber pot, and that most feminine of all pieces of bedroom furniture, the vanity or dressing table. This article of furniture held pride of place in the bedroom. Generally made of wood, it featured either an attached mirror, or in some cases, a gilt three- part folding mirror. Lace, crystal, sterling silver or porcelain – no material was too precious for the fashionable dressing table of the 19th century. The room might also have contained a writing desk for the lady of the house to write the many letters that Victorians were so fond of writing.
Bedroom suites were offered in styles that appealed either to masculine or feminine tastes. Renaissance revival furniture featured heavy carving, dark woods and marble tops. Rococo Revival, a much more feminine style, was lighter in feeling, always curved, often gilt and painted in pale colours.
Stools were often required to allow the person to “climb” into bed. During cold spells frigid air would settle on the floor so a higher bed kept the sleeper much warmer. Wealthy households had a fireplace in each room, and it was the servants’ task to tend to these fires. The invention of central heating changed all that, making the small bedroom fireplace eventually obsolete.
Metal Beds Invented
Summer heat and the new notion that fresh air was good for the constitution led to the development of the sleeping porch. The understanding of how germs and diseases are spread led to the popularity of the metal bed. Ornate solid brass beds were available for those who could afford them. More modest homes opted for simpler brass plated or painted cast iron styles.
Separate Bedrooms and Guest Bedrooms
As separate bedrooms for the members of a household became ingrained in domestic architecture, the concept of the guest bedroom grew. Travellers spent an inordinate amount of time travelling from one place to another, given the modes of transportation of the day thus, extended stays were expected. Either the master and mistress of the home gave up their room, or the children did, but eventually the idea of a separate room for company became the norm.
Today’s bedroom is a result of the evolution of this most private of all rooms in the home. It is easy to recreate the nostalgia for the past simply by incorporating some of its period elements. How-ever beautifully it is appointed the bedroom remains a very personal expression of who you really are.