By Jeri Arent
Mary Miley Theobold, from Colonial Williamsburg, has been collecting myths
that are repeated by docents and heard by people touring historic houses and publishing them in the Colonial Williamsburg magazine.
Here is one: beds were shorter in the 18th and 19th century because people were shorter.
In the 18th and 19th century bedsteads were not standard sizes as we have today. Often a bedstead was made a certain length because that was the size of the wood available for the side rails. Some bedsteads were shorter than today and some longer.
People were not shorter in the 18th and 19th centuries. A comparison of heights of soldiers during the American Revolution and those serving in the American Army in the 1950s, shows that the average height of American soldier varied by 2/3 of an inch on average—not a significant difference.
Sometimes the myth of shorter beds in previous centuries is explained by saying that people slept
propped up in bed and so the bed could be shorter. That is also not true in all cases. Some people slept propped up on pillows, but often people did not have enough pillows to prop themselves up.
The beds in some of the houses in Colonial Williamsburg were measured by curators and several
were found to be the standard size of today and some were as much as 80 inches, the size of today’s queen and king beds.
Curators think that the bed curtains, pillows, high bed posts, and canopies make the bed appear
to be shorter when it isn’t really. And also, with a lack of standards for bedsteads, a bed frame could be made any size depending on the nice tree trunks you had to make the side rails.
As a side note, often whole families slept in one room on the same bedstead.
If a family were prosperous, they might have individual bed chambers upstairs and down, with the rooms upstairs colder in the winter and occupied by older sons and daughters, while the parents slept in the warmer downstairs with small children.
Sources: Mary Miles Theobald, “Lies My Docent Told Me,” Colonial Williamsburg, Autumn 2010, p.65-66.
“To Rope a Bed”, Early American Life,
October 1987, p. 59