Roping A Bed
The Country Bed Shop sells original antique beds and makes reproductions of antique beds as well as other furniture we are occasionally asked to provide information on how to rope an early bed. Note that beds with pegs in the top of the rail were not meant to be roped. They used a "sacking bottom" which is made of sail cloth (canvas) with eyelets along the edge and linen cording running between the eyelet and the peg. Rope beds always have holes through the rail.
You will need an adequate length of rope. Early beds used hemp or linen rope. You can use manila rope as a substitute for hemp. The diameter of the rope should be slightly smaller than the diameter of the hole in the rail. You will also need a straining wrench (Spanish windlass, bed key), a couple awls or large nails (golf tees also work). Refer to the diagram below as you proceed. Note the Roman numerals at the corners are the markings I use for the reproduction beds I make. Early beds may have different numbering.
Tie a simple loop knot in one end of the rope and use some tape to lash the other end so it does not fray as you string it through the holes. Starting at the left most hole at the head of the bed string the rope back an forth the length of the bed. when you go through the right most hole at the head end carry the rope under the rail and inside the post to the first hole in the side rail. Weave the rope over and under the rope going lengthwise. Repeat until you reach the last hole in the side rail.
To tighten the rope start at point "A". Put the straining wrench (see below) through the rope like a clothes pin and use the handle to twist the wrench. While holding the rope taut with the wrench, jam your awl into the hole to hold the tension while you go to the head of the bed and tighten the next length of rope "B" in the same manner. Repeat this in the same order in which you wove the rope until you reach the end "D". At this point, wrap the rope around the wrench to secure it and tighten as before except this time jam the awl from the inside of the rail. Tie a secure slip knot as close to the outside of the rail as possible. Trim off any excess rope.
Rope springs do stretch with time so yours may need periodic tightening.
Hemp rope is made from a strain of the marijuana plant grown for it fibrous stem. It is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. Although hemp rope is imported, asking for it at your local hardware store will get you a knowing smile and possibly a visit from your local law enforcement agency.
Manila rope began to substitute for hemp rope about 1820. It is made from fibers of the abaca plant, a relative of the banana. Manila rope is either natural or oiled. Oiled rope is for outdoor use and should not be used on beds as it will stain the bedding. The rope is not necessarily labeled. Oiled rope feels and smells oily and may be labeled "Not for Use with Animals". Natural rope feels dry and smells, if at all, like dry hay.
Straining Wrench, 12" tall
Beds with pegs in the rails or a simple rebate with evidence of tacks were design for a sacking bottom. The sacking bottom was a rectangle of sail cloth with eyelets to correspond to the pegs in the rail. It provided a smooth surface for the bed tick or mattress. We have an uphosterer make up sacking bottoms on request. Each is made to fit the individual bed. See the bed below which is corded on the end rails and tacked on the side.
Below is an excerpt from a contemporary on health and beds
"The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health", William A. Alcott, George W. Light publisher, 1836
Sec. 4. The Bed.
Mattresses are better for persons of every age, than soft feather beds. They may be made of horse hair or moss; but hair is the best. If the mattress does not appear to be warm enough for the very young infant, a blanket may be spread over it. Dr. Dewees says that in case mattresses cannot be had, "the sacking bottom" may be substituted, or "even the floor;" at least in warm weather: "for almost anything," he adds, "is preferable to feathers."