A Servant’s Bed

Anne Sophie Overkamp

Beds held central importance amongst household furniture in German houses, both for the family and for their servants. They were not only places of rest and privacy but also conveyed messages of status and relations within the country house.

As a rule of thumb, servants slept in proximity to their workplace, placing the valet’s bed in his master’s antechamber, the kitchen maid’s dossing place close the kitchen and that of the groom above the horses’ stable. The sleeping environments of servants thus varied enormously as did the material comforts provided by their bedding.

Thomas Gaugain, Diligence and Dissipation: the Modest Girl in her Bed Chamber (1797), courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

Among household staff, a typical servant’s bed consisted of a wooden bedstead held together at the base by either planks or bed-ropes that were knotted at the end. A “mattrass” made of coarse linen or ticking and stuffed with straw was placed on top of the frame. This was followed by a heavy pillow stuffed with coarse feathers, the so-called bolster, which gave the sleeper an upright position. A smaller pillow made of linen and stuffed with goose feathers, a bedsheet, a blanket and possibly a coverlet made up the rest of the bedding. Servants’ beds were much narrower than those of the family which is not in the least attested by the smaller width of their sheets. It was not uncommon for same sex servants to share a double bed, an arrangement which promised at least some additional warmth.

Servants higher up the hierarchy could expect to sleep in their own room and to be provided with an additional mattress stuffed with feathers as well as with bed curtains and a canopy. All of this provided further comfort by protecting against draughts and vermin and by creating at least the illusion of privacy. The additional padding also had important social connotations as it raised the servant quite literally up from the bottom and closed some of the distance between masters and servants in their sleeping arrangements.  

Further reading:

  • Handley, Sasha, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
  • Lowry, Elizabeth, ‘Household Textiles 1660-1850. Hidden Items of Material Culture from the Country House’, Family & Community History 23/2 (2020), 95-117.
  • Mohrmann, Ruth-E., ‘Zur Geschichte des Schlafes in volkskundlich-ethnologischer Sicht’, Rheinisch-westfälische Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 57 (2012), 15-34.
  • Pennell, Sara, ‘Making the Bed in Later Stuart and Georgian England’, in Jon Stobart and Bruno Blondé (eds), Selling Textiles in the Long Eighteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 30-45.