A couple of months ago I bought an old brass bed at a local antique shop. The bed was in fairly good shape but was in need of a good cleaning and polishing.
The polishing turned out to be a much bigger and messier job than I had expected.
It took days of work, but when it was finally done and the bed was clean, I was well pleased with the final result.
Brass and iron bedsteads were fashionable and prevalent in the United States and England during the middle and late part of the 19th century. In fact all the way through the early part of the 20th century metal bedsteads remained popular. Nearly every farmhouse, house in town or city house had at least one iron or brass bedstead. It wasn’t at all uncommon for middle class homes to boast three or four.
Most “brass beds” that survive today are actually not made of solid brass. Instead they are made of iron that was wrapped with brass tubing. Brass beds were constructed that way because brass ( an alloy of copper) is a very soft metal. It’s hard to find an antique brass bed now days that doesn’t have a nick, crimp or ding in it.
If you can find a solid brass bed you’ve found a treasure.
“Foul Contagions” and “Injurious Air”
The popularity of brass or iron bedsteads during the 19th century and in to the 20th century, was in part fueled by a changing Victorian aesthetic. Large, dark and heavy furniture was cast off in favor of a lighter and more unassuming style.
But the trend for brass or metal bedsteads was also energized by the growing scientific understanding of the germ theory.
At that time it was not at all uncommon for people especially young children, to die from infectious disease. Throughout the 19th century hundreds of thousands of people died in influenza and yellow fever epidemics. The widely held belief among doctors and lay people was that “foul contagions” and “injurious air” was responsible not just for yellow fever and influenza, but also for typhoid, diphtheria, small pox, tuberculosis and cholera.
So anything that could keep the air fresh and circulating in peoples’ homes was a good thing.
Air circulation meant good health.
Brass beds with their clean lines and open design (so the air could circulate) seemed to be a healthier alternative to old-fashioned solid wooden beds. In the opinion of most 19th century physicians, wooden beds could and did in fact harbor the “foul contagions” that fostered disease.
And who would dare argue?
Practical sickroom experience demonstrated time and time again that vomit or the profuse diarrhea that accompanied cholera or typhoid fever was far easier to clean up in a brass or metal bedstead than a wooden bed. Ornately carved wooden Victorian style beds were porous and difficult to maintain. Metal and brass beds seemed for their time to be more hygienic and there was a wide-spread belief that “germ bugs” could not live on brass.
As if that wasn’t enough, late Victorians also believed that bed bugs and wood worms thrived and reproduced in wooden beds and not in metal ones. So the combination of “germ bugs” and bed bugs caused wooden beds to fall from public favor and saw the consumer demand for modern metal or brass bedsteads to skyrocket. American manufactures were more than happy to meet popular need and the stage was set for a revolution in bedding.
Enter Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. and the American housewife.
“Perfectly Clean No Chance For Vermin”
Brass and iron bedsteads were fashionable and seemingly insured family health and safety. Every housewife wanted one. Metal beds were affordable for the middle class. Even better, they could be ordered by mail and shipped almost anywhere in the USA. No matter how remote.
Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. both carried full-page advertisements in their catalogs for metal bedsteads. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1897 catalog carried iron and brass beds for between $7 -$12 depending upon the size and style of the bedstead. Montgomery Ward’s 1895 catalog advertised that their metal beds were “Perfectly Clean” with “No Chance For Vermin”.
If a family could afford to change over and make the switch, old-fashioned wood beds (with their bed bugs) were consigned to the attic or burned.
It’s easy for us today to think of quaint Victorian doctors and American housewives as being naively uniformed about the nature of disease, microscopic organisms, pathogens and brass beds.
But what would you say if I told you that indeed, bed bugs have difficulty climbing a highly polished brass bedstead? Bed buds need traction to climb. A smooth and slippery metal bedstead poses more of a challenge to bed bugs than does a wooden bed frame.
Would you be surprised to learn that brass is a naturally antimicrobial material? “Touch surfaces” (like door knobs) made of brass and other alloys of copper prove to be an unfavorable environment for bacteria. In recent years the antibacterial action of copper has been a focus of scientific research. That research has significant implications for healthcare facilities and for public health in general.
It seems that what was once old is new again. Our ancestors weren’t quite so unsophisticated after all.
The brass bed in my upstairs is a standing testament to the quality of American manufacture at the end of the 19th century.