For decades, maybe centuries, feather beds were treasured by families in the rural south and elsewhere. They are mentioned as bequests in wills like land, farm animals and valued furniture. Their worth is clear to anyone whoever slept in a typical high-ceilinged house during a very cold night while “bogged up” in a feather bed and a stack of quilts.
In pre-modern times, beds — whether of four-poster wood or iron — had a platform of flat steel springs that supported two mattresses, one cotton and one feather. The cotton mattresses were three to four inches thick made of cotton batting sewn into strong cotton cloth — usually striped — called “ticking.” Stout cotton cords pierced the mattress at strategic points to keep the batting from shifting.
Feather mattresses, covered with the same ticking, were not feather beds at all. Well, maybe just a few accidental intruders. They were stuffed with down taken from the breasts, bellies and under-wing areas of geese. Many farm families kept flocks — large or small — of geese for many uses, especially to provide down.
Plucking took place in spring when the birds no longer needed the down as protection from the cold. Nevertheless, they objected. They are strong. Beaks and feet are weapons. Plucking required control of these and that the wings be pulled back securely to expose the down. My father counted goose holding as one of his most hated jobs growing up.
In addition to being plucked, the geese had their wing feathers clipped to keep them in the yard and out of the field. Geese like to feed on bladed grasses, of which corn is one. A flock could wipe out a sprouting corn crop. While clipped, they helped keep the yard free of grass, insects and vermin and produced big, rich eggs. By the time new feathers allowed them to fly, the corn was beyond danger and everyone was happy to see them pull grass in the cotton patch.
Mattresses were centrally involved in house cleaning. For the big one involving everyone able to work in the spring, everything moveable was removed from the house and either washed with lye soap and hot water or baked in the sun. Mattresses were sunned. Rugs were beaten and sunned. Beds were disassembled, moved outside and cleaned. Bare wooden walls were washed down with hot, soapy water. A shuck scrub, a foot-long two-by-six or eight with augured holes into which corn shucks were pinned, was used to scrub floors until they shined bright and clean. It was called scrubbing and scouring. The smell defined “clean.”
When bedrooms were restored, feather mattresses were placed on the bottom next to the springs and cotton mattresses were on top. With the approach of hot weather, no one liked to sink down into the feather bed. The cotton did not have much give to it, but resting on top was preferable during the “you can’t get a breath of air” nights of summer. Fortunate families had two sets of pillows — cotton and feather — one for summer and one for winter.
Some families followed the same process when the weather “cooled” in the fall and most others did at least part of it, especially sunning the mattresses. This time the cotton mattress went on bottom next to the springs with the feather bed on top. Feather pillows, if available, came out of storage. Those high-ceilinged rooms, 10 or 12, even 14 feet high, were designed to adapt to the region’s sub-tropical heat, not the cold of winter, which was shorter than summer. A roaring “lightered stump” fireplace heat only pushed back the cold a few feet on bad days. When people went to bed, the fire was banked or extinguished because a flying spark might lead to catastrophe.
This is when feather beds became fortresses against the cold. The down shifted slightly in the ticking. Bodies sank into what seemed like a welcoming embrace. One sleeps “in” a feather bed. Quilts were piled on top, sometimes to the point that it was nearly impossible to turn over. The resulting cocoon responded to body heat, which might be augmented by a sibling or two as bed-mates. It was snugly comfortable until time to roll out in the morning into a room with only a small haven of warmth from the newly-reignited fireplace. Even worse were times when Nature’s call forced sleepers to abandon warmth for the dark, cold of the wee hours.
There are a pair of feather pillows in my house, fashioned by Annette from the contents of a feather bed that belonged to her grandparents. We ceased to use them years ago, but she kept them as a sentimental link to family. I keep them as a link to her.
Still, I like my modern bed and pillows. I appreciated the warmth, but never liked the quilts and feather bed cocoon.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.