Strawticks, Featherbeds and Down-Filled Pillows

Experts with little more to do have calculated that man spends nearly half his life in bed. That may be true of some folks, but I can assure you that in my growing up days on Muddy Creek, the nights were always far too short and the sack time too little.

Keeping warm was a much greater problem than keeping cool in those days before central heat. Most all bedrooms were unheated or, at best, they would have a “register” in the floor to allow heat from the room below to take the chill off the sleeping area that was quite often the unfinished loft or the spare room upstairs. In some houses, the stove pipe was routed through a double metal vent in the attic floor on its way to the chimney so that there was much competition as to who got to lay nearest the heat. The only problem was that one side of you baked while the other side froze.

The price the parents paid for having a warm room on the first floor was keeping the fire “up” during the night. That meant climbing out of the warm bed and throwing another log on the fire, or pouring in another scuttle of coal, if you were affluent enough to be able to afford such luxuries.

In those early days, there were few bed springs, as they were nearly impossible to transport to the frontier, even had you been able to afford them. Space on the covered wagons or on the river boats was too precious for such frivolities. Most beds were strung with cord or rope. The ability to string a bed was acquired by experience, and in every neighborhood there was always a specialist, who would pick up two bits for the use of his “patented” cord tightener. The homemade rope or cord was run through holes bored in the bed frame, or stretched around knobs in a design that allowed some give, but not too much. Then, as the rope aged, it would stretch, and that was when the special tightener was used to draw the rope to the right tautness.

Over the ropes would be put the homemade straw tick, and finally, in many homes, the featherbed. A featherbed was a much sought-after item, with most brides receiving one or more as wedding presents. They could be filled with most any kind of feathers, but the most desirable were those that were filled with the down plucked from live geese and carefully treasured until the pillow or mattress ticking was completely filled. Down-filled pillows or featherbeds were treasured and handed down from generation to generation. A girl would start quite young helping her mother pluck down, and by the time she was of a marrying age, she might have a dowry of a pair or two of real goose down pillows.

Most of the folk that dwelled along the slopes of Red Hill slept on strawticks, rather than featherbeds. (One thing was sure: You slept on a strawtick, but you slept in a feather bed.)

Rye straw was preferred for the filling or stuffing of a straw tick. However, along Muddy Creek, few farmers raised this grain, and therefore had to substitute oat straw. One of the spring house chores was the opening of the ticks and spreading the straw out in the hot sun for airing. Then, after the ticks were washed, they were re-filled and ten-inch, curved cask needles were used to sew them up again.

My Aunt Lillie Caudle preferred straw over feathers, or so she said, claiming that the straw was more sanitary. When I went to stay overnight with my cousins, I had to sleep in the unheated guest bedroom, in that squeaking, creaking, and rustling strawtick bed. It was the same bedroom that offered a most ornate “commode”: a beautiful, hand-carved walnut cabinet with a marble top, on which sat a huge ironstone bowl and pitcher. It had a swing out door that opened to reveal a gallon-sized “potty.” Aunt Lil always cautioned me to “use it only if you haffto, hear?” That trip to the garden pagoda was a bit scary at night for a 10-year old boy.

When used in the ticks, the oat straw would break into small, thin pieces from the wear and make a more comfortable mat than other straw. After years of use, it would be ground into a fine pulp inside the ticking. That pulp was recycled as a carpet pad by spreading it out evenly underneath a home woven rag rug carpeting. In those days, you made do or did without. FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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