Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sleep Tight, Mr. Vice President!

"Sleep tight; don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Everyone has heard this phrase today, but what exactly does it mean?  It’s often just a quaint way of saying goodnight but it was not that long ago that the phrase carried a very different meaning.  While bedbugs are unfortunately a memory that has not quite faded into the past, the idea of keeping one’s bed “tight” isn't something that most of us usually have to worry about.  For much of history however, keeping one’s bed tight was actually quite the concern.  Rope beds, which supported a mattress using a network of interconnected cords, were very common until the 1840s. Instead of being supported by a wire spring frame, as is more common today, the mattress would be supported by the web of cords that were stretched between pegs around the outside of the bed’s frame. The weight of the mattress and sleeper might eventually cause the ropes to slacken and slump. To ensure that the ropes remained taught and secure, a key like this one would need to be periodically be inserted between the ropes and frame and twisted to tighten the network of cords. This would keep the bed flat and the mattress comfortable.

Henry Wilson's Bed Key
This particular bed key happens to be more than just an exemplary artifact of furniture history. This key belonged to one of the most famous former residents of Natick: Vice President Henry Wilson. Originally born in Farmington New Hampshire, Wilson moved to Natick as a young man and became an apprentice to a local shoemaker. He would remain in Natick for most of the rest of his life and eventually set up his own business here, as a cobbler. His traditional “ten footer” shoe shop is still standing.  This was the bed key he used in his home here on West Central Street in Natick.

Vice President Henry Wilson
Wilson was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate in 1855 and would serve representing Massachusetts for eighteen years. Wilson also served in the United States Army and on the Senate Committee for Military Affairs. Throughout his political career Wilson was a staunch reformer, pushing for equal pay for African-Americans enlisted in the Union Military Forces and for the end of slavery in the United States. He led the Massachusetts 22nd Regiment for a few campaigns early in the Civil War before returning to politics. Wilson’s views and his military accomplishments put him in favor with a number of leading Republicans at the time. He was eventually chosen by President Ulysses S. Grant to run with him for his second term in office as the Vice President in 1873. He would die in office only two years later.

 The bed key was donated to our collection by Margaret Coolidge Sturtevant. It is currently on display in the Natick Historical Society Museum as part of our exhibit on the life of Vice President Wilson, connecting us not only to a very important historical figure but also serving as an excellent example of how daily life has changed so much since the early 1800s.