Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Behind the Scenes at Staatsburgh:
Saving Historic Mattresses

Last fall we posted a blog about historic mattresses and another blog about the hair picker used to fluff the horsehair used in mattresses.  We now follow up with this blog about the historic mattresses in Staatsburgh's collections.  Thank you to our summer intern, Bethany Zulick from Bard College, for researching and writing about mattresses!


Back in the 1980’s the staff at Staatsburgh encountered a problem with the collection: mattresses. With over forty bedrooms, the historic mansion was left with quite a few historic specimens in storage. But they posed quite a fire hazard, being that they were stuffed with flammable materials like horsehair. Also, the stuffing of the mattresses drew carpet beetles and other pests like nobody’s business, making them unsanitary and creating a poor environment for storing historic collections...

What could be done? After all, these mattresses were historic artifacts and couldn’t be simply tossed out. When Gladys Mills-Phipps donated Staatsburgh to the State of New York in 1938 she included the contents of the home, allowing visitors to appreciate the mansion as it would have been when her family occupied it. So, although unhygienic and hazardous, the mattresses were still precious in some respect. The solution to this conundrum was to take a sample from each mattress to preserve while discarding the remainder. Our own Marilyn Holst, who has worked dutifully at Staatsburgh for nearly thirty years, was a part of this operation. In fact, it was her very first day on the job.

I asked Marilyn about that day and this is what she could recall: The dining room (one of the largest rooms in the home) was packed up and cleared out to make way for all the mattresses, which were then lined up on the marble floor.  Marilyn and another employee gave each mattress a number, examined its condition and materials in order to document them. After the mattresses were properly cataloged, a corner piece was sawed off of each one. The corners were then labelled, packaged, and returned to storage while the dismembered remains were discarded.

Exterior of mattress likely used in Staatsburgh's family / guest bedrooms

Unfortunately, we’re not sure precisely which bedrooms the mattresses furnished historically, but we can venture a pretty good guess. The mattress depicted above measures 73 ¼ inches long, 63 inches wide, and 7 ¼ inches deep. It is covered with higher quality chamois and it has three layers of stuffing: densely packed horsehair sandwiched between loose cotton. This mattress likely occupied the bedroom of a guest or a family member.

Interior of above mattress showing horsehair stuffing

Compare this one with another mattress from the home (see below). The first difference you’ll notice is the thickness. Mattresses like this one probably belonged to servants.The mattress is covered in a blue and white striped fabric called ticking, which is thickly woven cotton, and stuffed with a mixture of light and dark hair.  The lighter colored hair may even come from a cow or pig, which is a lower quality.  Cheaper mattresses often used stuffing from recycled mattresses, which was frequently not fluffed or picked as much as higher quality mattresses.  This mattress measures 75 inches long, 42 inches wide, and 4 inches deep. Still, despite the difference in thickness, this servant’s mattress was still much nicer than many other mattresses of late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as we discovered in our brief exploration of mattress history.

Servant's mattress

These mattresses provide us with a couple of insights. First, into the world of historic preservation in which curators must make decisions about how best to preserve the artifacts with which they have been entrusted. Sometimes, that leads to performing mattress amputations on the floor of a grand dining room. Second, it gives us a unique snapshot of class differences in the Gilded Age. Evidently, one of the many things distinguishing the wealthy from the working class (as if the 65 room mansion was not sufficient) was three and a quarter inches of mattress padding.

Luckily, this peculiar day on the job didn’t scare off Marilyn and she still strides the halls of Staatsburgh loving to spend time knee-deep in the collections.  She’ll be the first to tell you that she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. The mattress corners, however, have spent the last thirty years safely tucked away in boxes on the third floor as a silent testament to all those who once slumbered at the Mills’ country estate.

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