Once Upon A Mattress


Since the dawn of recorded history, those who had the means slept on raised beds to avoid drafts, dirt, and pests.  Only the wealthy had the luxury of a mattress made of a cloth bag filled with straw, reeds, wool, etc.  Our European ancestors, who were mostly of the peasant class, probably slept on piles of straw possibly covered with coarse cloth or animal skins.   Some may have had a low-sided, wooden box, similar to a manger, filled with straw. By the late 1800s when our ancestors were pioneering in Nebraska, the mattress was a cloth bag filled with hay, corn shucks, or feathers.

Two terms that need defining are ticking and tick.   Ticking was a tightly woven, heavy, cotton fabric, usually blue, grey or brown stripped.  A tick was the bag, made from the ticking, used as a mattress or pillow.  Often the ticking was waxed, or rubbed with soap, to help keep it impenetrable.  Feather ticks were often laid over a firmer, non-feather mattress.

Typical ticking yardage.
Typical ticking yardage.

The earliest account I have of our ancestors bedding is of the Peter Schifferns family when they arrived in Adams County in 1873.  It was written by Margaret Eltz Schifferns in 1963.  “So they went by train to Juniata.  At that time Hastings had only four houses; Juniata was the county seat.  From Juniata they had a drayman take them out in the country.  He drove west; as they got to a big draw they had him stop.  It was in April, nice weather; they walked around in the sunshine and filled their straw ticks with [prairie] hay.”  It would be several years until they raised enough corn to fill a tick with corn shucks which are fluffier than hay.

In a 1982 interview my great-aunt Lizzy Kaiser Pittz told about the Kaiser family’s mattress materials. “Corn shucks, that’s all we had [in the mattress].   Once a year when they shelled corn, we got new shucks.  Empty out the ticking, wash it and put in the clean shucks.  We put our shucks whole in the ticks.  We left a little opening where we could reach in and work them up when they got pressed down.” 

After the difficult pioneer years passed, my great-grandmothers raised flocks of geese and ducks for both domestic use and for sale.  Most people born before 1930 slept on feather beds, federbetten in German, and pillows in their childhood.  Great-aunt Lizzy had this to say:  “Mother made pillows and feather beds.  She had two feather beds, her and Dad used one and the girls used one.  I was the youngest, [born in 1900] things got better by my time.  I do remember the shuck beds.  They also covered up with feather comforters.  It would keep you warm.  It was almost like the mattress, made from ticking as big as the bed.   Fill it with feathers, put that on top of you, then the quilts, and that kept you warm.  Whenever she got enough she made one of those feather beds.  I don’t remember those days too well.  John [Kaiser] could tell you, he had to help pick the geese.  See, they could pick that down while the geese were alive and then they grew more.  They picked it a certain time of year, I don’t remember just when.  It took a long time to pick all the geese.  She had ducks too, but they didn’t have as much down.  The geese were those gray ones.  Those ganders get mean sometimes, you had to be careful.  We ate some geese, Mother sold most of them.”  She sold her poultry, eggs, and cream in Juniata, and in later years in Hastings.  The English wanted a fat goose for their Christmas dinner.

In 1911, the year my Kline grandparents were married, Sears and Roebuck Catalog advertised bed springs. I remember old beds with these springs under the mattress. Below is a mattress ad from the same catalog.



When Pat and I got married in 1964 we bought a double bed with a foam Sealey Posturpedic mattress, and a separate box springs.  When the waterbed craze hit in the 1980s, we bought a king-size one.  That was the worst bed we ever had.  Pat was heavier than me, so I was constantly sliding down towards him.  Additionally, Pat coughed a lot which caused me to bounce up and down.  That bed soon went to the basement.