Photo By Taylor Vortherms

Historic Woodlawn bed is focus of symposium

Photo By Taylor Vortherms
Joshua Torrance, executive director of the Woodlawn Museum, presents the product of a two-year-long conservation project: the original 1827 best bed purchased by Col. John Black nearly 200 years ago.

ELLSWORTH — While it may no longer be appropriate to host formal gatherings at the foot of one’s bed, this was a customary spot to entertain guests in the early 19th century.

“The bedchamber in this time period was more akin to today’s family room,” said Natalie Larson, owner of Historic Textile Reproduction of Williamsburg, Va. “The best bed in the household was meant to be a status symbol to impress visitors.”

Larson was one of the conservation specialists who helped restore the Woodlawn Museum’s rare 1827 bed, which Col. John Black bought nearly 200 years ago for his new house in Ellsworth — now home to the museum located just a quarter-mile from downtown on the 18-acre estate.

Despite the major role beds played in representing social class during that era, few remain preserved in their original form. The only place to find one is at the Woodlawn Museum.

“If you want to see an original bed with its original hangings, the only place you can come is here,” Torrance said. “This is it.”

Woodlawn will host a special one-day symposium on Friday, Sept. 26, from 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. to present the recently completed conservation of the canopy bed with its original dimity and silk curtains.

The program will feature keynote illustrated talks by two of New England’s foremost scholars of early Maine culture: Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Jane C. Nylander, president emerita of Historic New England.

Also on the agenda: Larson and the conductor of the project — Principal of Windsor Conservation Deirdre Windsor — will discuss the process of cleaning and stabilizing the 21 textile elements that comprise the bed curtaining.

“We view our job as to keep history alive for as long as we possibly can,” Torrance said. “That’s why we chose to conserve the bed rather than have a reproduction made.”

After consulting several furniture and textile curators for an evaluation of the deteriorating bed, the Woodlawn staff had two options: replace the textiles with exact copies or conserve them.

The choice was easy for Torrance, who understood the historic value of maintaining the oldest bed in America with its full complement of textiles — from the original sacking bottom support to the curtains, cornice, mattress and feather bed.

“John Black was the wealthiest man in eastern Maine,” Torrance said. “This bed is probably one of the most expensive items in the house.”

In the early 1800s, beds were often the single most expensive piece of furniture purchased for a home. The textiles — fringe, fabric, feather bed and horsehair mattress — were among the most costly components.

Adding to this particular bed’s rarity, the museum also has the original invoices for the purchase as well as the Boston upholsterer’s instruction manual for setting up the bed.

Larson, who has helped refurnish early American bedsteads in house museums across the country, said she was impressed by the complete set of these artifacts.

“At other house museums, we often have a bed, but not a clue about how the textiles looked,” Larson said. “What we have here is the motherload of historic content for an American bed.”

Two years ago, Woodlawn received $55,000 in grant money for the conservation project from the Colby Foundation, Ltd., in New York City, and the Felicia Fund in Providence, R.I.

On Oct. 24, 2012, a team of museum and conservation specialists, including Larson, began working on the careful de-upholstery of the bedstead, using the methodical documentation.

“Over time, most households broke up, and goods were dispersed — their stories and families lost forever,” Larson said. “This is a case where we know almost as much about a bed and its owner as we possible can.”

The team continued to discover details about both the bed and owner throughout the project. For instance, the textiles had been removed at least three or four times, likely for washing, and at some point, the original three iron rods to support the curtains were lost and replaced with modern wood rods.

“The original pintels, or iron hooks, had damaged and split the tops of the foot posts,” Larson said. “This probably led to their replacement.”

The team also found blood spots at the head of the mattress, indicating bedbugs — a common problem in 19th century domestic life to which even Black was not immune.

Larson also said many historic figures wrote music, books and lectures from bed, such as Winston Churchill and Beethoven. For reasons such as this, conservation projects such as Woodlawn’s are crucial to understanding certain aspects of American history.

“It provides a historical marker we can use as we interpret other early American bedchambers,” Larson said. “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this project in the study of room use in American decorative arts.”

Today, Black’s bed remains where it was originally intended while fulfilling its original purpose: to be admired by visitors for years to come.

Taylor Vortherms

Taylor Vortherms

Sports Editor at The Ellsworth American
Taylor Vortherms covers sports in Hancock County. The St. Louis, Missouri native recently graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and joined The Ellsworth American in 2013.