The four-poster bed is a dramatic and imposing piece of furniture that descends from the canopy beds of the Byzantine and medieval periods.
Once, only heads of families could occupy a bed with a full canopy; others contented themselves with half-canopy beds, or unadorned beds.
The use of a canopied bed, then, was certainly a mark of status, but it also conveyed some practical benefits as well.
The heavily quilted drapery that hung from the framework of boards called testers provided privacy, a rare commodity in a day when bedrooms served as family living and entertaining spaces.
The folds of fabric also shut out the cold winter drafts that were common and, in summer, the drapes were replaced by light netting to keep insects at bay.
Status and utility aside, Americans have always simply liked the look of the four-poster. In its undraped form, the style has been an American favorite for almost 200 years.
The only real change in four-poster design occurred relatively recently, with the advent of box springs and spring mattresses. Before, a mattress was placed directly on a platform of rope stretched tightly between the bed rails. To resist the tension of the cords, the rails had to be quite stout—
as much as 3 inches thick. Box springs, however, could be laid on narrow cleats fastened to the inside of the rails, so the rails themselves could be reduced to a mere 1 inch thick, as they are today.
The most prominent feature of the bed are its four posts, each standing well over 6 feet tall. Given the 36-inch capacity of the typical lathe, turning the posts can seem to be an intimidating prospect. But, as shown on page 50, you can divide each post into four manageable segments and turn them separately. By introducing decorative elements like beads and coves adjacent to the joint lines the breaks are not noticeable and the posts appear to be solid turnings.
Like most beds, the one featured in this chapter has rails that are attached to the posts with knockdown hardware for quick disassembly. You can use bayonet brackets (page 63) that hook the rails onto the posts or bed bolts (page 59) to draw the rails and posts together by means of a bolt and tapped nut. Since the posts are glued to the headboard and footboard, all but one of the tang joints connecting the post segments together are left dry. This allows the posts to be taken apart without compromising the bed’s structure. With the testers in place on the posts, the whole assembly is very rigid.
Whether they are graced by a canopy of hanging drapery or left bare, the uprights and testers of a four-poster bed are impressive. The mahogany bed shown at left also features a sunrise headboard.