History of American taste, status found in study of bedroom, Architecture professor tells Sunrise series


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BEDROOMS tell a lot about a person. More than just a place to rest a weary head at the end of the day, the bedroom reflects who and what we are, our taste, position within the family, even our social status.

"It's the focal point that seems to gather the concerns of the culture," according Elizabeth Cromley, a noted architectural historian and chair of Architecture at UB. Cromley traced the history of our sleeping quarters in her discussion, "American Bedrooms and the Construction of Culture," presented Feb. 13 as part of the UB at Sunrise breakfast lecture series.

The earliest American bedrooms were furnished according to social rank, a tendency that began to change in the 18th century to reflect the room's function. By the 19th century, that emphasis on function began to affect house design, she said. And by the 20th century, the bedroom's functional purpose "takes over and concern for expression of rank was less important," Cromley said.

"Sleeping in the earliest American colonial houses must have been pretty uncomfortable," according to Cromley, whose lecture traced the evolution of the bedroom from the 16th century to the present. For some, sleep came on a mattress with a log for a pillow. For others it was a pile of deerskins.

"Although we tend to think of the bedroom as private space, it was used as a social area in colonial America," Cromley said. In the 18th century, the "best chamber" as it was known, was a room in which births, deaths and other important events were shared. Located on the first floor off either the dining room or parlor, a person's social status was confirmed by placing his bed in a prominent, not private, setting.

Less important members of the household shared beds, often with strangers and regardless of gender, although "the etiquette of sleeping in borrowed beds was not always agreed on." Often there were multiple beds to a room and bedfellows might change nightly.

In the early 18th century one in 10 beds had hangings, and by the 1760s that number had risen to one in four. Bed hangings were not only a display of wealth, but also a function of comfort and privacy, creating a room within a room, Cromley said. A bedroom's location in the house also reflected rank and social standing. The head of the household occupied the room on the first floor; those of lesser rank would sleep in the garret or a separate building.

The shift toward defining the bedroom by its function continued to proceed slowly. Cromley described a house where the master bedroom was located on the ground floor, the children's bedrooms on the second floor and the servant's room over the kitchen. Eventually, the second floorwas established as the family's sleeping quarters.

"In the mid-19th century health cares began to arise, especially in cities," Cromley said. The Civil War era saw the rise of "dustless bedrooms," devoid of curtains, rugs or bed hangings that might harbor dust, or bedbugs. Wood frames were replaced by iron bedsteads for the same reason.

The spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis also were a concern, and "sleeping porches" became popular. "Sleeping outdoors all year round was common," Cromley said, and special clothing, tents and other apparatus were designed for the nocturnal fresh air.

By the 20th century, bedroom location ceased to be an indication of rank, but the increasing popularity of one-floor houses presented a problem: "Now everyone had decided sleeping is private and separate from sociability," Cromley said. The 20th century bedroom, therefore, was separated by a hallway from social areas.

The early 20th century also saw bedrooms emerge as an expression of personal identity. For the first time, they were individualized for children as an expression of gender roles as well as individuality. The evolution continues as today's bedrooms blend masculine and feminine aspects. And regardless of what shape the bedroom of tomorrow takes, one fact remains constant, Cromley said. "Culture is more important than function in how something is accepted and integrated into the house.

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