A look back at some beautiful vintage canopy beds from the 1970s
Article by Carleton Varney, interior designer (1972)
The four-poster bed with a canopy, known as a tester bed, is back in a big way. At the recent furniture market in Chicago, the canopy bed look was bigger than life.
It really has never been out for some people, and reproductions of Williamsburg canopy beds have been available for years. Sometimes the fabric canopy is straight with a valance border, and other times the canopy has a bowed shape.
The history of the canopy & their seventies revival
Canopy beds — or tester beds — have been around for centuries, as far back as the 15th century in England and France.
In 17th century decorating, there were many Jacobean designed beds with canopies. and in those days without central heating the fabric, hung on the top and generally at the bed sides too, was used to keep out the cold drafts.
The tester or canopy bed was also used in tropical climates: the canopy fabrics were not damasks, heavy velvets or chintz, but were sheer fabrics, oftentimes mosquito netting, to keep out insects.
Vintage canopy beds from the 1970s
Every little girl wants a canopy bed, so the story goes, and I have to admit that little girls dig the white-painted canopy bed with white organdy top and white ruffled valance.
And when little girls grow up, they want canopy beds, too. I have planned many rooms with canopy beds, not only in pink and white, but also in green and red and yellow and orange — and in just about every kind of fabric on the market.
I have decorated many beds with canopies of damask designed fabrics or of bright flowered chintz, lined with colorful stripes.
Different ways to use canopy beds
I have seen tent canopy beds of a campaign design for a young boy’s room, the canopy being of bright plaid fabric. And I have seen many charming traditional bedrooms with canopied beds.
One room with a tester bed with a soft pink valance from Heritage’s “Tour de France” collection also featured a cozy corner with a small fireplace. and it was an ideal hideaway for reading or dining as well as restful sleep.
The nylon shag carpet was pink touched with brown, and the bedspread was soft rose on white cut velvet.
Wood and other materials for the frame
The bed frame of a canopy or tester bed does not always have to be walnut or mahogany. Once I designed an ultramodern room which had a stainless steel canopy bed — the frame was steel and the canopy was of a modern geometric design linen.
The frame of a canopy bed can be painted white and trimmed with apple green, black trimmed with gold, or any colors you wish to coordinate with your decorating scheme.
If you look carefully, you may find a good old tester bed in a thrift shop and can paint and decorate it yourself.
A gallery of vintage canopy beds from the 1970s
Bedroom furniture set with gilded aceents
Master bedroom canopy beds
Chessie the Kitten bedding pattern
Cute corner canopied nook
Two different pretty pink gingham canopy beds
Canopy bed history: The romantic mystique of the 4-poster bed (1974)
Article by Marion Gough – House Beautiful, September 1974
Does anyone doubt that Sleeping Beauty slumbered the ages away in a four-poster bed canopied in gossamer gauze as ephemeral as the dreams she dreamt?
Whatever else would a princess sleep in—or a king or a queen or a courtesan or any heroine who ever lived happily ever after? You certainly don’t believe that the Prince took Cinderella home to a Murphy bed, do you?
No, no — it had to be a four-poster, massively columned and gilded, dazzling as her crystal slipper and totally draped in cloth of gold.
THAT’S HOW IT IS WITH THE FOUR-POSTER BED. It invites flights of fancy. It’s a bed to be dreamed about as much as to dream in.
Else how to explain its persistent charm, the universal allure that has kept it right up there at the top of the if-I-had-my-druthers list of furniture for a full four centuries past its original reason for being?
And that, in the draughty Gothic days of yore, was to provide a framework for the heavy curtains that protected the occupants from nightly chills, meantime giving mamma and papa some measure of privacy within the family’s common bedroom.
IT SHOULD NOT DESTROY THE ILLUSION TO LEARN, if you don’t already know, that the farther-back genesis of the four-poster was a ticking stuffed with straw or leaves or feathers, laid on a chest against the wall, which later became a cupboard for sleeping.
The wall eventually became a headboard, the bed facing into the room with posts added to its foot, with a roof or tester overhead to support the draft-breaking curtains.
In the days of medieval princes — for the four-poster was not the prerogative of the hot polloi — this idea evolved into four demountable posts with side and end rails that the potentates could carry with them in their interminable journeys.
Hence the French word for furniture is meubles, the Italian one is mobili and the German is Mobel, each reflecting the mobility of noble household goods.
The posted bed was indeed the bed of kings. Egyptian pharaohs held court while reclining, the Indian Moguls dispensed law and order lounging on their divans, the “Bed of Justice,” and always under a sheltering canopy that signified that the sheltered one was a nabob.
THEREBY HANGS THE TALE OF THE TESTER, the equivalent of a roof over the bed, which was first the ceiling of a room itself, then became a separate frame, expanding with the grandiloquence of its owners until by the Renaissance, it was tantamount to a cornice in a building.
Bedposts exploded in avoirdupois concurrently, draperies became as rich as the silks of the Orient, and the not-inconsiderable skills of European weavers could produce. The bed was virtually a great room within a great room.
In 1580, the Great Bed of Ware was capable of accommodating six couples simultaneously — but let us not dwell upon the sensational.
Time marched on, and we find Louis XIV, who was not only the Sun King, but the acknowledged headman of the Boudoir Period in world history, conducting affairs of the realm at morning levees, enthroned in his bed of state, surrounded by his ebullient gold posts and armorial weavings as well as by his ministers and favorites. One assumes his nightshirts were up to these occasions.
CHARLES II, THAT MOST BED-MINDED ENGLISH MONARCH, was doing the same thing and it is recorded that his mistress, Louise de Keroualle, received her morning visitors from a bed hung with the most wondrous French “tapissry,” a little gift from Charles. As for Nell Gwynn, she took her ease in a bed that was entirely sheathed in embossed and engraved silver.
RESEARCH UNCOVERS NO EVIDENCE OF BONA FIDE SOLID SILVER OR SOLID GOLD FOUR-POSTERS. But, conspicuous consumers being what they are in all ages, they surely must have existed outside of fairy tales. And metal beds there certainly have been.
In the late 18th century and in Napoleonic times, when officers went off to war with all the comforts of home, the iron “tent” bed went with them and Hepplewhite’s “tent” or arc-shape tester may have stemmed from that.
As late as 1851, a knock-down officer’s bed of iron came in a neat, fold-up package, saving of space — if not sparing the brawn of the poor orderly who was delegated to carry it.
IN THE 1830S. THOSE WITH A LOVE OF THE AUREATE and its luxurious connotation could sleep in beds that looked like gold, thanks to a patent that permitted the coating of cast iron with brass.
There were wondrously ponderous four-posters of brassed-over cast iron in florid Renaissance moldings ready to be dressed in princely damasks or velvets. And by the turn of the past century, many a “best bed” was spindled in glittering brass.
Charles Eastlake, the stern mid-Victorian advocate of Gothic simplicity, hailed the iron bed as an aesthetically sound and sanitary piece of “farm” furniture, designed one with a tester and pointed out that it was quite suitable, too, for well-placed families in the big cities.
Over the centuries, the four posts have taken many forms, fattening up, slimming down and fattening up again, much as a woman perennially on a diet. Posts ranged from the bulbous “cup and cover” melon shapes of Elizabethan oak to the “barley sugar,” Flemish-inspired twistings of William and Mary to the Solomonic columns and polychrome of Saracenic Spain, to the squared-off pilasters of Chippendale’s Chinese pagoda beds to the pencil-slender and reeded delicacies of Sheraton and Hepplewhite, to the ponderous cluster-columns Victorians loved and had space for in their 14-foot-high rooms.
The weighty four-posters were much favored in the antebellum American South, and recollections of that romantic era surely must play a part in our present-day delight in the tester bed. Do you not remember Scarlett clinging to a bedpost while her stays were being pulled around her waist?
Earlier in the history of the four-poster, beds were evaluated more for the grandeur of their curtainings — be they damask or tapestry, crewelwork or homely wool — than for the wood frames themselves.
So when Will Shakespeare bequeathed his second-best bed to his wife — which would seem ungallant of the Bard — it probably didn’t mean that he was relegating her to an uncomfortable mattress, but that the hangings were not as voguish as the ones on Bed Number One. They may well have been warmer.
And speaking of mattresses, whether you were prince or proletarian in a four-poster bed, whether your curtains were velvet embroidered in pearls or common linsey-woolsey, you slept on a stuffed ticking suspended from a criss-cross of ropes strung between the bed rails.
Mattresses on springs didn’t make the scene until the early 19th century. There wasn’t much bounce to the ounce in the good old days. Chippendale is credited for having revived the four-poster at a time when it was losing its prevalence. But the fact is that it has never gone “out of style.”
If its practical raison d’etre has long since disappeared with the coming of central heating and individual bedrooms, its appealing aura of the cherishable definitely lingers on.
Clearly, it must touch some real human needs, like the need to dream, to indulge our private hallucinations of grandeur, to feel embraced, protected, sheltered from the impingements of the outside world.
When Jan de Hartog made the four-poster the symbol of a marriage’s history, he may have come close to cracking the secret of its perennial come-on. Do we love it because it harks back to the past, gives us a sense of roots and continuity? We’ll leave that to the philosophers.
One thing we do know — if any one piece of furniture could be considered the family heirloom of the whole human race, it’s the dreamy four-poster.
More vintage canopy beds from the 1970s