Many pre-colonial mattresses were not mattresses at all. Straw, often available after cereal crops had been harvested, was piled in either outhouse or residence and made do for sleeping, as it was far better than a hard wooden floor. Sometimes straw was layered into a wooden bed with sides. However, loose straw strewn about living quarters was not desirable. The simple solution was to stuff it between sewn or laced cloth.
Sacks, from the traditional Scottish caff-secks or cauf-beds were of universal use by the 18th century. These simple sacks were called ticks. Canvas woven from hemp, also called hurden, was labeled tow cloth (Tow shirts and frocks were common among the homespun garments worn by many Americans in the Revolutionary War). The cloth for the tick was called ticking and it developed into a strong, closely woven cotton which was often striped. When the tick was stuffed it became a mattress or mat (mid 13th century middle English materas); however, in 18th century vernacular, the bedding was still usually referred to as the tick. Mattresses were also called a palliasse, based on the French paille meaning straw, commonly called pallet in the American Colonies.
Throughout the colonies, a traveler could tell a fine inn from drab, disorderly establishments by the type of mattresses they provided. When escorted to their room, the inn’s guest was usually pleasantly surprised to discover a straw mattress with a softer woolen or feather one layered over the top. Many travelers would carry a tick with them and have it filled with fresh local stuffing, particularly if they were to remain at one residence for a long period of time.
Stuffing a mattress with fresh straw or chaff was usually seasonal, occurring around harvest time. Status usually determined how often the straw or chaff was replaced, the wealthy having it done far more regularly than common folk. Eighteenth and nineteenth century soldiers would march with a tow tick rolled up in their haversack and would comb the countryside to find straw where they could when making camp.
The materials stuffed within the tick had not changed much since Roman times. Chaff, husks separated from edible grains was used. More favorable was chaff mixed with chopped straw making the mattress softer. Oat chaff was used in the Scottish cauf-secks and rice-chaff was found throughout Asia. Leaves, particularly birch leaves, were favored; however they would make a crinkly sound when the person happened to roll over onto his or her side. Reeds, bracken, and even seaweed were the choices of various regions of the world. Spartum, or esparto grass, was used in Spain two thousand years ago and continued until the 19th century.
Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. 1989: Harper & Row, New York, NY.
Taylor, Dale. Everyday Life in Colonial America. 1997: Writers’ Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH.
Wright, Lawrence. Warm & Snug: The History of the Bed. 2009: The History Press, Charleston, SC.