Friday, 14 March 2008

Victorian waterbeds

Minding the shop this morning, I had a very interesting phone conversation when I answered a call to relay a message intended for Lily. It turned into a discussion of Henry Mayhew, Gibson & Sterling's The Difference Engine, and the whole area of research for novels - particularly the problem of when research conflicts with popular belief. Sarah, the caller, mentioned the problem of a writer using the word "beverage" in a mediaeval setting. It's totally authentic for the period - from the OED:

c1325 E.E. Allit. P. B. 1433 Bryng hem now to my borde, of beuerage hem fylles

But to most readers the word has a modern flavour that jars.

The message for Lily regarded waterbeds. Surely a quintessentially 1960s invention? Yet this concerned a reference in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel North and South: Mrs Hale is ill, and from Chapter 21 - The Dark Night - onward there are a number of references to a waterbed.

But, I think, if we could get a water-bed it might be a good thing. Not but what she will be better to-morrow; pretty much like herself as she was before this attack. Still, I should like her to have a water-bed. Mrs. Thornton has one, I know. I'll try and call there this afternoon. Stay,' said he, his eye catching on Margaret's face, blanched with watching in a sick room, 'I'm not sure whether I can go; I've a long round to take. It would do you no harm to have a brisk walk to Marlborough Street, and ask Mrs. Thornton if she can spare it.'

In fact it's mentioned so many times over the next few chapters that you'd almost suspect product placement. I promised I'd try to find details, and here they are: Google Books finds a couple of contemporary texts online. An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy (1855), pp. 309-311, mentions Dr. Arnott's Hydrostatic Bed, which is described in more detail in a London Medical and Surgical Journal article, Volume II, 1833 (pp. 165-168). Essentially this waterbed was a trough of water covered with an "India rubber cloth" - rubber-impregnated canvas - upon which other bedding was laid. Its use wasn't recreational or novelty-value, but medical.

As the latter article reports, Dr. Arnott made no proprietary claims to the construction, and it appears to have had genuine medical benefits by evenly distributing pressure, preventing pressure sores that were common with invalids lying on hard mattresses (which were typically stuffed with wool or horsehair). The article comments that spiral spring mattresses, predating this by some 70 years, had similar potential. But the concept had gone into patent, confining it to the luxury market and stifling modifications for medical purposes.
- Ray

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