IN common with most folk of a certain age, I remember winters in unheated bedrooms where you would wake to find ice patterns on the inside of the window and wince to put foot to freezing linoleum.
By contrast the inside of the bed was toasty warm, thanks to a sheet, thick woollen blankets and an eiderdown on top. This weighty arrangement lent itself to constructing spectacular nocturnal caverns, lit by a torch and with entertainment sporadically provided by Radio Luxembourg.
The day of the duvet was still far in the future for me.
Duvet is a French word which originally meant down, as in feathers. Archaeological research suggests that the Chinese were using down-filled quilts as long as 5,000 years ago.
From the 16th century, wealthy people throughout continental Europe began using feather duvets. Samuel Pepys’s diary reports that he slept under one in September 1665 while visiting a friend whose wife was Polish. The British diplomat Sir Paul Rycaut (1629-1700) tried to promote the delights of the duvet on home ground. He sent 6lb bags of down to his friends with instructions, warning that ‘the coverlet must be quilted high and in large panes, or otherwise it will not be warme’. The idea didn’t catch on.
In the mid-18th century, while on a grand tour of Europe, the Irish-born travel writer Thomas Nugent was in Westphalia when he noted of the locals: ‘There is one thing very particular to them, that they do not cover themselves with bed-clothes, but lay one feather-bed over, and another under. This is comfortable enough in winter, but how they can bear their feather-beds over them in summer, as is generally practised, I cannot conceive.’
In his 1835 story The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen tells of a lonely prince who struggles to find a suitable wife. He meets many candidates but is never sure that they are genuine princesses. One rainy night, a young woman arrives at the royal castle drenched and seeking shelter. She claims to be a princess, but the prince’s mother the queen has doubts. She tests their guest by placing a pea on the bed she is offered for the night, covered by 20 mattresses and 20 eiderdowns on top of them.
In the morning, the guest complains of a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed. Rather than dismiss her as a rude and ungrateful cow, her hosts realise her claims to royalty must be true since only a proper princess could be so delicate. The two are married quicksticks but sadly Andersen fails to record what their sex life could have been like when something hard in the bed upset the missus so.
An entry on the fascinating website Old and Interesting says: ‘Featherbeds were only for the rich in the 14th century, but by the 19th century they were a comfort that ordinary people could aspire to – especially if they kept a few geese. The beds, also called feather ticks or feather mattresses, were valuable possessions.
‘People made wills promising them to the next generation, and emigrants travelling to the New World from Europe packed up bulky featherbeds and took them on the voyage. If you didn’t inherit one, you needed to buy up to 50lb of feathers, or save feathers from years of plucking until there were enough for a new bed.
‘The feathers could be saved from geese or ducks being prepared for cooking. In England servant-girls were often allowed to keep feathers from poultry they’d plucked, and could save them to make a featherbed or pillows for their future married life.
‘Eiderdowns, or eider down quilts, were introduced to Victorian Britain as a light and warm substitute for heavy woollen blankets – but they didn’t do away with all blankets. British beds were still made up with a top sheet, a couple of blankets and then an eiderdown: always an ornamental item, even when covered by a bedspread. The typical eiderdown was covered in satin or floral chintz, and tightly quilted. Despite its name it might well be filled with goose feathers, not real eider down from the eider duck.’
The entry includes an 1847 price list for a pound of feathers at the London furniture store Heal & Son: ‘Mixed: 1 shilling; Grey Goose: 1s 4d; Foreign Grey Goose: 1s 8d; Best Foreign Grey Goose: 2s; Best Irish White Goose: 2s 6d; Best Danzig White Goose: 3s.’
While duvets had caught on throughout Europe by the 20th century it was not until 1964, with the growing use of central heating, that Habitat chief Terence Conran decided Britain was ready for the duvet, or continental quilt as it was then known. He began importing them from Sweden and marketed them as the ‘ten-second bed’ for the time to took to straighten them after sleeping.
I bought my first duvet to save on bedmaking time in my new flat after I left home at the age of 22. But when winter came I pleaded with my mother to let me have my old eiderdown.
These days I sleep in an unheated, vaulted cellar with 2ft-thick stone walls which remains at 60f throughout the year. In a bed, not a coffin, since you ask. Topped by a duvet, vintage Witney woollen blanket and eiderdown. I did try the modern weighted blankets but they gave me backache.
Old jokes’ home
What did the 0 say to the 8?
A PS from PG
‘Good morning, sir,’ he said. ‘May I make a remark?’
‘Certainly, Jeeves. Carry on. Make several.’
‘It is with reference to your appearance, sir. If I might take the liberty of suggesting . . . ’
‘Go on, say it. I look like something the cat found in Tutenkhamen’s tomb, do I not?’
‘I would not go so far as that, sir, but I have unquestionably seen you more soigné.’
It crossed my mind for an instant that with a little thought one might throw something together rather clever about ‘Way down upon the soigné river’, but I was too listless to follow it up.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season