Beds and Mattresses in the Slums – Atlanta Hill

The overcrowding of inner-city slums led to the poorer working-class using uninhabitable accommodation and housing. Due to the hardships that many faced, luxury objects were unseen and the majority of objects which the poorer working-class obtained would have been either hand-me-downs from family members or from second-hand traders. One household object particularly important for thinking about touch in the slums is the bed, comprising the bedstead, bedding and mattress. They could be used to distinguishing class and how you were perceived in society and also demonstrate how the second-hand trade flourished throughout the nineteenth century. People living in slum conditions had to consider, when purchasing second-hand materials, that their ‘furnishings bore the persistent traces or imprints of their previous owners; their bodies had literally left their mark, through personalized ways of using, traces of touch, bodily odour and bodily secretions’. [1] This not only demonstrates how dirty it could have been to use pre-owned beds and bedding, but also how easily diseases were able to spread, through inadequate hygiene and poor sanitation.

Figure 1: An illustration from How the Poor Live by George R. Sims (1889)

In How the Poor Live (1889), George Sims painted an evocative picture of what he had witnessed in the slums to try and encourage better knowledge and understanding for those not involved in slum life. This account was illustrated by Frederick Barnard to help promote awareness of the poor conditions. Sims’ described the bedsteads he saw as ‘wretched, broken-down old things of wood and iron which look like they had been rescued a little late from a fire, then used to barricade, afterwards buried in volcanic eruption, and finally dug out of a heap that had concealed them for a century.’ [1] Sims’ description does not only display the poor condition of the bedsteads within the homes of the poorer working class but justifies how unsuitable and undesirable they were, creating an overall image that within the slums this was an acceptable standard of living. Figure 1 is an illustration of a dilapidated four poster bedstead [3] which not only demonstrates the lack of disposable income within the slums but supports Sims’ description. When looking at traces of touch in the slums through bedding and mattresses, Figure 1 highlights the lack of bedding upon the bed. The jacket could signify that a top cover due to lack of materials available and high cost, although it also depicts that the most desirable object within the slums was a mattress.

Figure 2: Lady on a day-bed by George Frederick-Watts, 1844

Mattress quality – and therefore quality to the touch –  for the poorer working-class would often only stretch to a thin cotton or linen sheet which would be stuffed with heaps of foul straw, [4]. identifiable in Figure 1 and Sims’ description, as it lays across the floorboards. This contrasted with upper and middle-class mattresses, in which finer materials like feathers or horse hair would be used for softer stuffing [5]. Figure 2 shows  finer materials such as silk or velvet to demonstrate wealth and comfort but to also allow details and colour to be integrated, making the bedding look appealing.

Straw being used for mattresses not only provides further evidence of poor sanitation due to the parasites, lice and disease that could be spread,  but draws our attention to the association straw has with animals. Tom Crook has observed that connections were made between animals and people in the slums, with descriptions of “mingling and mixing: of men, women and children “herding” together like animals, and bodies “heaped” randomly upon floors, filthy mattresses or meagre scattering of straw.” [6] This dehumanised the people in the slums as it made the comparison of people and animals because of the way they lived. The idea of segregation or privacy within the slums was a not common as many families shared one room, therefore, when focusing on touch, the fact that many items were shared, including beds and mattresses, reiterates how dirt and disease would have been spread through objects they possessed, and the sharing of bodily odour and secretions.

Figure 3: Ma Rolinson Making a Mattress in Bethnal Green, 1890

Looking at touch and the production of mattresses, a photograph taken of Ma Rolinson stuffing a mattress with straw (see Figure 3) taken by John Gault is particularly instructive. Gault was a missionary worker for the London City Mission whose personal aim was to capture powerful images of slums in order to try and persuade financially-able people to donate. [7] This photograph shows the uncleanliness of the materials used to create the mattresses; this is due to its production outside but particularly as it was left outside after being completed, resulting in dirt getting into and on the cotton and straw.  Mattress making was a way for Ma Rolinson to receive an income, as for each mattress produced she was paid one shilling. Not only did this affect the quality of the mattresses but meant that they were turned over as quick as possible, affecting condition and quality. [8]

This photograph is a powerful image of poverty in the slums as it demonstrates women working, poor housing and the day-to-day hardships that many faced. However we must bear in mind that it was used as a means of gaining donations. Being unable to physically touch mattresses used within the slums due to slum clearance and the decay of materials, we cannot truly experience the working-class bed. However, from photographs like these and works such as George Sims, we are able to get some sense of how beds were seen as a basic necessity during the nineteenth century.

Atlanta Hill



[1] Stobart, Jon; Damme, Ilia, Modernity and the second-hand trade: European consumption cultures and practises, 1700-1900, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 216

[2] Sims, George R. How the Poor Live, and Horrible London 1889, Chapter III, Available Online: – Accessed on 30th November 2016

[3] Sims, How the Poor Live, and Horrible London 1889, Chapter VII.

[4] Kirby, D, Slum housing and residential renewal: the case in urban Britain, (London: Longman, 1979).

[5] Stobart and Damme, Modernity and the second-hand trade, pp. 189-190

[6] Hamlett, Jane, At home in the institution: material life in asylums, lodging houses and schools in Victorian and Edwardian England, (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 316

[7] – Accessed 29th November 2016

[8] – Accessed 29th November 2016

Illustrations and Photographs: 

Figure 1: Illustration taken from How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 – Chapter 7, Available Online: – Accessed on 29th November 2016

Figure 2:Lady on a day-bed, 1844 by George Frederick Watts, Available Online: – Accessed on 29th November 2016

Figure 3: ‘Ma Rolinson of Bethnal Green Making Mattress, 1890’ by John Gault, Available Online: https://www.