What Thomas Jefferson’s Bed Says About Him On His Birthday

Thomas Jefferson outfitted his chamber with beautiful silk drapes, marble-topped tables, and velvet armchairs from his Paris home, with an eye toward “comfort and convenience.” We know Thomas had an alcove bed, but what did his bed say about him on his birthday?

Thomas Jefferson had an alcove bed that was open on both sides and had a privy near one end of the bed. His love of innovation and architecture mirrored his dedication to democracy and constructing a union of States that localized government and ensured civil liberties.

From its design, size, and placement to the way it was positioned in the bedroom, Thomas Jefferson’s bed at Monticello had a lot of interesting features. To find out more, keep reading. 


What Was Interesting About Jefferson’s Bed?

Those who know of Monticello know of the inventions and unique designs found inside. One of these that many are impressed by is the bed areas in many of the rooms.

Thomas Jefferson, a self-taught architect, designed his own homes which included plans for alcove beds. His own bed space was opened up by situating it in an alcove in the center of the space allowing light and air to flow through both the study and dressing area.

He was known to even request these innovative beds when renting homes during stays in Washington D.C. His inventive mind devised designs for every part of his life and home. For those that have not visited Monticello, his clock design alone would point to this fact.

Where Did Jefferson’s Alcove Bed Come From?

Jefferson remodeled his home in the 1790s and includes these alcove beds in the newly added rooms as well as older ones like his own chamber. He even wrote about it to James Madison and stated his preference for alcoves due to their efficient use of space and their aesthetic.

His infatuation with the French inspired novel design caused him to insert recesses in the interior walls for all of the added rooms in the house. He did the same in his bedroom, which was an older existing part of the house. He also had a closet over the bed that used space efficiently and was accessible via a ladder.

He used an existing doorway in his room between what was his study and his bedchamber or dressing room. He built the wall out to accommodate a double width bed and moved the passthrough doorway to the foot of the bed.

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Was Jefferson’s Bed Able To Be Lifted?

There are theories that Jefferson’s bed alcove was designed so that the bed could be lifted out of the way during the day, allowing access through the space from one room to the other. Though this may have fit with his overall temperament and tendencies, there is little evidence that this is actually the case.

Though there are images of the alcove area being used as a walkway, these were not during the time Jefferson used it as a bed. Besides this, the alcove itself would not accommodate and elevated bed and allow for upright passage through the area.

The bed construction itself would not have lent credence to the theory either. Unlike some bed designs, this one does not have a frame of wood or metal. The mattress is supported by ropes attached from one side of the alcove to the other.

This type of bed construction would not be able to be lifted out of the way in order to use the alcove as a passthrough. Besides, this would completely negate the need for the doorway at the foot of the bed designed by Jefferson himself.

There was one part of the bed area that was able to be raised and was so each day. This was a mahogany screen that separated the alcove from the study was designed specifically by Jefferson to hinge horizontally so that it could be folded up and out of the way.

This screen was moved presumably on a daily basis in order to allow access to those making the bed. It could be accounts of this screen raising that gave rise to tales of the bed being lifted up and out of the way.

A Closet Above The Bed?

Above the bed was another pragmatic innovation thought up by this prolific inventor. He added porthole windows to allow light into a closet area. The closet itself was accessible from a door placed at the head of the alcove.

Again, Jefferson was an inventor and lover of innovation. He looked at life pragmatically and this can be seen in his placing a closet over the alcove bed in order to maximize the space that would otherwise be unused.

Even the porthole windows in the wall opening to the closet area made use of the available light in the room coming from the windows or lamp light. This and other elements point to a man that constantly tried to identify problems and find solutions.

Was Jefferson Taller Than Washington?

For those that have seen Jefferson’s bed, they immediately recognize the short length according to today’s standards. Does this mean that Jefferson was a short man? Was he shorter or taller than Washington?

Thomas Jefferson was a very tall man for his day at 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, which was a half inch taller than George Washington. Jefferson (189 cm) stood taller than Washington (188 cm) even though both men were around 6 inches taller than the average man of their time.

You would never have guessed this seeing that his alcove bed without the headboard looks shorter than this. The answer is quite simple. Today we lay flat on our sides or backs to sleep, whereas in colonial times, many slept ‘propped’ with their heads and upper torsos raised.

Jefferson expressly noted that the reason he slept partly inclined was due to his prolific reading schedule. He would read every night before sleeping. With current lamp lighting and the ease of reading in the inclined position, it is natural that this man that created his own rules would sleep part

Another reason that the length of the bed wouldn’t relay the size of the person in those days is the fact that there were no standard sizes for bed frames and mattresses. They were custom made to the sleeping style of the person and their tastes.

Having visited both Monticello (Jefferson’s home) and Mount Vernon (Washington’s home) I can tell you that the two men slept differently. Washington’s bed was longer and more like the beds we would be used to today. Though he may have inclined his head when he slept, it was not to the same extent as others.

Jefferson’s was designed shorter for his sleeping style and fit in a wall alcove. These dimensions would have necessitated an inclined sleeping style.

Wrapping Up Thomas Jefferson’s Alcove Bed…

Thomas Jefferson’s birthday celebrated on April 13th each year is a national observance to remember the man that helped form a nation. His bed helps us to understand the inventive and innovative mind that brought us the Declaration of Independence and our 3rd president of the United States.

More than just a novel passthrough from his dressing room to his study, his bed is a symbol of his dedication to the pragmatic and useful as well as the aesthetic of an environment. This carried over into his leading of a nation and a people.

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