What do trundle beds mean to you? The last one I saw was in a hotel where a small child’s rollaway lived under the main bed in daytime. This is exactly how they were used in thousands of American homes in the 19th century and before. And their history goes back much further too. For some people, trundle beds say “pioneers” or “log cabin” . You come across them in stories evoking that way of life.
By the time the dishes were all wiped and set away, the trundle bed was aired. Then, standing one on each side, Laura and Mary straightened the covers, tucked them in well at the foot and the sides, plumped up the pillows and put them in place. Then Ma pushed the trundle bed into its place under the big bed.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods
They were certainly used in more prosperous homes too, like the 18th century Lexington MA house in the first picture. Their origins are actually in the grandest homes of all. Royalty and noblemen used to have a servant sleeping at the foot of the bed. Their high bed draped in fine fabrics easily hid a small, simple rollaway during the day. These rolling or trundling beds probably first came into use in late medieval times.
Truckle beds are just the same thing by another name. Both truckle and trundle originally meant rollers or castors or little wheely things. There are a few other names around: trumble beds in some parts of the US, hurly beds in Scotland, and sometimes simply rolling beds, or the modern rollaway.
American trundle beds
In the log cabin pictured right, both the big and small bed have cords to form a base for the mattress. Mattress covers were filled with corn husks, straw or any suitable plant material that was available, and spread over the rope “netting”. Surprisingly often, songs in the USA of the later 1800s and early 1900s mentioned trundle beds. They evoked a sentimental image of life back home, a cosy childhood with Ma and Pa. (See sheet music below.) But as life got more prosperous for many, with bigger houses, space-saving trundle beds had other meanings too, and some American children from small homes got called “trundle bed trash”.
European trundle beds
In Europe, truckle beds or trundle beds were less likely to summon up visions of a warm, cosy family life. They were rooted in a master or mistress and servant tradition, where it was not at all unusual to have a valet or maid sleeping in a small bed near the big one, ready to be of service when required.
The medieval picture below comes from a French romance where the wife is in the servant’s truckle bed, unbeknownst to her husband, to find out about his goings-on in a story which is more risqué than The Little House on The Prairie. In 17th century London Samuel Pepys’ maidservant slept in the room with both him and his wife, on occasion.
So all to bed. My wife and I in the high bed in our chamber, and Willet in the trundle bed, which she desired to lie in, by us.
Pepys’ Diary, 1667
Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: Rope bed, or see more picture info here