Sleep Tight and Bed Bugs

Sleep Tight!

Don’t let the Bedbugs Bite!

                      A Family Story

                          Lloyd Duncan


When I was still very young, and learning the language of my “country folk” family, one of the phrases I heard a lot was “Sleep tight! …and don’t let the bed bugs bite!”  For a small child, it’s an attention-getting phrase that served its purpose of putting thoughts of creepy crawly things into a young mind.  My next thought was “Should I be scared?  Is anybody else scared?!”, andI looked quickly to see the reaction of the others there. You somehow knew from the smile on Grandmas’ face that this was not cause for alarm.  Over the first few weeks, months and years of hearing this every night – it came to be expected, and with it, certain actions by the family elder caring for you at the moment.  So sure were many children of this that it often provided one of those rare occasions when the child could correct the adult for a minor wrong doing and not receive their own dose of correcting for doing so.

If one of my great aunts, for example, would pull the covers up over me and try to walk away with a simple “Goodnight.”, well – “Oh no, Aunt Ivy, I have to sleep tight to keep the bed bugs!”   That’s what I said; I was learning to talk, after all.   Of course, in the small space we were in, I didn’t have to repeat it.   The few that were privy to the nightly ritual would step in and show them that tight meant tucking in the sheets on both sides of the mattress till they were tight, over me.  This kept the bed bugs out …and me in, as falling out of bed had occurred, …several times.

It wasn’t till many years later, and many eaves dropped elder conversations between my Grandma and Aunt Brady or other of her sisters (Lottie, Lola, Ivy, and Vinnie, and Grandma was Dovie), that I learned this ritual was not spawned on me.  In fact, the saying had started centuries ago, but I won’t go back quite that far.  Let’s go back to the early pioneer days, about 1800’s.  The beds then, if you had one, were usually grown on the farm.  Did I say grown? Well, yes, grown.  The mattress material for the outer cover was usually white with blue striped canvas or heavy denim, very stiff to the touch, very tightly woven, and for good reason.  The part of the mattress that was “grown” was usually the straw from the field, remnants of the cotton harvest or, if you were very patient, the feathers from many months worth of chicken dinners.  And as a very old song eludes to, it usually was “Grandma’s feather bed.”

Stuffing the bed with things from the farmstead made it a necessity to have that tight weave in your mattress cover.  Why? Well, despite your best cleaning intentions, what do you suppose might have been crawling around in the cotton, hay and feathers?  Among other things, there is a clue in the name of this hard, tightly woven material; it’s called “ticking”!  Making sure the mattress remained sealed so the contents, ALL the contents, remained inside during a night of turning and snoring was only part of the story.  There is more about the bed bugs, and the tight bed, but you may need a little information first.

Later on in the century, the mass production of metal works made for a new household furniture staple – the box springs.  If you have a more modern bed you have under your bed – a box.  You probably do not have box springs.  They’re still around, but sort of rare, really.  Back then, though, the box spring was not even a box, but rather a lot of large heavy gauge springs laid out in the shape of the mattress on top of them.  They were tied together with wire to hold their place amongst each other. A metal frame, in the shape of this “box”, was welded around the outside and underneath so they/it could be supported by the bed railings.  They were heavy.  They squeaked.  They were a great advancement in sleep comfort.  And most of all, they made Grandmas’ feather bed the funnest place to play on the whole farm!

I wanted you to have that little bit of bed technology information in your mind as we get back to our story.  As you can imagine, box springs don’t relay any kind of picture about the bed being – “tight”.  But, the earlier beds, well, they didn’t have springs.  Some did have wooden slats, which were simply a series of boards laid between the rails to hold up the mattress.  But, boards, after a while, would sag, and once they did – you could find yourself awakening with a crash as you hit the floor underneath, and then sleeping in a hole you couldn’t get out of in the morning.  The thought of just getting up to put the board back in place was overridden by “…and fall again?!” Not only that, if you had turned in the night because you ate a little too much super, the board could be broken. Either way, this could be very frustrating and expensive as the boards had to be replaced.  Ah, but, there was another way.  The mattresses of that day were very often laid on slats that were made of  –  rope.  These were usually single size beds that had very stiff hardwood railings, having very little flex.  Between the railings were several strands of a good strong rope.   Like the boards, the ropes sagged, got loose and sometimes broke, but, not too often.  Therefore, every night before you went you went to bed, you could increase the comfort of your bed simply tightening the ropes under your mattress!  Each rope passed thru a set of holes in the side railings.  A knot on the far end held the rope from pulling through.  On the other end, you would pull the rope as tight as you could then wedge a wooden “stopper” in the hole with the rope to lock it in place!

“Sleep tight!” involved some work.  But, being the common nightly action of many households, you knew if you heard that phrase that you could take it as blessing of comfort and safety.   Safety?   You see, the saying is “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Not only did you want your mattress sealed, but be it laid on boards or rope, you didn’t want it sagging.  Because, even when your ropes were tight, you were never very far away from the bugs of the night crawling on the floor!

Good night, sleep tight…

About Lloyd Duncan

Read the Who Am I page.
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1 Response to Sleep Tight and Bed Bugs

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