I’ve heard from several readers of I, ELIZA HAMILTON who were having a difficult time imaging the bed that newlyweds Eliza and Alexander share in their lodgings in New Windsor, NY during the Continental Army’s winter encampment of 1781. At this time, Alexander was a Lieutenant Colonel as well as an aide-de-camp for Commander in Chief General George Washington.
Many married officers chose to have their wives join them during these encampments, when most active combat ceased for the winter months. These couples found lodgings in local houses near the encampment. During the long winter months, the small group of officers’ wives turned to one another for companionship and support, developing a female social circle that was led by Martha Washington, General Washington’s wife.
There’s no surviving record of the house where Eliza and Alexander lived in New Windsor, and the house I described was my invention. Since Alexander was neither a senior officer nor a wealthy one, I decided that their house would be small, and because it was in an area with many people of Dutch descent, I based it on other surviving Dutch-style farmhouses in the area - including the bed.
Here’s the passage from I, ELIZA HAMILTON:
“Our house was in the village, and consisted of a single room that served as kitchen, parlor, and bedchamber combined, with a ladder to the loft above, where our servants slept. Off in one corner of this room was an old Dutch box, or cupboard bed, such as was used since the days when New York was New Amsterdam. This style of bed was unfamiliar to Alexander, and vastly entertaining to him, too. Each night we’d climb into this bed and close its doors after us to create a snug, dark little room of our own. The doors made it much warmer than an English bed with drafty curtains, and much more intimate….”
A box bed, closed-bed, cupboard bed, nook bed, or bedstede in Dutch, would indeed have been old-fashioned by 1780, and they exist today primarily in paintings from the time. Therefore I was delighted last week to discover this reproduction of one at the Van Cortlandt House Museum in Bronx, NY. As you can see, it is in fact a cozy space, almost like a room within a room - a practical idea in a drafty 18thc house. The space below would have been used for storage. The museum has the bed looking a bit rumpled, as if the last inhabitant was late rising, but I hope this one picture is worth a thousand words (or at least a hundred or so.)
Photograph ©2019 Susan Holloway Scott
Excerpt ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott
Read more about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.