Antique furniture isn't really our thing. As much as we would like to buy up vintage chairs, desks and wardrobes they're generally item not suited to a mail-order business! Our personal taste veers between Carole's beloved Napoleon III and Victoriana and a shared predilection for early modernism (I dislike the clumsy term 'mid-century modern'). We occasionally come across small pieces for our shop sections for antique French home decoration and curiosities which lead us to further research.
Much of the article below comes from our need to research vintage French sleepwear. We all have images in our heads of Victorian nightshirts but these are largely a product of Hollywood's imagination. Whilst looking for more information we discovered some odd French antique furniture and sleeping arrangements. In particular we found the Breton tradition of box-beds or lit-clos in French or gwele-kloz in Breton. It's best described as a wardrobe you can sleep in.
The above image like many others is from a Postcard collectors forum which even has a whole thread of photos of people and the lit-clos. During the day, the doors are closed and it appears to be a finely decorated centrepiece to the home. Sometimes panels would fold out so it could be used for seating. The whole thing would often be in the main room or where the stove was, so heat could be conserved. At night, everyone would carefully fold themselves in and close the shutters for warmth. Here's a more modern photo from Château de Kerjean:
In a frequently damp and windy environment it was a good way of staying warm and dry. Closed and off the ground (floors were typically dirt) they were clean and cosy. The only sacrifice was privacy- the entire family could occupy one. They seem to have been widespread across Brittany but they are not unique to France.
The narrator of Emily Brontë's Gothic tragedy Wuthering Heights describes one: The whole furniture consisted of a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows. Having approached this structure, I looked inside, and perceived it to be a singular sort of old-fashioned couch, very conveniently designed to obviate the necessity for every member of the family having a room to himself. In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of a window, which it enclosed, served as a table. I slid back the panelled sides, got in with my light, pulled them together again, and felt secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff, and every one else. Its even still there, in the building said to have inspired Wuthering Heights :
(via Yorkshire Post) The description in Wuthering Heights indicates that Brontë was equally bemused by their discovery in Yorkshire. You'll notice the British one is much plainer than the Breton versions above. A similar style bed crops up in Somerset, England. This time it's at Snowshill Manor.
(via National Trust) For the first half of the 20th Century, Snowshill was home to Charles Paget Wade an architect, craftsman, collector, artist, poet and romantic eccentric. Having started collecting at the age of 7, Wade eventually built up a collection of more than 22,000 items of antique furniture, clothing, paintings, and other pieces. It's not clear where this particular bed is from, but it's possible he could have made it himself, perhaps even inspired by ones he saw when stationed in France during WW1.
In fact box beds were relatively common across many parts of Europe in poorer regions until the advent of cheaper and more efficient forms of heating made them unnecessary. Many were re-purposed as wardrobes, but others ended up in museums. The ornately decorated lit-clos seems a Breton quirk but research into antique English furniture as well as Dutch and Belgian pieces indicate the box bed cropped up everywhere. Of course they also have the advantage of taking up very little space. Japan reinvented them as the Capsule Hotel for travelling business men. Less privacy but just as cosy:
(Photo Credit: Geoffrey Morrison) This website even recommends them as a way of alleviating the hellish nature of modern metropolitan apartment-sharing. I don't know if this will ever take off again. I suppose some smart estate agents or architects will try a modern version in chipboard and aluminium but I doubt the finely carved antique French box beds will take off in Brooklyn or Dalston or Kreuzberg. However the original Breton lit-clos is another reminder that the past really is another country- they do things differently there, even sleeping!