It’s the 85th anniversary of the construction of FDR’s “Little White House” in Warm Springs, GA. We take a visit and a look at his mattress.
America’s 32nd President (1932-1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a 2nd home in Warm Springs, Georgia that was later nicknamed “The Little White House” because he visited 16 times during his Presidency. FDR had begun coming to Warm Springs back in 1924 with hopes of relieving his suffering from polio. His house was built in 1932 when he was Governor of New York and is now maintained by the State of Georgia as a public museum.
FDR arrived in the railway station in Warm Springs March 30, 1945 and was greeted by his security chief Mike Reilly who had driven the President’s personal car (equipped with a hand mechanisms that controlled the clutch and brakes, gear shifting, and acceleration, etc.) and the President got behind the wheel and drove to the Little White House where he told his cousin Daisy Suckley he was going to “sleep and sleep and sleep.”
On April 12, 1945, after sitting for several hours for a portrait painting in his chair and desk in the den, President Roosevelt suddenly collapsed at about 1:15pm and was carried by his attendants into his adjacent bedroom where he lingered for several hours until he stopped breathing. FDR died at 3:35pm. The news was sent to Eleanor Roosevelt, in Washington, D.C., who sent a message to his sons that their father had “slept away” (a Victorian expression of death).
Considering FDR’s mighty role in leading the United States out from the Great Depression and through most of World War II, and his strategies that were implemented in shaping a lot of the 20th Century, I wanted to see where this President sought refuge when he was weary and tired, and to find out more about his sleep habits.
In 2006, I queried to park director as to what type of mattress President Roosevelt has used. He told me that the President’s bedroom was untouched and all the original furnishings and decorations were still intact. To answer the question, I was invited to visit and the museum attendants would undress the bed so we could inspect it and find out. So the date was set.
On September 10, 2006, I drove from Atlanta to the “Little White House” where I met several of the museum curators. We proceeded to the President’s bedroom where a “white glove” inspection was conducted, carefully unfolding the bedspread, sheets, and pillow cases so that we had a clear look. (Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig. 3)
The 42” x 78-1/4” mattress was hand crafted at Val Kill Shop in New York (where mostly all the houses’s furnishings were manufactured); it was covered in a striped ticking and was filled with a blended mixture of washed and dried horse hair and natural wheat straw (all natural components) , this mixture being quite popular from the mid-1800s until the 1940s, as were cotton, wool , and excelsior (wood) shavings due to the firmness properties and “coolness” in the pre air-conditioning era. The mattress ticking was covered a typical decorative striped ticking manufactured using a “planted warp” color dye process creating a splendid blend of colors: gold, royal blue, and white. (Fig. 4, Fig, 5, Fig. 6,). This simple design was hand crafted at Val Kill Industries, Eleanor Roosevelt’s business enterprise created to help local farmers in New York obtain supplemental income. (Fig. 7, Fig. 7A) The (non-innerspring) mattress was wider than the box spring foundation. It was cantilevered approximately 3” on each side of the box spring. (Fig 6. Fig. 8, Fig. 9, Fig.10, Fig. 11)
It was quite an extraordinary experience for me, as well at the Little White House historians (Fig. 20).
Commentary By Charles Edward Steed
Here’s the process that would have most likely been used: The shop tailors would have rolled out the ticking on a table and hand marked the panel and border cut size dimensions with a a rounded corner template. that distinguished the top and bottom panels and the border at all the proper pre-built dimensions. Next, the textile components were probably cut by hand with tailor or upholsterer scissors. Then, using a sewing machine, the pieces were stitched together using a single thread which created inside seams. This tick casing is actually sewn together inside out, so that the seams would be on the inside after the mattress was stuffed, thus creating a very clean tailored appearance with rounded corners. One end seam of the mattress casing was left open so that the casing could be inserted over a flange that allowed the stuffing to be neatly inserted. This could have been done by a manual or special filling machine that compressed the stuffings and used a chain system to push the contents inside. Either process was possible in 1932. After being filling with the contents, the final seam was sewn shut catching the Law Tag in the seam. The last process was done by manually sewing threads through the vertical plane of the mattress so that tufts were created that kept all the components together.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in January 30, 1882 at Springwood, the noble estate overlooking the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York. During this era, sleeping “equipment” was available in either hand crafted or mass produced choices. As a boy, FDR may have had a mattress with a cantilevered box spring that was similar to what he used at the Little White House except this box spring was not cantilevered. Let me explain: usually the cantilevered box spring was manufactured so that the bottom dimensions rested directly within the bedstead frame but the upper surface or platform was slightly wider (approximately 3-4”) so that the mattress was wider and the sleeper would not hit their feet of legs against the frame. This cantilevered style was used by many companies that referred to as various names. Here are two examples:
Ostermoor & Company of New York City, NY was founded in 1853 and published The Test Of Time, an annual catalog they mailed nationwide. Ostermoor was the USA’s largest and most famous mass produced cotton-filled mattress brand.
It is my supposition that although FDR had requested Val Kill Shop to manufacture a cantilevered box spring but the small shop did not have the expertise to make this special item, and, so, they manufactured a mattress that was wider than the box spring. I have viewed many 19th century bedding catalogs with options of cantilevered box springs, but I have never seen just a cantilevered mattress, So I think this was unique to FDR’s Little White House mattress just due to the specialty request.
Harrisburg Woven Wire Mattress Company, (Harrisburg, PA.) published an 1892 catalog that offered 25 different mattresses made with various cotton grades, curled hair, palm fiber, excelsior wood, husks, or straw. It’s my guess that the President requested the mattress stuffings using straw and hair because of his boyhood familiarity with that type and it was probably FDR’s preference for coping with Georgia’s hot, humid summers.
FDR’s pillows were furnished by Gold Shield of Atlanta, Georgia. (Fig. 14, Fig. 15, Fig. 16)
About FDR’s sleep-
According to Conrad Black’s biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt Champion Of Freedom (2003), “He almost never had trouble sleeping in middle age and rarely betrayed nervousness. His 1930’s advisor Reford Tugwell wrote: ‘The secret of his unassailable serenity and his easy gaiety lay in the sense of oneness with the universe and his feeling of being, as Emerson said, ‘in tune with the infinite’.” (page 39)
On the eve of December 7, 1941 and after he had written and prepared to give his famous December 8 speech to the special joint session of Congress, “Roosevelt retired at about half past midnight and good a full night’s sleep, unassisted by medication.” (page 691)
The first Presidential aircraft was a Douglas VC-54C four engine propellor type nicknamed Sacred Cow, equipped with a bedroom, bathroom and an elevator for the President and his wheelchair. This airplane is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
VIEW THE GALLERY OF FDR’S LITTLE WHITE HOUSE