TOP BRASS

Such beds as dreams are made on

I’m gonna move from place to place, to find a house with a golden stair, And if that house is red and has a big brass bed, I’m livin’ there!

– The Unsinkable Molly Brown,by Meredith WillsonThe red house and the golden stair might have helped, but the brass bed was the hook. Leadville Johnny covered the bed with a beautiful quilt, and flung open all the windows, so that the brass would glow in the sunlight. Then when he could see that he had Molly where he wanted her, he told her how it looked “all story-like” when the moon came shining in, causing poor Molly to wonder if the bed itself might not be a sin. And who could blame her? The brass bed was the ultimate status symbol, slightly sinful but the ultimate indicator of opulence.

The brass bed was born in 1851 at a furniture exposition in England, an affair not unlike those held today at the Trade Mart. And were it not for Molly Brown and her contemporaries, whose social stand and taste were less than firmly established, it might never have made it to America. But Leadville’s gone now, so you’re on your own. If you want your own brass bed today, there are pitfalls and forks in the road that merit your attention before you venture forth.

Bella Ross has been farther down the road than most. With her English-born husband, John, she was at one time importing 100 antique brass beds a month from Europe. The Rosses had buyers who scoured the European auctions, fairs and estate sales and picked the choicest plums. But then, as with many other types of antiques, the Europeans caught on. Not only that, they nearly ran out of brass beds. The Rosses, who by that time had accumulated an enormous personal collection, decided to start making their own. Using antique beds as models, they began to make exact replicas, save for a few sacrifices in authenticity in favor of a firmer foundation. They now have a line of seven, selling in the $700-to-$l,500 range, available locally at Weir’s.

Though many beds are advertised as “solid brass,” the term is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurate to say they are made entirely of brass. Almost all antique brass beds are made of iron or pot metal with an outer coating of brass. Look at an antique brass bed and you’ll probably see a seam underneath each length where the brass was coupled. There were some made entirely of brass, with hollow cores as in today’s reproductions, but to find a “solid brass” bed would be a rare occurrence indeed.

The fact that most antique brass beds have iron cores causes some problems for today’s antique collectors. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, does not rust. Iron does. Tom Myers, a buyer at Antique Alley, has, like Ms. Ross, soured on the European brass bed market. “Most of the countries have geographical ties to the sea,” he says, “where rust is the worst. A bed may look good on the surface, but underneath, it’s like termites working on the foundation of a house. And brass on iron is extremely heavy, so the shipping expense is higher. The ones you see over there now are usually in poor condition. When you do find a nice one, it’s high as the devil.”

If you don’t believe that nice antique brass beds are getting hard to come by, take a tour of the local antique shops. Making the rounds of the most likely spots, I was able to find two antique brass beds. Both were very plain, small doubles, what some people call hospital beds, and both were in horrible condition. One was priced at $895, and the other at $995. No discriminating collector would have had either. “I have a waiting list of customers who want brass beds,” says one Dallas antique dealer. “When I run across one, I just call up a customer, confirm a deal and make a 10 percent finder’s fee on the sale. You can still get a real dog for about $300. A nice bed will run more than $3,000, or if it’s really elaborate, way up from that.”

Fred Hernandez has these words of advice for someone in the market for an antique brass bed. Hernandez has been repairing and restoring brass beds for 30 years and has had his own business since 1970 (5311 Bernal, 630-0126). “Make sure the seams are not starting to rip. And look at the connections to be sure that they’re not pulling apart.” Hernandez cringes at the thought of dipping a brass bed in acid at a quick-strip establishment to “clean” it. “The acid will get between the brass and the iron and separate them. I have one in here now that’s been dipped in acid and I dread starting on it. Another thing to watch for is blisters, or bubbles, in the brass.. It probably means that the iron is rusting underneath.”

If you do find an antique dandy that needs some work, Hernandez is the man to see. He will repair, polish and lacquer a time-worn bed for about $150. The polishing is quite an ordeal, involving three separate attacks with the buffer, each with a different compound. If your find is in need of major rather than minor surgery, the fee will, of course, be more, – perhaps $250 to $300 more.

The brass bed era, which lasted for about fifty years, shifted locales in midstream. Though they had been available for several years, brass beds did not gain wide acceptance until the late 1860’s, and then only in Europe. In the late 1890’s. the Europeans began to lose interest, just as the brass bed was beginning to catch on in America. It remained in favor here until just before World War I, when along with golden oak, it fell victim to a change in style, accented by a return to walnut and mahogany.

There is quite a difference in style between the antique beds that were made in Europe and in America. The European examples are more intricate, often accented with delicate curves. The American beds are heartier, more robust and substantial. The American manufacturers made use of larger posts and crossbars. Even the elaborate “bordello style” relied on larger, more substantial curved pieces, and the curves were usually boxed in by the traditional rectangular borders.

Initially, the leading American producer was Foster Bros., of Utica, New York. Antique beds with the Foster Bros, label or with “Made in Utica for the rest of the world” riveted on the frame are prized by collectors. Other major producers were Greenpoint Metallic Bed Company, and Simmons and Company, the latter producing under its own label and for Sears-Roebuck. Even the Sears beds were never cheap. In the early 1900’s, the better brass beds in the Sears catalog were priced at more than $30, compared to $6.95 for a fine high-back carved oak bed. During World War II, many of the American brass beds were turned in as patriotic gestures to be melted down and reformed into shell casings to rain down on Hitler and Tojo.

Many of the brass beds that wound up in this area were produced in Mexico. Simmons and Company had a plant there, supplying not only Sears, but the local department stores, such as Sanger Bros., as well. And a bed treasured by collectors even more than the Foster was made in Mexico, the Mesta. This bed was not typical of the American style. It was designed in France and featured more scrolls and swirls than were customary here. A specimen of this style became a screen star, appearing in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Anastasia and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The magnificent veteran of the MGM prop room had its finale on the TV series Love American Style after which it was auctioned off for an enormous sum.

Many of the European beds had iron on the outside as well as within. Brass was a vital indicator of status at the finer estates. The master’s bed would, of course, boast an exterior entirely of brass. But for the servants, just a touch of exterior brass would suffice, with the rest of the bed composed of painted iron. Quite often the European beds were crafted to order, so if the gentleman placing the order happened to be a shorty, you might get your antique bed home and discover that it is only 5’6″ long. Another surprise to many is the height of the old beds. There were no box springs, only a mattress on slats. So the beds were made much higher than today’s variety. And there were no king-sized beds. “I found one bed in all my searching that you could call a queen-size,” Ms. Ross recalls. “But never a king-size.”

Some buyers go to great lengths to retain an air of authenticity without sacrificing comfort. Fred Hernandez says that he has been commissioned on more than one occasion to transform a regular-sized antique bed into “antique king-size.” He accomplishes this by scavenging brass lengths out of the footboard to use in extending the headboard. It’s sort of like using the wood from an antique oak table to make an “authentic” antique washstand. In the long run, you’re likely to be much more satisfied with an out and out reproduction if you insist on sticking with king-size.

Brass bed reproductions are being produced on a massive scale – in Mexico, Louisiana, California, everywhere. Some are superbly crafted, but others are bummers. All of today’s beds are made of brass tubing rather than brass on iron as in the old days. This is good, since there will be no rust problem. But it’s bad since brass is not as strong as iron and doesn’t couple as firmly. If you buy a reproduction, insist on seeing how it is put together. Not being told, seeing. The better manufacturers provide dealers with cutout sections which show exactly how the brass is coupled.

There is great controversy over the question of finish. Some recommend lacquer. Purists agree that the only thing you should do to brass is leave it alone. Tom Myers of Antique Alley says that if you lacquer brass it will eventually take on an orange tinge, and the brass will start to spot under the lacquer. “The only thing to do then is remove the lacquer, and it’s pure hell to get off,” says Myers. The people at The Brass Bed don’t lacquer their beds, but the California line, which they handle, is lacquered. The sales staff has a clear preference for the unlacquered beds. The Ross line comes lacquered but is also available in the natural form if the customer so desires.

An unlacquered bed has to be polished. How often depends entirely upon how you treat it. Tom Myers has had one for six years that hasn’t required polishing, but he has no house urchins fondling his bed. Even adults are mysteriously drawn to touch brass. Antique Alley, which has the misfortune of being next door to a seafood restaurant, has had to put up large “do not touch” signs. A salesman at The Brass Bed says that he sometimes asks customers which one feels the best. Remember, it’s long way around a king sized bed with a polish cloth.

A lacquered bed requires nothing but a damp cloth to keep it presentable. But if the lacquer seal is broken through contact with corrosive chemicals, such as those found in Lemon Pledge or a dry martini, that part of the lacquer seal must be replaced. (Fred Hernandez recommends rubbing the spot with Brasso and then covering it with Illinois Bronze clear lacquer, available at local hardware stores.)

So take stock of the potentialfingerprint infestation and theavailability of “volunteer” polishers,and decide which is the best way to go.Molly wouldn’t have given a damneither way.

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