I can’t remember the first time I actually saw a Charleston Rice Bed. Perhaps it was as Scarlett O’Hara held tightly to the bed post while Mammy tightened her corset laces? But I do know that I have a personal obsession with them, and the detailed craftsmanship required to create these works of art. So today I’m going to introduce you to a wonderful piece of furniture, and hopefully gain another member or two to the “Obsessed-With-Charleston-Rice-Bed-Fan-Club”.
History of the Charleston Rice Bed
By 1685, Carolina Gold long grain rice had been introduced to Charles Towne and began it’s climb as the top crop of wealthy plantation owners. The Rice Bed was distinct to Charleston, and paid homage to the source of wealth from these plantation owners. The beautiful sheathes are carved in relief into the posts, and also incorporate fluted columns, drapings, and turnings.
Thomas Elfe is the cabinetmaker usually credited with the design, but it would have taken a team of turners, carvers, and master woodworkers to actually create the beautiful posts. Rice beds were traditionally made of Mahogany, as the wood was easy to acquire in “bed post” size, although they were also done in Cherry.
During the post-Civil War era, poverty hit many of the former plantation owners hard. In an effort at survival, many family heirlooms – ranging from silver candlesticks to Charleston Rice Beds to marble statues – were sold to carpetbaggers at astonishingly low prices, often just to be able to afford the tax payments. The carpetbaggers took the items to cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia and sold them to wealthy Yankee buyers. While there are some originals to be found in and around Charleston, very few still exist today in their original homes. Fires, hurricanes, poverty during Reconstruction, and even the earthquake of 1886 have taken their toll. Today, reproductions are not difficult to find, but there are key details that are often overlooked for a truly authentic Charleston Rice Bed reproduction.
Reproducing an Antique Charleston Rice Bed
In January 2016, I made a field trip to Charleston with the express purpose of picking up a Charleston Rice Bed that had been commissioned. Charles Neil was building the bed and had turned the posts in segments. He then took them to Mary May to do the actual carving of the rice sheaves and bunting. Mary has a post here on her blog.
I went with Charles to not only pick up the carved posts and meet Mary May, but to spend a couple of days exploring Charleston, SC and hunting down Rice Beds so he could get a closer look at their construction for his client. In our research, we learned that only the two posts at the foot of the bed were traditionally carved. The headboard end were simple squared or pencil post. The reason? At that time, if you weren’t going to see it, the craftsmen basically ignored it. So now that there were 4 carved posts, Charles’s client decided to create two beds from those four posts.
The Charleston Rice Bed in the Joseph Manigault House
While visiting the Old City of Charleston, we learned that the Joseph Manigault House on Meeting Street has one on display. And this museum allows photography! We took several photos to bring back for the reproduction. This is a photo I took that day, with the bed undressed:
And this is a photo I found online of it fully dressed:
Dressings on a Charleston Rice Bed Change Seasonally
Have you ever spent time during the summer in Charleston, SC? It’s hot. It’s humid. The term “gummy” is used in late summer to describe the weather. The design of the Charleston Rice Bed allowed for the dressings to be changed for summer and winter. Above, you see how it would look for Winter – headboard in, bed positioned in the corner of the room, and drapery panels that can be closed to keep heat in.
When we left Old Towne Charleston, we headed out near the Ashley River and visited Middleton Place Plantation. They absolutely do not allow photography, in fact, the house is kept quite dark to prevent the sun from fading the fabrics. We enjoyed our tour and had lunch at the restaurant. My first time eating Quail, and yes, I really liked it.
Here is a photo I found online of the Charleston Rice Bed set up to show “summer”:
As you can see, the bed is pulled out to the middle of the room for summer. This LOOKS like what I remember seeing, but I cannot be sure it’s 100% authentic from Middleton. The bed here appears much closer to the wall at the head. You can see that a true, antique Charleston Rice Bed only has carved posts at the foot. The bedstead sits higher so breezes sweep across the occupant. The headboard is removed in summer. And of course, in Charleston you MUST have mosquito netting. Although due to fear of “swamp fever”, white plantation owners and their families usually left for the city in May and did not return until October. Rice beds were used in both the plantation home as well as the town house.
In our current society, most of us would opt for either a summer or winter dressing for a rice bed and not make such large seasonal changes. Usually I only change out my summer and winter weight bedding like sheets & duvets. Traditional sheets on a Charleston Rice bed would be either 100% cotton or Irish linen.
Dressing a Charleston Rice Bed
A girl can dream, right? Oh, how I would love the chance to customize a room using fabrics from suppliers such as Greenhouse Fabrics, Kasmir, or Kravet and let Heidi (my favorite seamstress) sew her little fingers to the bone. To create a beautifully coordinated canopy and bed skirt as well as design stunning window treatments, add in a few throw pillows or shams as well. And then top it off with Pandora de Balthazar’s European Sleep System pillows and duvet inserts. Put a gorgeous rug on the floor that pulls it all together. Stunning Kate Spade lights in the room (a recent obsession after I found them at High Point). A couple of comfortable chairs in another fabric. Textured wallcoverings on the walls. A velvet tufted bench at the foot. Art, art, art… I never get enough art in a project.
Does the room have to be Old Southern Traditional? Not necessarily. Based on the actual design of the drapings, the fabrics chosen, and the style of the other pieces I mentioned above, a Rice Bed could be used easily in a room that’s a bit more Transitional.
Check out this room I found on Architectural Digest. While it’s way more Traditional than what I would personally do, it is a gorgeous room in its setting:
So have I sparked an obsession in Charleston Rice Beds for you?
I hope you’ll be on the lookout for them as you browse magazines, Pinterest, or visit old historic homes. You can share your new knowledge with others you meet. And if you’re lucky enough to own one of these dream-girls, you know who wants to help you design your dream bedroom, don’t you? No, it’s not Joanna Gaines, silly. I hear she’s pretty busy these days. But I’m sure if you twist my arm I can handle this for ya.
And if you spot one, PLEASE tag me on Instagram or Facebook or leave a comment here and tell me all of the details!! And snap a photo if you’re in a place that allows them.
Until next time… xoxo Crystal