To understand the possible adjustments you might need to make to your antique bed, to use your modern mattress…..You first need to understand what was being used as a mattress and springs back when these beds were at their most popular in the 1800’s.
In the 1800’s there was no such thing as a mattress with springs in it. All mattresses were large stuffed sacks. They were made the same length and width of the bed frames that were being made. The thing that distinguished a better quality mattress from a not so good one were two things. The first was what it was stuffed with. Early mattresses contained a variety of natural materials including straw, feathers or horse hair. The most desirable and costly were “feather” mattresses. You can imagine how many feather it took to achieve a “lofty” thick mattress. But the comfort factor was far superior to that of a “straw” stuffed mattress.
The second thing that separated a good quality mattress from a lesser one, was the “ticking”, a strong, durable material, typically striped, that was used to cover mattresses and pillows. The manner in which this “ticking” was sewn together determined how good a mattress would be and if the interior stuffing would stay in place or get lumpy in certain areas. Better quality mattresses back then had a trim called “piping”, thin cord covered in fabric, used to reinforce the seams.
From about 500 AD and continuing over the next few centuries bed and bedroom went into a decline and most people were happy enough with a hard bench above the damp and the foraging rats. For the austere conditions describing life for people in Britain, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, a ‘bed’ was nothing more than a location on the floor. Sleeping indoors was considered luxury enough and on cold nights better to be huddled together in the company of others. It was a lawless time when there was some measure of safety in numbers. If available, straw could easily be stuffed into coarse cloth sacks and spread on a table or bench, emptied in the morning and then remade at bedtime. In this way hardship was subtly incorporated into custom and the absence of comfortable beds was viewed as a way of strengthening character and body. Soft beds made soft soldiers and soft surfaces led to effeminacy and weak character. Undressing for sleep was viewed as a coddling affectation.
It was this absence of a true bed that saw the term ‘make the bed’ come into use, a literal statement throughout the Dark Ages. No smoothing of sheets and blankets or the fluffing of pillows, but more a case of gathering straw or leaves to stuff inside a coarse sack and then locating a dry spot to lay your head. It was from the routine making and remaking of these sack-beds that people began to speak of making beds.
It wasn’t until 1901 that man made the first hand tied mattress with metal springs in it and cotton stuffing. At that same time a newer bed frame that was within 5″ from the floor was becoming very popular. The old antique iron bed frames had rails that were 13″ off the ground. With this new type of frame it became necessary to devise something that would elvate the mattress up to a more comfortable, manageable height…….in comes the modern day “box spring”. Probably one of the worst inventions that can’t say “die”. Instead of just making a “hard foundation” for the mattresses to set on, box springs were invented. You may have asked yourself “why” do mattress companies suggest that you “flip and rotate” your mattress every few months? It’s because, at no time, can the springs in the mattress completely align themselves with the springs in the box spring. And because they can’t, the springs will become off set and crooked. That in turn will then cause lumps in the mattress. Whereby if the mattress were setting on a flat hard foundation with no springs, it would last longer and be more orthopedic.
Old iron beds were constructed to accommodate a very small wire spring unit, that had no covering on it and was attached to the side rails. On top of that went the thiner “feather” mattress. So with todays thick box springs and pillow top mattresses , you might find yourself using a step stool to be able to get into bed.
So your best bet in being able to use your new “pillow-top” mattress on your old metal bed frame is to get rid of the 8″ box spring and get yourself a 2″ thick “bunkie board” that will effectively lower the top of the mattress by 6″. Give it a try