Southwestern States Mission: Sharing a bed

By March 25, 2012

In honor of Elder Jones?s late bedtime on 1900 May 27, this week I will discuss two aspects of missionary sleeping arrangements. How often did they share a bed? and How did they feel about it?

The six traveling missionaries seem to have shared a bed with their companion(s) some frequency between ?most of the time? and ?almost always.? [1] The Mission President and Conference Secretaries seem mostly to have slept alone while tending their respective headquarters but shared beds when traveling.

The only ?reason? I have found for sharing beds was that the Elders didn?t want to sleep on the floor. I detect neither rules nor rhetoric about sleeping arrangements in general nor the superiority of shared beds in particular. [2] I also detect no sexual awkwardness or complaints about the practice. Sharing a bed seems to have just been ?the way things were.?

I think the Elders mostly shared beds and mostly didn?t think much of it because:

  • I assume, with almost no empirical evidence, that most people in rural eastern Texas in 1900 did not keep multiple unoccupied beds in their houses;
  • References to the Elders? singular ?bed? outnumber, ten-to-one, those to plural ?beds? [3];
  • There are more clear references to sleeping together than there are clear references to sleeping alone;
  • I perceive the references to the Elders or those they observe sleeping in the same bed to be ?matter of fact,? having neither emotional intensifiers nor prominence in the entry. [4]
  • The Elders do include some mild intensifiers when they shared a bed with three or more people, shared a bed with a non-missionary, or unexpectedly got their own bed.
Previous Post: Fasting Frequency

[1] I have not completed a quantitative analysis. Making numbers up, I?d guess that the Elders spent 1-2% of their nights not in a house/hotel and another 1-2% in a house but not in a bed (though possibly sharing a pallet). At this point, I?d be really surprised if the Elders shared a bed fewer than 80% of the nights; I think a 95% estimate is not implausible.

[2] I find no direct evidence for or against the present-day rule for missionaries to always sleep in the same room. They did share rooms, and occasionally beds, with non-missionaries. There are instances when they did not stay at a home because there was no adult male present.

[3] For examples: ?were given a bed? (Duffin, 1899 Nov 10 Fri); ?gave us a good bed? (Jones, 1900 Apr 03 Tue); ?we got Supper and a bed? (Clark, 1901 Aug 08 Thu). In the six diaries there are at least ninety such entries. The necessary caveat is that the Elder?s orthography? let us say, ?did not conform to rigid notions of consistency,? whether sentence to sentence or between writers.

[4] The Elders noted beds that were hard, soft, hot, cold, bug-infested, cat-defended, and/or collapsing but, overall, paid little documentary attention to sleeping in the same or separate bed(s).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting, Edje. Seems entirely plausible to me.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 25, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  2. “cat-defended” LOL.

    Very interesting, Edje, thank you.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 25, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

  3. When Lincoln rode circuit in Illinois, sharing beds was commonplace and unremarkable. Although this is a little later, I think your conclusions are correct based on this slightly earlier precedent.

    Also, if you were a traveler and stayed at the Mansion House in Nauvoo, you weren’t renting a room but rather space in a bed. Another traveler, a complete stranger to you, would generally end up in the same bed with you. From our perspective with our modern sensibilities, boggles the mind!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 25, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

  4. Fun post! Reminds me of an entry from an ancestor’s mission journal, volume 3. (London, 1895.)

    On the title page he noted:

    [Ni]ne Elders in three Beds Page 2
    Crowded Bed Space

    Three Beds

    Page 2 said:

    About 630 hearing a [k]nock. And expecting some visitors I got up went to the window dropped the Key to them.

    Soon after dressed came down and met Pres Aveson Elds Ogden and Jones the last named came over when I did
    And after breakfast started out to take in the sights of town those of most importance returning about 1120 tired out. when nine of us retired in three small beds.

    Comment by Amy T — March 25, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  5. Nice work, Edje. I love me some social history like this and continue to enjoy your posts. Keep ’em coming.

    Comment by Christopher — March 25, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  6. I’m loving these, Edje!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 25, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

  7. “cat-defended”! I missed that on first read. Kevin, I remember that now from the Mansion House tour. Good detail.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 25, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

  8. Thanks, Cynthia, Jared, Kevin, Amy, Christopher, and Ardis.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 25, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  9. IIRC, Michael Quinn treats missionary sleeping arrangements in _Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans_. (I don’t own a copy and it’s been ten years since I read it.)

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 25, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  10. The cat story:

    Brooks, 1901 Jan 28 Mon: “… Now for the night?s experience. To begin with we broke the bedstead down. Had to put the bed on the floor. We then had a time fighting the cat out of the bed. The cat was the first one to draw blood. He scratched me on the ear in the fight.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 25, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

  11. Awesome detail. I went my whole mission without a bed (Japan–slept on floor), and that sounds much preferable to sharing!

    Comment by ESO — March 26, 2012 @ 8:09 am

  12. I think that sharing the bed was not all that uncommon in many homes up until the 1950’s. My wife’s father talks about sharing a bed with two of his 4 brothers up till about high school, when he finally got his own bed, as he was the youngest and the older ones had moved out. My wife’s mother also shared a bed with two sisters until they left home to work or get married.

    Comment by kevinf — March 26, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  13. My brother and I had bunk beds, but my sisters shared a double bed. For six months during my ninth year, when my dad was on sabbatical leave from the university, I shared a bed with my brother, who was four years younger, and, for part of the time, my sister, who was a year older. It was a twin bed! (We’d sleep at opposite ends–or two at one end and one at the other when there were three of us.)

    All we cared about was not getting kicked in the middle of the night.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 26, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

  14. Speaking of sharing a bed, there was this interesting note form the journal of Willard Jones from the Southwestern States Mission that Ardis is running over at Keepa. Look at the May 27th entry.

    It was late before we got to bed as the room we were to sleep in there was a young couple sparking.

    Comment by kevinf — March 26, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

  15. In John H. Gibbs’ journal there is a story of how he and his companion, Thomas Merrill, arrived at a hotel late. They were told they would have to stay in two different rooms and share beds with a Yankee and an Irishman. When they reached the Irishman?s room Gibbs said in a voice loud enough to be heard ?Well, Elder Merrill, you tackle him and I’ll take the Yankee.? Startled and apparently afraid at what he heard, the Irishman jumped up, grabbed his clothes and ran downstairs, leaving the room to Gibbs and Merrill.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 26, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

  16. The sharing of beds was a very common practice in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is mentioned in Melville’s “Moby Dick” and in several biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example. It could well be that even Joseph may have been sharing a bed with his brothers during the initial visits of Moroni. The bed frame was an expensive piece of furniture, especially if the four posts/legs had been turned on a lathe. the addition of headboards and footboards were an extra expense. My foster son’s pioneer progenitor, Lindsey Anderson Brady, was a furniture maker as a side trade, but he was skilled enough that the money he made by furniture making was enough to allow him to build a modest brick home for his family during the Nauvoo period. It would be interesting to know the ratio of his income from his farming versus his furniture making. My grandfather, (B.1890), used to tell me that when his male cousins came to visit they used to share his bed. Even as an adult when working for the railroad in rural Texas he had, depending on location, to share a bed with a member(s) of the track repair crew. In that earlier era there was not the awareness of personal privacy as typifies this time. Consider the rural bathing practices of the same period; the tin tub was in the kitchen and (usually) father or mother went first. Using the same water, each child bathed in order of seniority, with the only change in the water being the addition of an occasional pot or kettle full of hot water. With bed sharing being a common practice, missionsries wouldn’t have thought twice about the practice. It was a nearly ubiquitous custom, most especially in the rural areas for all but the well-to-do who could afford the extra bedrooms and the furniture to fill them.

    Comment by Michael R — March 26, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  17. Bruce Crow (and John H. Gibbs) FTW!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 26, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

  18. Thanks, all.

    ESO: I agree. Just thinking about sharing a bed in an un-air-conditioned room in the summer in Texas makes me break out in a sweat—nevermind any sensibilities about personal space or odors.

    That is a great anecdote, Bruce.

    Kevin, Mark, and Michael: I think y’all highlight an important point that I have underplayed in my focus on the missionaries: sharing beds was common for almost everyone. It’s unlikely that the missionaries associated bed-sharing with mission life. They probably shared beds before and after, just like most folks they knew.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 26, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  19. Sparking?

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 27, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

  20. It’s midnight here, and I really should be in . . . bed, but this thread inspired me to dig into one of my boxes of ephemera, scan an old albumen photograph I remembered, and load it for the edification of all who wish to “picture” the present topic. I bought this item years ago, and would guess that it dates from the early 1900s, at the latest. It measures 6 X 8 inches, and was obviously an individual photograph (rather than mass-produced). There is no attribution or identification written on it. It may depict a college, work camp or vacation setting, but it is equally possible that this was a gag photograph – something frequently done among young friends of both sexes during that era. (While I don’t believe I have seen a vintage photo of guys in a bed, before, I remain confident that no sexual overtones were intended here, judging from many years of collecting photographica.) Enjoy . . .

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 27, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

  21. photo

    [Edit: I tweaked the link, Rick]

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 27, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

  22. Cynthia, if your parents didn’t explain it to you, I’m not going to venture.

    (Also, I’m not sure exactly how to interpret the level. I have seen references, though not all from the same decade, for it meaning as little as talking softly together to cuddling to making out).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 28, 2012 @ 12:10 am

  23. That’s a great photo, Rick.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 28, 2012 @ 12:12 am

  24. Hi Rick,
    I’m inclined to agree with you that it does look posed. After all, it appears that a flash was used and in that era preparing a flash was a bit of a production in and of itself. (Note the harsh shadow of the man’s head in the near center of the picture.) That said, though, the cabin looks very much like a it might be from a real mining or logging camp, or even a bunkhouse. It appears to humorously illustrate the negative elements of three males attempting to sleep in close proximity, not the least of which was snoring. We’ll leave the rest of the ‘liabilities’ to the reader’s imaginations. I think it’s a “hoot”! Nice addition to anyone’s collection of photographic ephemera.

    Comment by Michael R — March 28, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  25. Excellent point about the flash, Michael! And thanks to Edje or whomever for fixing the link.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 28, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  26. […] The “Southwestern States Mission” series uses the diaries of six missionaries who served in eastern Texas around 1900 to illustrate aspects of Mormon material culture, lived religion, and social History. The missionaries are Mission President Duffin and Elders Brooks, Clark, Folkman, Forsha, and Jones. The series is inspired by Ardis Parshall?s serial posting of the missionary diary of Willard Larson Jones at Keepapitchinin. Previous installment here. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Beloved Band of Brethren — April 1, 2012 @ 6:05 pm


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