Bedding and Underwear in the 17th century Vilnius

No one has written yet about bedding and underwear used by the dwellers of Vilnius. On the one hand, the subject might not seem important enough. On the other hand, historical sources on the matter are meagre. By digging into seemingly unimportant details of everyday life, historians reveal a broader picture. People spend a considerable part of their lives sleeping and the “culture of sleep” is the existing fact. Historical investigation provides information on the hygiene and social differentiation at the time and – indirectly – the position of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Europe.

Sleeping beds, beds for rest and other similar pieces of furniture, just like bedding, reflected the social status of a person. Rulers and the wealthiest nobility of the GDL slept in luxurious beds with baldachins but they did not really adopt the 17th century manner that was widespread among the French nobility, or ruele, who would receive their visitors and even carry discussions on literary matters while lying in bed. It was Marija Zamoiska, the future queen and then the wife of the Voivode of Sandomir, who tried to introduce the “bed mode” in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Lithuanian sleep according to the travelogues

Most people in the GDL, including peasants and destitute noblemen, slept on bare floor sometimes laying some straw on it because only some of them had sleeping benches. Inns and hostelries could hardly offer more comfort to travellers because providing lodging was not their primary mission at the time. Inns in the GDL were an object of fun for Pedro Ruiz de Moros, a Spanish lawyer who wrote in his macaronic (a rhymed piece of literature in Latin featuring elements of the national language) in the middle of the 16th century: “If a guest travels through Lithuanian villages, / Whether through Vilnius or other places, / […] And unless he has his own bedding, a bench will be his bed, / The rough bed where he can spread his tired body.“ A number of foreign and local travellers documented their complaints related to lodging in the 16th through the 18th century. Fynes Moryson, an English traveller, wrote in 1593 that the Polish people carry their beds together with them because “it is difficult to get lodging, […] others usually sleep on hay covered under travel furs.” One century later, things were no better.

According to Gaspar de Tende, a Frenchman who travelled in the PLC in 1669 and 1675, lodging is practically unavailable, and people need to “find a place to sleep beside horses, cows, and pigs.”

He recommends taking your personal “bed with a mattress” and bedding. Other two Frenchmen, diplomat Ch. Ogier and courtier Francis Daleyrac, complained about dreadful grubbiness, ever present animals, crying babies and lack of beds in the 17th century Lithuania. Neither peasants nor poor noblemen are able to offer any kind of bedding which is absent even in inns. People from these social classes mostly used very simple items. Very little is known about their underwear. The situation was better in the second half of the 18th century as the traveller F. Schulz wrote that post stations offered beds or at least bundles of straw.

Bedding—a dowry and heirloom

Wealthy city residents had a number of beds in their homes in the 17th century. I could not find information on mattresses used on beds but there are indications that some city dwellers, usually less well-to-do, would cover their beds with straw. Rich people used luxurious bedding, towels, tablecloths, underwear and other garments. Historic sources – property inventories and, less often, testaments – refer to all these items as clothes or white goods (chuste or bielizna). It seems that the majority of Vilnius residents, especially the wealthiest, had several sets of bedding in the 17th century. The sets consisted of several – up to ten on the average – pillows (some people would keep rosaries under the pillows), several downy feather blankets and several lighter ones, as well as several sets of bed sheets, pillowcases and duvet covers. The 1649 testament by Ana Melerowa lists seven pillows with pillowcases, two upper and lower feather blankets with covers as well as towels and tablecloths. The 1656 testament by Marianna Cylichova features a number of white goods (chusta białe) including cotton fabrics, shirts, aprons, six large and six smaller towels, two dozen of tablecloth, pillowcases for three sets of pillows, three blankets and bed sheets including an embroidered one. The 1668 post-mortem property inventory of the Vilnius resident Teodor Kochanski includes one towel from Wrocław (valued 8 złoty), a woven towel (5 złoty), 50 pieces of linen for children garments, three  woven bed sheets (3 złoty each), three downy blankets (pierzyny), three smaller pillows, a Turkish blanket, nine blanket covers, and four pairs of worn out men’s shirts.

Documents often offer description of colours and quality of the white goods. Bedding, towels and tablecloth usually were white, home-woven of linen or hemp fibre. According to property inventories and dowry inheritance documents compiled by women, many items featured lacing or embroidering; blankets were mostly downy. Families sometimes had imported linen or cotton items such as towels from Wroclaw and Silesia or blankets from Turkey. The ruling elite in Vilnius used bedding and towels made of Dutch fabrics and other, more expensive materials. The bedding, either exclusive or simple, was a valuable part of a dowry or movable property of a city resident. Documents usually contain generalised entries regarding the bedding. For instance, Jan Kosobucki, a Vilnius-based merchant, writes in his 1689 testament that he leaves his wife quite a few white goods and bedding.

The 1667 dowry inventory by Ana Tropova, another resident of Vilnius, lists 30 plain and two embroidered pillowcases (7 złoty each, 224 złoty in all), ten smaller pillowcases (3 złoty each, 30 złoty in all), 18 aprons (36 złoty), 18 towels (144 złoty), ten plain and eight embroidered bed sheets (valued 30 and 120 złoty respectively), rolls of cotton fabric (80 złoty), 18 smaller towels (90 złoty), five large covers for downy blankets (8 złoty each). The total value of bedding and other items that the girl brought to her new family was as much as 800 złoty. The 1684 post-mortem property inventory of Anastasia Gilewiczova who also lived in Vilnius features three embroidered white pillowcases and bed sheets valued 25 złoty, other pillowcases and bed sheets valued ten złoty, other embroidered items (15 złoty), a large towel and a towel from Silesia (15 złoty); the document provides no valuation for ten new Silesia towels because the deceased had not yet paid a Jewish merchant for them. Consequently, a decent set of bedding could fetch at least 30 złoty in the 17th century Vilnius.

Mentions of underwear in the inventories and legal proceedings

No wonder thus that bedding and other white goods were items of value. People would retain the bedding of their relatives even if they had died of plague. The 1630 instruction says that the plague-smeared bedding should be hanged outside in wind for a considerable amount of time or, in case that is not possible, bedding should be washed with buck and lime or smoked through. Pieces of worn out bedding were often used as a material for other items of white goods. This is why inventories never include worn out bedding or other similar items. The 1666 testament by a Vilnan Eudochia Kuszelina merely mentions that she had several pieces of bedding and “half a unit” of unmeasured linen. The 1671 testament by Gertrud Krapoliuszowa mentions old bedding consisting of ten pillows, two downy blankets, yarn, four large pillowcases (three of which were embroidered) and four smaller ones as well as towels and sleeping shirts. Stepan Karasi, the wealthy burgomaster of Vilnius, ordered to hand out his old clothes to poor people in his 1684 testament.

All rich families could afford several sets of bedding in the 17th century, therefore they could observe proper hygiene by regularly changing their bedding. Pretty nearly the same is true speaking about the underwear worn by wealthy and middle-class residents of Vilnius. Swaddling clothes were used for babies. The 1634 document mentions a baby who was “in swaddling clothes” after the death of his mother Regina Kosmowska. Children mostly wore shirts. The wardrobes of the male population in Vilnius also included undershirts with small collars and wide sleeves as well as linen underpants (gacie). The wealthiest could afford imported underwear such as laced undershirts and woollen or cotton underpants (kalesony became popular in the 18th century). The inventories never indicate the precise number of underwear referring to it simply as “men’s underwear”. Women in Vilnius also wore undershirts (koszule), some of them used as nightdress. Rich women had a number of undershirts, usually more than ten of them. After the death of A. Gilewiczowa in 1684, a document lists her three long and three shorter undershirts valued 15 złoty apart from the worn out ones that she ordered to hand out to the poor. Another Vilnius resident, A. Tropowa, had as much as 20 long laced shirts (8 złoty each) and 30 shorter ones (6 złoty each) in 1667. In addition to that, her wardrobe featured 20 skirts each valued four złoty. Urban women also wore knickers.

Judging by the number of underwear women had, it is safe to assume that they took a proper care about their personal hygiene.

Some historical documents support the notion, including the 1676 written accusations by Kataryzna Krakówna, a widow from Vilnius, against Franciszek Rodzewicz who was a sock knitter and lived in her house for four years. He wanted to marry Katarzyna’s daughter. One day, when Katarzyna was out in a bathhouse together with her daughter and a neighbour, the men started searching for the daughter’s underwear in her bed. He found her undershirt stained with menstrual blood under hay in the head of the bed and tore away four pieces of the smeared fabric. Katarzyna and her daughter learned about that from their younger son whom they had left at home with Franciszek. The two women managed to reclaim the three pieces of the bloody fabric but the man retained the fourth one with him because he intended to use it in a powwow to make the daughter long for him even when he is one hundred miles from Vilnius.

Scruffy individuals were mostly found among the lowest class. Paweł Arcymowicz, a resident of the Vilnius Chapter, wrote about his wife Elena in his 1649 complaint saying she was addicted to alcohol and has guzzled away all towels and women’s underwear kept for their children and worth more than 100 złoty. She has not woven a fathom of fabric during the nine years of their marriage. The poor husband complained that his slovenly wife had turned their family into paupers while she herself is “all stinky, she always sleeps, and her knickers have rotten right on her as well as other underwear.”

Literature: Wilnianie. Żywoty siedemnastowieczne, oprac., wstęp, komentarze David A. Frick, Warszawa, 2008.

Aivas Ragauskas