Feathers were most often derived from wild ducks and geese, particularly the down and other soft feathers. Chickens were also used when available. Pillows were made of feathers and so were thin mattresses that were often placed on top of other, loftier, materials. Sheets were made out of yellow cotton, as described by Lena Mae Couvillier and her sister-in-law Margaret Neal. Pillow cases were also made with flour sacks, feed sacks or yellow cotton (unbleached muslin). The latter came on rolls or flat bolts.
JD: So, uh, flour sacks and cow feed sacks were mostly…and they had patterns on em, you said. Where would yall get the thread and needles and everything to sew with?
MN. We’d get em off those fishboats. Order em. They had all kinds, they had to be all kinds. They all in a pack, all five.
JD: How about sheets for the beds?
LC: You make em. Yellow cotton.
MN: You buy that by the yard, make your sheets with.
LC: Sheets and pillow cases.
JD: And…and the fishboat would have that too?
MN: You’d order it. They’d bring it to you.
In addition to sheets, quilts would be made using traditional quilting techniques and items from the fishboats. The other material needed for making the mattresses was the cloth that enclosed whatever the mattress was made of. This cloth was called ticking.
Corn shucks were one of the two materials that were routinely made into mattresses. The shucks were stuffed into mattress-sized bags. These were common enough, but were not the preferred mattresses. The primary objection to them seems to be that they were very loud when the person resting on them moved in any way. Just turning on them was enough to wake people up, even without the more rhythmic sounds that one might imagine.
“Make a lot of noise, it rattle a lot, when you roll…move on it? It rattled, you know” [Edward Couvillier; 1995]
By far the most often mentioned material for mattresses is dried, black moss. This is the same moss that had income potential when gathered alive (“green moss”) from trees in the swamp and processed to remove the soft, living outer coat, leaving only the very durable non-living inner core of the plant. This core was dark brown to black. While most of the moss was sold, some was retained for use in building mattresses to sleep on. Most of the time it was the women who created these essential items for the family.
To make the moss mattresses, the ticking was spread on the floor and the processed black moss was spread out to a thickness of about 24 inches on one-half of it. The ticking was then folded over “taco fashion” and the seams all around the three open sides were sewn together. A long needle, ten inches or so, was then taken and threaded through the bag of moss at intervals of about 12 inches, creating a network of bindings that tended to keep the enclosed moss from shifting inside the bag. If done expertly, the finished mattress was rectangular, about a foot thick, with sides that almost created 90-degree angles with the top and bottom. Achieving such a regular, well-defined shape was a matter of pride.
Apparently, after sleeping on a moss mattress for a while the moss would compress into clumps and, to remain comfortable to sleep on, these clumps had to be pulled apart and restored to the the springiness they originally had. In a large family, some women would require that every two weeks one of the family’s mattresses would be unsewn, washed, and the clumps pulled apart. Much of this work was done by the children, reluctantly. As they were being picked apart and fluffed up, the clumps were not to be treated so roughly that the individual moss fibers would be broken, but only gently pulled apart. In all the thirty-something people interviewed for this topic, not one remembered the de-clumping (“picking”) procedure with fondness.
Lena Mae’s brother Milton, who grew up to be one of the best fishermen at Myette Point, was not good at doing this chore, resorting to hiding the evidence when he did it inexpertly.
EC: Yeah. You didn’t break it, now, you didn’t want to break it loose, you just fluff it up, you know?
LC: [.. . .] Not Milton, he break it up and go throw it back…Go throw it back of a tree somewhere, where Momma and them couldn’t find it.
JD: Well, was that one of the harder parts of living on a houseboat, was keeping the mattress in good shape?
Lena Mae’s outlook on having to do unpleasant jobs is interesting.
LC: Aw, it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t really hard. It was just…like you do now, you know, you can make it what you want.
People say that this type of bedding was comfortable to recline on, but sleeping on it was easier in the winter than in the summer. Due to the nature of the material, and depending on whether the mattress was firmly stuffed or more soft, anyone lying on it could sink into the mattress and become almost enclosed by it. This was very warm in the winter, even when there was ice in the house in the mornings, and correspondingly uncomfortably hot in the summer.
The mattresses were either placed on the floor or used on top of an iron bed frame with a set of springs on it. Margaret Couvillier Neal and her husband Floyd Mayon had a small two-room houseboat (one kitchen, one everything else) and a big family to put to sleep at night. She talks with humor about this with sister-in-law Lena Mae Couvillier.
MN: I just had three beds, one room, with three beds in it. You couldn’t pass, hardly, between the beds. [laughs] I had six girls and uh, five boys.
JD: Well, with just two mattresses, could you split em up boys and girls?
MN: Yeah. It was rough, but, we made it. The good Lord was with us.
Neg Sauce has good memories of what life was like in the houseboats. After sleeping on the moss mattresses, he remembers what it was like to get up in the morning.
“The first thing that I start doing…you go to the edge of the camp and you wash your face with that nice cool water in the bayou. [. . .]…catch it with your hands, boy...wash your face with it and make you feel fresh [laughs]. Yeah, it was nice. I still would like to do that [laughs], catch you water out of the side…And then you get up and drink you coffee like we always do now.” [Neg Sauce; 1996]
Perhaps that ability to get up in the morning and feel good about the day and yourself was part of the reason these folks could keep going day after day, season after season, adapting to a life that had many challenges. A good night’s sleep was probably one of the reasons those challenges could be met successfully.
The river is at 7.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, high for this time of year. But the bottom is going to fall out this week coming. In five days the water is predicted to fall 3.5 feet. That is a fast drop at any time. Anyone with things floating along the bank of the river better pay attention or their things will be stuck until next year, probably.
Rise and Shine, Jim