Constable: Mattress tales of Washington, Lincoln, Garfield and Trump

 
 
Updated 2/21/2017 6:14 AM
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  • This former real estate mogul and mattress salesman, seen here in a TV commercial before Hoffman Estates-based Serta cut ties with him, has a unique place in the lore of Presidents Day mattress sales.

    This former real estate mogul and mattress salesman, seen here in a TV commercial before Hoffman Estates-based Serta cut ties with him, has a unique place in the lore of Presidents Day mattress sales. screen grab taken from video

  • Using new technology in 1881 to create a crude metal detector, Alexander Graham Bell still couldn't find a bullet lodged in President James Garfield. Some historians put a bit of the blame on a new mattress with metal coils.

    Using new technology in 1881 to create a crude metal detector, Alexander Graham Bell still couldn't find a bullet lodged in President James Garfield. Some historians put a bit of the blame on a new mattress with metal coils. Courtesy of Library of Congress

In spite of Presidents Day mattress sales, there is no logical connection between discounted bedding and the leader of the free world. But the relationship between presidents and mattresses includes a teenage rant about where Washington slept, Honest Abe's special-order mattress, a mattress partly blamed in the death of one president and even a mattress tale out of Hoffman Estates about our current president that can be described only as sad.

While some presidents have been guilty of "sleeping around," George Washington, who was born on Feb. 22, 1732, probably slept on more mattresses than any other president. According to scholars at Washington's Mount Vernon estate and museum, Washington lived in three different homes by the time he was 6. As a teenager, Washington worked as a surveyor, hiking his way across the wilderness of Virginia.

"I not being so good a woodsman as the rest of my Company striped my self very orderly and went in to the Bed as they call'd it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw -- Matted together (and) one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight in Vermin such as Lice and Fleas etc.," a 16-year-old Washington wrote in his diary that was excerpted in a 1999 Smithsonian Magazine article.

During the French and Indian War, 21-year-old Maj. Washington hiked 900 miles through snowy woods. As a leader and general in the Continental Army, he slept in hundreds of locales. As our first president, he traveled throughout the northern and southern states, spending many nights in private homes and inns. In the early 1790s, Washington's wife, Martha, ordered a bed from Philadelphia with a mattress 6 feet, 6 inches long to accommodate Washington's 6-foot, 2-inch frame.

At 6-foot-4, Abraham Lincoln was our tallest president, and the bed purchased by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is enormous. The Lincoln bed in the White House is an elaborate rosewood bed nearly 8 feet long and 6 feet wide, according to The White House Museum. The president, however, probably never slept in it. His son, Willie, died in that bed at age 11 in 1862.

But that didn't stop Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt from sleeping in the bed, which was not known for comfort. Barbara Bush, wife of President George H.W. Bush, replaced the original mattress made of horsehair.

The most infamous presidential mattress might bear some responsibility in the death of James Garfield, our 20th president. On July 2, 1881, an assassination attempt left Garfield with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. There were no X-ray machines then, so doctors used their unsterilized bare hands and medical tools to poke around the president's 210-pound frame in search of the bullet.

Unable to find it, doctors continued to treat Garfield at the White House while the public submitted ideas to help him recover. Physicist and astronomer Simon Newcomb, who headed the Naval Observatory in Washington, and Alexander Graham Bell teamed up to craft a rudimentary metal detector, which created a hum when placed close to metal objects. They couldn't find the bullet, and some historians blame the new White House mattress with metal coils for messing up those tests. Garfield was sent to his summer home on the Jersey Shore and died from infection on Sept. 19, a grueling 80 days after the shooting.

Our current president has his own mattress tale, and it has a sad ending. In 2009, Hoffman Estates-based Serta, the largest mattress manufacturer in the United States, launched a line of Trump Home-branded mattresses. In the TV commercial, businessman Donald Trump conversed with sheep. But after candidate Trump made controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants in 2015, Serta kicked Trump out of the bed business.

"Serta values diversity and does not agree with nor endorse the recent statements made by Mr. Trump," the bedding producer said in explaining the end of the relationship.

Or, as an old saying that applies to mattresses and presidents goes, "You've made your bed; now lie in it."

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