What is a Rice Bed?

What is a Rice Bed?

Ever heard of the rice bed? Judging by its name, it’s not exactly what you think it is. When you think you’re familiar with the different types of beds out there, there’s at least one that will throw you off guard. Unless you’re an interior or furniture designer, you may not be familiar with niche designs.

In a nutshell, rice beds refer to bed frames with four posts on each corner. Rice beds got its name from the motif of rice sheaves that is intricately carved on each bedpost. This dated back to the 18th century and reflected the style of the antebellum south prior to its fallout. While rice beds are not as common today, it certainly made its way into homes many years ago.

Still curious about the rice bed? Keep reading as we’ll unravel its unique history and design elements.


History of the Rice Bed

In 1750, furniture craftsman Thomas Elfe was commissioned to design various pieces of furniture for a very well-off landowner in North Carolina. Little did he know that one of his creations – the rice bed – would become an iconic piece of furniture. The plantation owner required the four-poster bed to have symbols of his wealth ingrained in the bedf frame somehow. At this request, Elfe intricately carved a motif of rice sheaves into the posts of the bed, leading to the design that we now know.

Some rice beds have carvings of tobacco plants, leaves, or sheaves instead, but these would still be referred to as rice beds. Another name this bed received was the plantation bed or the Charleston rice bed, due to the area it originated in. Rice was known to be a symbol of wealth at the time, as it was the major crop in the south. A long grain native to Africa and Indonesia, Carolina Gold became the backbone of Charles Towne’s economy when it arrived in 1685.

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Who was Thomas Elfe?

Thomas Elfe, the original creator of the rice bed, lived in Charleston, South Carolina. Due to his work, he was considered one of the premier cabinetmakers of the 18th century. Prior to being sought-after for his designs, he attended the Chippendale School of Design to further expand his expertise on the field. At his peak, historians believed he averaged between 17 to 30 pieces a month in which he worked both solo as well as with employees.

Rice Bed Design

Type of Wood

Traditionally speaking, a rice bed is made out of rich mahogany or cherry wood. Although most rice beds were carved out mahogany, cherry was also used as cherry trees were widely available. Due to the popularity of rice beds, it was recorded that an abundance of mahogany was imported from the Caribbean and South America purely for bed making.  There was so much mahogany brought in that 18th century cabinetmakers would have imported mahogany ready as ‘bed post’ size.

The Posts & Headboard

A common misunderstanding is that rice beds are the same as other four-poster beds. While most four-poster beds have a rail between each post, rice bed posts don’t connect to each other. Instead, each post stands alone. This connection is usually to house drape curtains or other methods to close the bed off, but this won’t be possible with a rice bed. It also means that rice beds won’t have a canopy, where a fabric is topped over the rail posts.

However, a wooden frame called a tested would be added to early versions of the rice bed. A fabric would be draped over the frame and it would prove to be beneficial during winter. While this didn’t carry over to later versions, owners of a rice bed would cover the bed with mosquito netting. The net material would keep them safe from mosquitos, which carried malaria and yellow fever at the time.

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In terms of headboards, rice beds have a rounded style that resembles a camel hump. The headboard is also generally taller than the footboard.

Height of Rice Beds

Compared to other bed designs, rice beds were taller in height. With the mattress frame being higher off the ground, the bed allowed for better air circulation during steamy summers. Other handy design elements include low headboards and footboards, which can also be removed at times. This feature allows for better airflow to reach the head and feet.

As rice bed mattresses can get so high, owners would use bed steps to get up. To save space, the steps are often used as storage areas. The steps would have an opening on a hinge to reveal drawers and cupboards.

Rice Beds in Summer & Winter

A thinner bed frame such as the rice bed means it’s also easy to lift and move if needed. During these early times before the invention of air conditioning, beds were often moved to the center of the room. This simple act makes for a cooler sleep during hotter climates. In colder weather, rice beds can be equipped with fabric draped across the four posts and the bed skirts for warmth.

Availability of Rice Beds

Although locating an authentic rice bed may be difficult, reproductions are available. Rice beds can be found in certain artisanal or vintage shops. As they’re not the most modern of designs, there aren’t many of them on the market. Due to its scarcity, one of these bed frames can cost an upwards of $1,000 up to around $4,500.

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Styling Rice Beds

If rice beds are your style (and if you’re lucky to score one of these rare bad boys), they will certainly add life to the bedroom. Its distinct look makes it a character in itself, and you’ll want to dress it up with complimenting sheets, pillows, and throws. With a rice bed in the room, try to make it the highlight of the room and play your other furniture around it. Use a similar-colored wood for your bedside tables or dressers. As most rice beds are made out of mahogany – a dark, reddish wood – you could go for a warmer color scheme for the room. Think maroon and deep reds, or go towards a darker blue theme instead.

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