Clara Barton’s Bed, Part 1

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

I have some exciting news for all the Clara Barton fans out there!  The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is working with the American Red Cross in Washington DC to put Clara Barton’s trunk bed on display!  Since we are still working on some environmental and security issues at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office, the trunk bed will be displayed at our main museum.  A trunk bed, as the name implies, is a small bed, or cot, which folds into a trunk to become more easily portable.  This is the trunk bed Clara Barton used when she traveled to the battlefields and hospitals during the Civil War, so it is particularly appropriate for display here at the NMCWM.

There is a mention of it in the book, Clara Barton: Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor:  “The first movements of the expedition to Charleston failed, though Barton dryly remarked that she had “seen worse retreats if this be one,”  She was disappointed in being excluded from what little action did take place and was surprised to find that she had time to settle in and become accustomed to the pace of life at Hilton Head.  She and David [her brother] were given two rooms next to the chief quartermaster, furnished with a collection of makeshift furniture and castoffs from the local plantations: a large mahogany table “evidently once very costly,” a rocking chair, and Egyptian marble-topped bureau, mosquito netting for curtains, and Clara’s army trunk that unfolded into a bed.”

We were all excited at the prospect of displaying Clara’s bed so that everyone can see it, but first we had to get it here.  Packing and moving a 150-year-old trunk bed is a bit more involved than moving a regular bed!


Clara’s trunk bed was professionally packed and crated for its trip from Washington DC by USArt, and then it was carefully transported to Frederick by Red Cross staff members. The crate was a bit heavy, so it took some teamwork from all of us to get it unloaded!


Though it was just a short distance to the museum from the street, we made sure the crate stayed securely on the cart!


Once the crate was in my office, we could start the process of uncrating it. You can see here how securely it was packed. Even if it had been dropped (not a scenario anyone wants!) it would have been well protected. There were several layers to the packaging. There was a cloth cover around the trunk as the first line of defense against dust, dirt, and scratches. Next it was covered with a layer of plastic, to protect it from moisture. All the surfaces touching the wrapped trunk were foam, which helped to cushion the trunk. And finally, the wooden crate protected the trunk against more extreme physical damages.


Here’s what we were all waiting to see – the trunk bed which belonged to Clara Barton! At first glance, it looks like an ordinary trunk. The frame is made of wood, and the exterior is covered with tooled leather. It is also reinforced with wood and metal strips. The trunk is not hinged on the long edge, but along the short edge. You might notice two orange labels, one on the top and one on the side. Each one reads, “Clara Barton.”


The trunk folds out to make this small cot. I’m sure it’s quite functional, but it sure doesn’t look comfortable! It’s also in remarkably good shape.


Underneath the cot is storage space. Here you can see a bag which contains some of the leather straps from the trunk, some wooden poles which can be set up around the cot, and the blue mosquito netting which would have been draped over the poles. I haven’t had the opportunity to set it up with the netting yet, but I plan to have it displayed with the netting. I’ll be posting photos of that here later!


I am currently doing some research on this bed, and preparing to put it on display.  Be sure to check back later for more photos and more news on this unique Clara Barton artifact!  In the meantime, take a look at this short video clip on the bed’s journey to my museum:


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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