Money was tight on a preacher’s salary, but that didn’t deter my great-grandparents from buying a brand new Mission-style bed when they first set up housekeeping in the early 1900s. Over the next half century, their tall oak bed stood witness to the full circle of family life, as children were conceived, babies were born, and last breaths were drawn. But after my great grandmother died in the late 1950s, my great aunt decided that it was finally time to toss the woefully out-of-style bed in the trash.
“Don’t do it,” my grandmother told her. “Believe it or not, someday someone will actually like that junk.”
That someone turned out to be me. After spending nearly 40 years in my great aunt’s attic, the mission oak bed came back into fashion and found a home in our 1920s bungalow, where it replaced the old iron bed that I’d purchased a few years earlier when Victoriania was in style.
A long-time antiques dealer, my grandmother understood the fickle tastes of the purchasing public. Unfortunately, she was not around Indianapolis in the early 1900s to advise iron bed manufacturer T.B. Laycock to diversify his product line to satisfy changing tastes. At one time the largest manufacturing concern in Indianapolis, Laycock’s company went bankrupt in the early 1900s when demand for its iron beds fell at the same time that prices for raw metal skyrocketed. Customers could now buy an entire suite of wood bedroom furniture in Mission oak and other popular styles for the same price as a single iron bed. The once-ubiquitous iron bed of the 1890s had suddenly become “so last century.”
In 1910, The Indianapolis Star wrote that the T.B. Laycock Manufacturing Company was “famous throughout the country for the facilities offered for the welfare of employees.” But by mid-century, the revolutionary innovations and social welfare programs that Thomas Benton Laycock put in place for his employees were largely forgotten due to the company’s early failure, at least according to a University of Kansas researcher who wrote a 1965 paper on Laycock’s progressive approach to management. And so it remained for the next 50 or so years, until HI founder Tiffany Benedict Berkson started researching the history of her Herron-Morton neighborhood.
Laycock and his family lived in a since-demolished mansion on the northwest corner of Delaware and 19th Streets. A chance encounter with one of T.B. Laycock’s descendents led HI to a treasure trove of old company newsletters and other background material on what the KU researcher called one of the first companies in the U.S. to initiate social reform measures for its employees. These reforms incuded ample natural light, landscaped factory grounds and numerous onsite amenities, including washrooms, a subsidized cafeteria and a well-stocked library for employees and their families.
Laycock initially launched these reforms because he believed it was the right thing to do, but it did not take long for him to discover the financial benefits of happy, healthy workers. “When men and women love their work,” Laycock told the Star, “the best they have in hand and heart and brain goes into that work.” This spirit of enthusiasm and friendly cooperation between employers and workers inevitiably led to higher quality products and translated into “cold dollars and cents,” Laycock said.
Perhaps Laycock’s interest in social reform was engendered by his own humble beginnings. He grew up in Washington, Indiana, attending public schools and working in the summers in a stave factory. Laycock quit school at an early age to take a position as a clerk in a hardware store, where he gained his first business experience. From there, he put his training to good use, building a successful delivery wagon service. But Laycock dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
In 1873, he began reading the law in a local judge’s office. Two years later, Laycock was admitted to the bar and at age 22, was elected city clerk and also appointed as the city’s attorney. But around 1880, Laycock abandoned his thriving law practice when the bed spring man came to town.
Bed springs were rarities in those days. Most beds consisted of a feather mattress sitting atop a web of ropes strung from wooden pegs on the side of the bed frame. This arrangement required feathers – lots of feathers – in order to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep. So feathers were in great demand at the time.
Laycock saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing popularity of bed springs while profiting from the resale of feathers. With the addition of springs, a bed needed fewer feathers. He and his father-in-law went into business manufacturing bed springs and selling them in exchange for feathers. The feathers were then resold to dealers for cash. They started out with a single wagon, but by the mid-1880s Laycock had 40 teams and wagons departing each week from the factory with a load of newly manufactured springs and returning at week’s end with a load of feathers.
In 1880, Laycock moved to Indianapolis and opened a small bed spring factory at 80 South Pennsylvania Street. Soon, Laycock’s dreams for a sleep business empire outgrew the Pennsylvania Street location, and the factory was moved to 10th and Canal Streets. The T.B. Laycock Manufacturing Company was now making a full line of upholstered bed springs, brass and iron beds, and children’s cribs and cradles.
Although the Canal Street factory suffered two devastating fires over the next decade, each time a bigger and better facility was rebuilt on the same site. By 1899, the Laycock factory was one of the city’s largest and included revolutionary conveniences for employees such as baths, rest rooms, meeting rooms and eating facilities.
In 1901, Laycock purchased 127 acres adjacent to Brookside Park in anticipation of building an even better manufacturing facility, along with a model town for his employees in nearby Brightwood. Completed in 1906, the Brightwood plant was roughly the same size as the Canal Street factory but could accommodate 200 more workers. But more importantly, it had ample room for the amenities which Laycock believed his employees deserved.
According to The Indianapolis Star, the most novel feature of the new Laycock plant was its employee dining room, which resembled the dining room of an enormous hotel and featured clean white tablecloths and comfortable chairs for as many as 200 employees. The cost of the generous noon-day meal was largely underwritten by the company at a loss of $600 per year.
Because few workers had indoor plumbing in their homes, the factory also included extensive baths, which were cared for by attendants and open to employees after 4 p.m. in the afternoon. The female workers were also provided a comfortable rest room, with large chairs, pillows, and plenty of magazines to enjoy in the brief break between lunch and the return to work.
Employees were also encouraged to further their education and improve their minds by checking out books from the factory’s large lending library. In order to facilitate the check-out process, a librarian would circulate throughout the factory floor each day with a cart full of books.
In addition to building brick-and-mortar amenities for his workers, Laycock also built a sense of community by sponsoring a baseball team and hosting various drama clubs, music clubs and literary circles for employees and their families. At night, the dining room could be converted to a playhouse, where employees staged their own productions or were treated to educational lectures by accomplished community leaders such as bishops, ministers, lawyers and college presidents.
One year after Laycock moved his factory to its new Brightwood plant, the economy began faltering in the wake of a bank panic. Already overextended and heavily indebted to the Meyer-Keyser Bank, Laycock was forced to trim his work force over the next few years, although he continued offering generous benefits to employees. In 1912, Laycock declared bankruptcy, with Sol Meyer appointed as co-receiver. A bitter fight ensued among the various creditors and stockholders, with Laycock supporters accusing Meyer of misconduct by selling beds at a discount to the Home Furniture Company, which was partially owned by Meyer’s brother.
The dispute was eventually resolved and the plant was sold in 1915 to the long-extinct Premier Motor Car Company. The building was demolished in early 2011.
Laycock returned to the Canal Street plant after his bed business failed. In 1905, he had incorporated the Laycock Power House Company to take over the real estate and power equipment of the Canal Street plant and expand the buildings to cover a full city block. The facilities were operated by Laycock but leased to a wide variety of different manufacturing concerns.
By 1918, the Laycock industrial building at 10th and Canal Street was leased to 23 different industries, including Laycock’s latest venture which produced bicycles for children. On Saturday, January 13, a blaze of unknown origin destroyed the entire complex, along with six houses, a church, a grocery and a saloon. At the time, it was the most costly fire in the city’s history. The Laycock buildings were fully insured, but coverage was called into question because the sprinkler system had been turned off for the weekend due to the wartime coal shortage.
Arson was suspected, with many believing that the blaze the work of German agents who sought to hinder the wartime production effort. Nothing was ever proved, however.
T.B. Laycock died in 1936. He had remained active in the community in his retirement years, and at the time of his death was still considered one of the city’s leading industrialists and citizens.
I have searched in vain for an iron bed manufactured by Laycock’s company. Perhaps the beds weren’t labeled, which means that the old iron bedstead I used when I got my first apartment could have been made here in Indianapolis. I did recently see a Laycock diplay rack offered on eBay for $499. It went unsold.
A note on how to avoid antique bedlam. Most antique shops have at least one antique bed stashed in a corner, forgotten and dusty, unwanted and unsold. This is because even the most ardent antique enthusiast can be wary of purchasing an antique bed. First, there’s the odd sizes, short and narrow and often too tall by today’s standards. Then there’s the “ick” factor. “Someone died in this bed,” you might think, which is creepy enough when it’s a stranger but a real bummer when it’s grandma. And then it occurs to you with dawning horror that if grandma slept in this bed with grandpa, well then grandma slept in this bed with grandpa, if you catch my drift.
But if you happen to inherit an antique bed, it’s really not that hard to turn your family heirloom into a functional piece of furniture. Most full-size beds that were manufactured after 1890 have standard hooks on the headboard and footboard than can easily be connected to an inexpensive queen-size converter frame. If that doesn’t work — which was the case with my great-grandparents’ bed — there are all sorts of special converter frames that you can find on the internet. Early handmade rope beds can be more challenging to convert to a standard size, and in my view you probably shouldn’t even try if the bed has managed to survive intact with its pegged rails for 150+ years. The good news is, if you find one you love, the odds are also good that it’s already been modified to accept a mattress and box springs.
And as to the ick factor, I just prefer to think of the two antique beds I inherited as the place where my ancestors dreamed.