Sleep tight.

Swing low, stale guest.

Dear Word Detective:  A few years ago, I toured the Oakley Plantation house within the James Audubon Memorial Park south of St. Francisville, LA.  During the tour they showed us a bed with ropes supporting the mattress.  They mentioned that when a guest had outstayed their welcome, the servants were instructed to loosen the ropes so the mattress sagged.  My memory escapes me, but it seems this act was associated with a phrase.  The phrase would be ancient since ropes are no longer used to support a mattress, but perhaps someone has heard of this before.  If you have never had the opportunity to visit the Oakley Plantation House, I highly recommend it.  The best time to visit is late February or March when the Azelas are in bloom. — Bill Jones.

Thanks for an interesting question.  I looked up the Oakley Plantation House on the internet, and it does look fascinating.  It also seems to make quite an impression on visitors, because I found quite a few mentions of the place on personal blogs.  Serendipitously, several of these folks had evidently taken the same tour as you did, and they just happened to mention the story that the tour guides told you about the beds.  I was already fairly certain that I knew what phrase you were having trouble remembering, but it’s nice to get such precise confirmation of my hunch.

So let’s go to the tape and quote the story directly from one of these blogs: “The beds at the time did not have box springs, but instead had ropes tied tightly underneath the mattress to keep it firm and tight, hence the phrase, ‘Sleep tight.’  When a guest had overstayed their welcome, the household slaves would be instructed to loosen the ropes night by night, causing the mattress to sink in, rendering it more and more uncomfortable.”

Unfortunately, this story shows strong signs of being concocted as an embellishment of the popular theory that “sleep tight” originated as a reference to the “rope beds” mentioned above.  Such beds did indeed exist, and it was important to periodically tighten the ropes to prevent mattress-droop.

But the “tight” in “sleep tight,” meaning “sleep soundly,” almost certainly comes from the use of “tight” and “tightly” to mean “soundly, securely, properly,” a use that dates back to Shakespeare.  The phrase “sleep tight” also first appeared in the mid-19th century, a bit after such beds were popular, and from the first was most commonly heard in variations on the classic rhyming bedtime salutation “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”  The impulse of tour guides to tie the phrase “sleep tight” to beds sporting ropes that had to be kept tight must be nearly irresistible, but I’m afraid that doesn’t make it true.  The good news is that the part about driving guests away by loosening the ropes probably isn’t true either.

4 comments on this post.
  1. juliebird11:

    Finally, someone saying “sleep tight” has nothing to do with rope beds. I live in an area with multiple historic buildings and the tour guides always come up with that line. When my kids were little, I bought a rope bed and used a feather mattress(we live in a historic house ourselves) and slept on it a number of times. Trust me, a tight rope bed is like sleeping on a knife bed. Give those ropes some slack! Hammocks aren’t stretched out between 2 trees. They hang loosely between trees. Tight ropes on a bed are bad, very, very bad.

  2. phil:

    I had always found the comment “sleep tight” as being odd until one day it was explained to me that centuries ago beds used to have rope supports beneath them and when those got loose people would fall through the bed, mattress and all. Kind of funny when you think about it. :)

  3. Jonathan:

    I always wondered about that! Usually when I have a client asking for a mattress for the guest room they usually say “Get me something that’s comfortable…but not so comfortable that they over stay their welcome…actually on second thought…just go ahead and get me something uncomfortable.”

  4. Futons:

    Jonathan, you should tell them to get an old college futon mattress then. Lol.

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