Photographs by Jeff Hirsch & Pierre Crosby
Sian’s search for a new mattress led to us to one of our more unusual interviews in a 19th century red brick mattress factory in the South Bronx, the premises of Charles H. Beckley Inc., a family business still run by Ted, Tim and Ken Marschke, who are all related to the original Charles H. Beckley through their mother’s side of the family.
With her thoroughgoing zeal for any major purchase, Sian had worked her way through pretty much every mattress supplier—a real endeavor these days now that the purchasing of complicated mattresses and the subject of how to obtain a good night’s sleep have become such a fetish in our sleep-deprived century. Having never even considered mail order and having rejected mattresses from Charles P. Rogers, Mattress Firm, Coco-Mat, and Duxiana (who can afford Duxiana? Let us know…) she settled on Charles H. Beckley. “For a handmade mattress, it really was the best value out there.”
Our visit did feel as if we had stepped back into a different era, well, several different eras actually. There was the Dickensian ledger book stuffed with handwritten orders and the scuffed wooden office furniture we judged early to mid 1900s. And of course, there were the mattress making techniques themselves, which have barely changed for the last 80 years.
Painstakingly handcrafted at every stage using only natural materials, cotton, wool varieties and horsehair, the mattresses, box springs and headboards are prized by designers for their longevity, quality and comfort. The factory is so very, very old-fashioned—almost unbelievably so in this slick, technology-driven world of ours. Arranged upon four floors, the family owns the whole building and the family members are sufficiently skilled in the practical techniques of the mattress-making work to join their employees on the work floor if need be—in fact Ted Marschke was busy cutting fabric as we toured.
As we were guided through the several labor-intensive stages of piecing together a mattress by Ken Marschke, we realized that we had never actually seen or touched real horsehair, that most Victorian of fibers. It comes from the manes and tails of live horses—black-grey, strangely coarse and springy to the touch and sterilized so that is without any barnyard odor.
There was a blink-and-you’ve missed it moment when we realized that the workers toss and spread the horsehair onto each mattress, tugging hunks of it from a huge pile of the stuff that is tucked away in the recesses of cellar using a piece of technology known as a pitchfork—a very beaten-up one too. “We just found it was the most efficient way,” shrugged Ken, unfazed.
Everywhere we looked, workers were achieving each stage of the mattress-making process with a focused rapidity, using simple, recognizable tools, cutting and doing the kind of sewing that must have once, long ago, made their immensely strong hands ache horribly, as they crafted complete mattresses before our eyes. And as the work progressed, the ground floor was packed with orders going out for the July 4th weekend, all the labels on them reading like the AD Top 100 list. It would seem that the pitchfork system is working just fine.
A brief chat with Ted Marschke (he was busy cutting fabric but he took a break):
Why are you so busy at the moment?
A lot of times it’s the holidays (it was the Fourth of July when we visited the factory) Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas—they’re big deadlines for us. Homes being ready for guests, projects finishing and things like that. June is our busiest month.
There has been a huge proliferation of mattress companies selling to us it seems … when did it become this big business? And why?
Well, much cheaper options have been coming out. For example Stearns & Foster, 15, 20, 25 years ago used to actually use horsehair—all these big companies used to use the same materials we do but they’ve started to go with the more mass market approach in order to make a million a year, whereas we make five hundred a year. We keep the quality high and the longevity.
That is really my big question about mattresses—it is about the most confusing purchase. There is just such a range, a plethora of choice. How do you choose?
How would you like to have to buy a mattress in a box?
You mean like Casper? My son did that.
Yeah? And how was it?
He returned it.
I just can’t imagine opening this thing up and having it expand and it being good. And their markup is astronomical … Casper, Brooklinen … we listen to ads coming in on the radio and, you know, for Black Friday they’ll give you $400 off plus sheets plus pillows—I mean how much profit is that? If I gave you $400 off a twin mattress, I’m not making anything. They buy in tremendous bulk.
Has the formula changed for making these mattresses changed in the last 85 years?
No. We’ve got pictures … it’s still made the same way. The cotton ticking is no longer being made in the US because they shut all the mills down—we get it from India and it’s custom made for us but the rest is all domestic.
So with all these new beds, like the gel bed, the natural fiber bed, and all these claims that these are better than, I suppose the old-fashioned mattress, what do we make of this?
No, they don’t claim they’re better. They claim that it’s better than what is out on the market. The mattress guys are competing against themselves. When somebody says “It’s the best mattress you can buy” they don’t even know we exist. But we’ve always been hit … back in the eighties, it was the Dux, Duxiana – that was the big thing.
What has changed from then until now?
Things are all made overseas. [Also] we don’t measure as much as we used to. Every bed was a weird size. I’d go all over the city. It was real sales. Go out and measure. I would go all over the city to measure. We would call on people to measure. Back in the day, we had men that would come in in a suit and tie and with a briefcase, overcoat, top hat and they would call on people. They would go to decorators’ offices, give out their cards and drum up business.
How would you describe your business now?
Now, we do a lot of fancy stuff. It’s a different kind of custom. Sometimes I look at it … (shakes his head) … it really is nice.