What's so funny about a bloodstained mattress?
February 9, 2014 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Can Metafilter offer a plausible explanation of what is going on in this curious vintage photo of a group of women holding up a stained mattress and a pillow?

It was shared without context today on a reddit "strange images" thread.
posted by dontjumplarry to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My logical brain says this is a mattress one of them gave birth on, perhaps with a particularly funny story attached. My imagination says this is the mattress on which one of them stabbed her abusive husband to death, and they are all being wonderfully overjoyed that the bastard is dead.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:36 PM on February 9, 2014 [23 favorites]

I was going to say someone lost their virginity on it... although that's waaaaay too much blood.
posted by littlesq at 11:52 PM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe it's funny because it looks like a bloodstain, but actually it was a perfectly normal stain caused by e.g. the roof leaking onto the bed, or someone spilling something on it.

Since it's black and white, we don't even know that the stain is red.
posted by lollusc at 11:58 PM on February 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Maybe the mattress was the "landing pad" of some jumping physical event that involved running through mid.
posted by samthemander at 12:08 AM on February 10, 2014

I get a prank vibe from this. I wish I could make out what the woman on the far right is holding in her hand. It looks like a little black square something or other.
posted by quincunx at 12:08 AM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh! Maybe they are nursing students?
posted by samthemander at 12:09 AM on February 10, 2014

I think the woman on the far right is holding a Brownie box camera, suggesting at least two people there knew something would be happening that they'd like to memorialize.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:09 AM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Previously (although, at first glance, not resolved)
posted by acidic at 12:12 AM on February 10, 2014

Yeah I'd vote birth. My take is the girl at the bottom of the mattress is pretending to be the newborn.
posted by mannequito at 1:12 AM on February 10, 2014

Tineye has some sites that also link the photo but nothing that seems definitive to me.
posted by vapidave at 1:54 AM on February 10, 2014

My first thought was that it could be a prop for an amateur theatrical production, possibly at an all-women's college. Something like Macbeth? Or maybe some kind of prank?

If it were a childbirth mattress, I don't really get including the pillow... and also, these young women seem sort of mod and jaunty to me. They read to me less ''young motherhood" and more carefree / funloving, but I don't doubt my own bias enters here.
posted by taz at 2:14 AM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's a birth stain. As a general rule, people didn't tend to ruin perfectly good, expensive, mattresses by giving birth on them. Secondly, you wouldn't get heavy staining under a person's back.

There is an in-group joke or back story we're missing here. The stain looks vaguely 'body' shaped to me in the sense that it's down the middle of the mattress only and about the size of a body. If so, the bottom of the mattress as we look at it was the head of the body -the gap being where the pillow was. If it was (supposed to have been) made by a body it has been rolled around in, perhaps for effect.

Note also that the stains have dripped outwards on the surface of the mattress, so there was a reasonable amount of liquid and it looks like it has almost been pressed outwards. And the woman on the right of the picture is not only holding a pillow but a small box - the contents of which one assumes were important in events.

My guess is that the lady with the box is holding some make up. The prank was a dead body of a woman, murdered. The 'murdered' woman is at the bottom of the mattress. There was no blood in her hair, hence the pillow has no blood.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:18 AM on February 10, 2014

The small box the woman is holding is most likely a Brownie Camera
posted by Pudhoho at 2:27 AM on February 10, 2014

I have no idea about the stain, sorry, but I also thought the box was a Brownie at first though I'm no longer convinced of it. I have owned a few and that just seems to be slightly mis-proportioned. Strange picture, to be sure...
posted by mewsic at 3:24 AM on February 10, 2014

Back then, it was pretty common for people to pose at the scene of violent events. Perhaps someone famous (like a gangster?) was killed on the bed, and this is some kind of gruesome souvenir photo?

That they are all women in the picture does make me think, though, that it could be some kind of way-over-the-top gag about losing one's virginity.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

we don't even know that the stain is red.

There's a strong likelihood that they could have used orthochromatic film instead of panchromatic because the latter was incredibly cost prohibitive to use in those days. Why does it matter? Orthochromatic film is essentially blind to red and yellow which would have made that stain look a lot blacker than it is.
posted by redindiaink at 8:03 AM on February 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with the "staged photo of the 'deflowering' bed" conjecture. It's OK that the stain is way too big, and that it is (possibly) the wrong color/shape/etc because it was put together ad hoc by these women, with whatever they had available.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:55 AM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

A young girl would not be photographed in a deflowering picture like this at that time.

Maybe all these women were present at a birth that happened very fast - maybe a woman's 4th or fifth child. It just happened, that is why they just took the mattress out to the clothesline to clean it and why one woman still has the pillow in her hand. It just happened. They are surprised and shocked and proud because this is right at the time when male doctors convinced women they could not give birth without a male doctor in a hospital. They are shocked and surprised that the woman lived and they think they had a part in the success somehow. The mom and baby were rushed to the hospital. That's why they are not in the picture.

The picture may have been taken for a "Women Deliver Baby Without the Help of a Man!!" newspaper story. But then the editor had the sense not to print it.

It's still a weird picture.
posted by cda at 10:13 AM on February 10, 2014

My theory: these women were members of their 'block' or 'neighborhood club'. That summer they helped clean out an old house in the neighborhood after the owner died and no relatives ever materialized. One day one of the women discovered the terrible state of this mattress and pillow underneath the bedding. From that point forward the mattress was fodder for private jokes that served to bond these women as friends for life. Though they mostly chalked up the state of the mattress to being a product of child birth, the idea that there was foul play was always there in the background (the woman on her knees captures this potential perfectly with her facial expression). At some point they decided to take a photo for posterity. After all, cleaning out that house in the summer heat was a lot of work. They had to get their laughs where they could. They are smiling because of the absurdity of taking a photo in the first place (what will people make of this fifty years from now?!). And because as a group they don't actually think anything awful happened on this bed. Only that it's probably the most embarrassing thing in the world for such a mattress to later be discovered by one's neighbors.
posted by marimeko at 11:29 AM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all. Here's my rundown of the main theories.

(Woman at bottom is possibly pretending to be the baby. Objections: stain possibly in wrong place, why ruin a good mattress, why hold up pillow? Nurses?)

(But why hold up pillow? Anachronistic for women of that era to do such a prank?)

(Maybe someone spilled an inkbottle. Again, why hold up pillow?)

(Would these well-dressed women really want their hands all over a disgusting anonymous mattress?)



(No, too much blood; the women seem too cool/fancy free)

I'm leaning to the idea that it's a bed that was stained for some undramatic reason (ink, theatre prop) that they think is funny because it looks so dramatic (birth, murder).
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:00 PM on February 10, 2014

Unless they're freakishly tall that's a child's mattress or at least from a very short bed.

I really doubt it's a birthing or whatever mattress. That's kind of gross and not something most women would photograph. Plus, that's a lot of blood, if it is blood.
posted by fshgrl at 12:54 PM on February 10, 2014

It could be the right amount of blood for a birth. But I've never heard of anyone photographing it - without the mom and baby. That is weird.

It could be a lawn chair pad. That opens the possibility it could be grape juice they threw at someone. And they don't know that in black and white the stain is going to look like blood. Years later. But that doesn't explain why she is holding a pillow for a sleeping bed. And why is she holding the pillow by the very tip like it is nasty? But they don't treat the mattress like it is nasty?
posted by cda at 1:25 PM on February 10, 2014

You'd think if it were the birth bed there'd be a baby in the picture, or a woman who looked like she'd just given birth (Immediately post-partum, most women still look at least somewhat pregnant. And tired.)
posted by latkes at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2014

"disgusting anonymous mattress"

It wasn't too long ago that people were far more accustomed to, and far less squicked out by, bodily fluids and things...
posted by The Blue Olly at 5:56 PM on February 10, 2014

I think it's a prop for a theatrical production or haunted house. Or else someone played a prank on them, like they left the mattress and pillow on the line to air and someone dumped paint on it. They all seem pretty amused... at any rate, real blood usually looks quite black in black-and-white, especially dried blood.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:08 PM on February 10, 2014

It kind of looks like a twin-sized mattress with the head part folded over and not visible, which maybe makes a blood stain from birth more plausible?
posted by charmcityblues at 6:26 PM on February 10, 2014

In the realm of unexplained hijinx / in-joke / game, "How do you know when an elephant is having her period? Your mattress is missing and there's a quarter on your box spring."

I am not proud to have immediately thought of this bit of childhood humor, but perhaps it–or a variant of mattress-as-immense(trual)-pad—is an older joke than I know.
posted by mumkin at 7:54 PM on February 10, 2014

Looks like its first internet appearance was 11/18/2008, on flickr. The image itself doesn't have any exif or other metadata. Maybe the person who posted it to flickr has some insight. (That person might have a copyright on the photo, given that it says "(c) All rights reserved" at the bottom.)

The linked version is a bit clearer than some others. The borders haven't been cropped, and you can see what look like scratches on the original. It could almost be a postcard. Even so... complete mystery.

I really want to know the story now.

(For what it's worth... it looks to me like someone else put them up to taking the photo. The woman on the right is holding the pillow as though it's gross or she's unsure what to do with it. Also, it looks like the paint on the mattress is still wet.

Here's the most believable situation I can come up with: the women in the photo were making or using props for a play or pageant or film or ad, and during a break someone decided that they should take a group photo with the props they'd been making/using. Though I have no idea what 1940s-50s play or pageant would involve a can of paint on a mattress and a waterlogged-looking pillow.)
posted by sentient at 8:26 PM on February 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Other things I notice:

This is a domestic/rural scene (shed in background, chicken wire, looks like a yard in either the suburbs or at a farm- there is a road with other houses in the background), yet the women look kinda dressed for work or the office, or at least "the town" - they have nice blouses, curled hair, etc. They are wearing springtime florals and dresses and are outside, which highly suggests either spring or summertime.

The women are doing laundry- there are laundry lines in the yard. The mattress looks short because it is folded over the clothesline, I think. I am very inclined to believe they are bringing it out to be cleaned, or possibly bringing it out after cleaning the rest of the bedding/sheets.

If a theater prop, where's the theater?

They all look very young- late teens to mid-twenties, I would think, for sure. Why are there so many women all gathered together at someone's house? They are clearly not at work- is this a holiday? Are they all friends? Are they at school? (seems likely) Is it some sort of cooking or cleaning class at one woman's house? Are they teenagers doing what teenagers do and hanging out?
posted by quincunx at 9:42 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, there are faint vertical lines on the bottom of the mattress in an almost square pillow shape- from being under the pillow?

It certainly does not look like blood- paint maybe, but I am thinking either ink or oil. There is a kind of very light "bleed" effect (no pun intended) around the stain that looks like the rub-off you get with ink or even something like graphite. Or even mildew or general grime? Blood tends to be much less even, with darker and lighter blotches and clots.

Could it be a cleaning solution itself? A before and after cleaning shot like on those infomercials?

Was something dumped on someone while they were in the bed?

Could the mattress have been used to soak up something?
posted by quincunx at 10:04 PM on February 10, 2014

For reference: Actual bloodstained mattresses showing the much more "uneven" effect I mentioned.

Here, here, and here.

Do NOT google "bloodstained mattress" FYI, unless you're okay with seeing gore!
posted by quincunx at 10:10 PM on February 10, 2014

> yet the women look kinda dressed for work or the office, or at least "the town" - they have nice blouses, curled hair, etc

No, I think they're dressed very casually. They are not wearing office attire (flowered dresses, mais non!), or even really dressed for town (you can't really see their shoes very well, but it's obvious that they're not in heels, and everyone's hair is pinned back.)
posted by desuetude at 7:50 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

It wasn't too long ago that people were far more accustomed to, and far less squicked out by, bodily fluids and things...

These women would be my grandmothers generation, many of whom are still alive in my family in their 90s and early 100s. They won't even say the word period and still pretend all their kids arrived via stork. And half of them were nurses. I highly, highly doubt that nice girls of that generation would pose with after birth.
posted by fshgrl at 1:35 PM on February 11, 2014

There is also what seems to be another mattress hanging on a line in the yard behind them. (Just to the right of the brunette woman's head). This adds absolutely nothing to the meaning of the photo for me, but maybe it will help.
posted by uans at 2:46 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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