The History of the Bed, the Mattress, and Other Fascinating Stories

October 17, 2019
In: Bedroom

Arguably, the bed has got to be the best invention, man has ever made. There are many great inventions, but can you imagine not having your own comfortable bed to lie on today? Imagine not having a bed to rest on at the end of a long, tiring day?!

Sure, you can lie down anywhere but there’s nothing like a soft mattress to envelope your weary body. The key to a good night’s rest is having an awesome bed. What would we do without it? So, it’s just right to appreciate how this piece of important furniture came to be. When did humans start using the bed, or the mattress anyway?

Do you know that our good, old bed has come a long way? Let’s go for a trip back in time to see its humble beginnings.

The Oldest Bed Ever

The Oldest Mattress

The first evidence that the bed was in use was 77,000 years ago. It was really far from the bed we are using right now. It appeared to be layers of plant materials piled up together to around 12 inches in thickness to form a “mattress”. The “mattress” is around 22 square feet and was believed to be used by the entire family! Move over king-sized beds!

Leaves were used as a “bedsheet” and at the same time to protect them from bugs. See, our ancestors knew how to make themselves comfortable. How’s that for creativity and resourcefulness?!

Evidence That Prehistoric People Knew How to Chill

Circa 8000 B.C., the prehistoric nomadic people apparently used “beds” also when they slept. Since they are nomadic, they would often find themselves stopping at their journey. Come to think of it, were they the original campers as well?

They have piled leaves and plants over a hollow on the ground and that served as their bed. The hole they have dug out were small and oval and they were meant to sleep in a fetal position. It was probably a way to keep the warmth during sleep.

The First Waterbed?

 Around 3600 years ago, the Persians made the first “waterbed”. They used goatskins and filled them up with water. That’s really ingenious when you think about it. They were able to create a “waterbed” even at this period! Really, really clever.

Sleep Like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptians ( circa 3000 B.C. – 1000 B.C ) were among the first people to have a settled civilization. They were also among the first ones to use furniture. Ancient Egypt was very hierarchical so there was a distinction of what wealthy Egyptians used that time.

These wealthy Egyptians actually used a bed that is quite similar to the beds we are using right now. Their beds are actually raised from the ground, like our usual bed. They had bed frames which were specifically curved or slanted so the user won’t fall off. The legs of the bed were made to look like feet of animals. They built useful and at the same time artistic furnitures.

For “pillows”, they created headrests. They could have been wrapped or padded for comfort. They even had mattresses made of straw and reed.

And to make their bed more extra, it was embellished with gold, jewels, and ebony. On the other hand, the commoners just had plain, unadorned beds.

Do as The Romans Do

Ancient Romans (Circa 1000 B.C. to 476 A.D.) also used beds which were raised from the ground. It was built from bronze which made it very durable. You can still see samples of it in museums today, the beds surely outlasted the Roman Empire.

They topped their beds with feather or straw mattresses. They even used wool blankets alongside. Less affluent Romans used wooden beds. Wool or linen strings were strung across the frame to hold up the mattress. For those who were really poor that time, they simply used mats on the floor.

Here Comes the Middle Ages

Even in the middle ages (circa 5th through 15th century), your status determines where you sleep. The Egyptians started the ornate bed trend, and the wealthy people in medieval Europe did the same. They wanted beds that were elaborate in design and needless to say, they were expensive. Their beds were status symbols.

They had beds of intricately carved wood, decorated with gold and jewels as well. The four-poster bed was introduced in this period too. They also installed heavy velvet drapes to ward off bugs and to keep the bed user warm. In addition to that, to also show their affluence. They did use costly fabrics.

They had blankets, coverlets, pillows and bolsters. They used thick mattresses stuffed with feathers and covered with a fine linen bedsheet. Their beds were so high, they even needed a stool to climb up.

For those who couldn’t afford that extravagance that time, they just slept on mattresses stuffed with hay. So, they literally hit the hay? This phrase probably originated from this. Their mattresses are just stacked on the floor and they used rough wool blankets to keep them warm.

It is also during the medieval period that the “box bed” was introduced. It looked like a bed inside the cupboard. The mattress is housed inside the wooden box and it can be closed by curtains, swinging or sliding doors.

Box Bed

This was built to give privacy to families who share only one room that time. Poorer households had to deal with smaller houses and this could have been their solution. With homes without proper heating, the box bed is a cozy option as well.

The Ming Dynasty

Meanwhile in Asia, during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) in China, they have also used beds which were raised and canopied. They have enclosed the bed with gauze or netting. Later on, beds were positioned at a back wall of a small back room. They are separated by sliding doors and the beds were covered with matting.

The Age of Renaissance

Those who were moneyed during the renaissance period (circa 14th through 17th century) followed through with the fancy bed tradition. The beds became more ornate and more elaborate in design. The bed that time was a very important piece of furniture. It was not just for sleep and giving birth, they even received visitors in their bed chambers! The bed was all about showing how well off they were.

Imagine the beds during the medieval period, in steroids. The four-poster beds were more elaborate – carefully carved and artfully painted. They even used luxurious fabrics for the drapes, sheets, and covers. Because of their value, they were considered as prized family possessions and were passed on to generations after generations.

The underprivileged people in renaissance still used hay as mattresses, rolled on the floor or placed on top of a simple elevated platform.

The 18th Century

After a long period of fancy beds, comes a time (18th century) were simpler beds are now more favored. Objectively speaking, they are still ornate in a way that four-poster beds with drapes were still used. Although the bed designs were scaled down largely by this time.

Aside from wooden bed-frames, metal frames were also introduced. Cotton is now being used as mattress stuffing. Wool straps or ropes were used in the bed frame to support the mattress.

In terms of socialization, people were no longer keen in receiving their visitors inside their chambers. That could be a reason why beds have become less fancy. The bedroom as a private space is a new concept that emerged during this period.

The 19th Century

The bedrooms during the 19th century can be comparable to what we have today – a personal sanctuary where you could rest and sleep. Although the four-poster beds were still popular, the heavy drapes are no longer that favored. Also, the bed posts, headboards, and foot-boards have gotten significantly smaller.

Previous centuries have used wool and ropes across the bed frame to support the mattress. In this period, people have started to use metal springs for support. Although metal springs were more durable and provides better stability, it’s noisy because of the squeaking!

The 20th Century

There were a lot of innovations during the 20th century. The bed and mattress had been reinvented so many times this period and some of these inventions are still around today. Among these inventions are the waterbed (although the Persians made one 3,600 years before), wall bed (also called the Murphy bed), latex foam and memory foam mattresses, the pocket sprung mattress, and the adjustable bed.

The waterbed was first designed for hospital use, it was meant to treat and prevent bed sores. However, it only became marketable for home use during the 60s. This is when vinyl was invented.

The steel coil spring bed was invented but only became popular decades after. It was a busy time for the bed industry, and it gave the people many options to choose from.

Japanese Futons

During the late 20th century, traditional Japanese bedding is still widely used – the futon. The futon is a quilted unsprung mattress that is used in Japan as bedding. It is placed over the tatami –  this is straw matting, a traditional Japanese floor covering.

When not in use, the futon is folded and stored inside the cupboards. The rooms were usually multipurpose, used for eating and social gathering. This is the reason why there’s a need to put away the futon during the day. During the 20th century, futons were also introduced to the West.

The 21st Century

Currently, we have so many choices when it comes to our beds and mattresses. When it comes to mattresses you can choose spring, memory foam, latex, water, air, and hybrid among others. For the bed frames it can be wrought iron, sleigh, bunk, and so on.  You can even go back to  the four-poster or platform beds.

There are many more types actually like loft, and futon. It’s all up to you! You can even have it customized to your liking. The possibilities are endless!

Definitely, the bed has come a long, long way. Now that we have seen the humble beginnings of the bed up to its evolution in time, you might want to know this few interesting tidbits.

Too Close for Comfort

It was mentioned earlier than during the renaissance, it was acceptable to receive people in your bed chambers. The bedroom hasn’t always been a place of peace and privacy. Aside from this, servants also slept inside their masters’ bedrooms as well. Sometimes, family members also share the same bed! Can’t imagine how large their beds were though.

And more interesting, bedsharing was quite common at inns! You would be sharing your bed with fellow travelers, who are strangers of course! You would be sleeping beside a person you are probably meeting for the first time.

Benjamin Franklin and John Adams shared a bed at New Brunswick in 1776. At first, both couldn’t sleep as they couldn’t quite agree upon whether they should leave the window open or not. Good thing that this isn’t a practice anymore these days. Things really could go awkward.

Good night! Sleep tight!

Have you ever wondered what “sleep tight” means? I’m sure you have used this phrase plenty of times but do you why it’s a follow up to good night? One may automatically assume that it’s about shutting your eyes tight.

Well, there’s another fascinating explanation. During the 19th century, ropes were strung across the bed frame to support the mattress. Apparently, “sleep tight” could have originated from this. You tighten the ropes to support the mattress better, meaning you sleep more soundly.

The phrase got even more popular during the 60s when the Beatles released the song, Good Night. This is part of the song lyrics:

Now it’s time to say good night

Good night sleep tight

Now the sun turns out his light

Good night sleep tight

Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite

Another common phrase mentioned after “sleep tight” is “don’t let the bedbugs bite”. The “tight” could have pertained to the tightness of the bedclothes, to keep the bugs away. However, this would be unlikely as bugs can be unavoidable as mattresses become nesting grounds of mites and other insects later on.

 “Comfortable” Protest?

Do you know that not all protests are held on the streets? It can start from the most unlikely place, where else?! The bedroom! Sometime in their honeymoon, John Lennon and Yoko Ono started a “Bed-In for Peace” campaign from their hotel suite in Amsterdam Hilton.

They sat on bed, full- clothed – it was a nonviolent, peaceful protest against war. They have invited the media to their suite every 12 hours to discuss peace. They also did a second in-bed protest in Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal on May 1969.

It’s a different way to send a message but it surely got some traction as it is still being discussed today.

What’s Normal Sleep?

Average or normal sleep to us could be between 7 to 10 hours per night. However, that hasn’t always been the case. Do you know that during the medieval period, sleeping hours were quite strange? They have two phases of sleep!

They call it the first and second sleep, both have roughly the same length. At first sleep, they sleep around sunset and wake around midnight. In between the two sleeps, they pray, study, socialize, do some work and so on.

The Famous Bed

The Great Bed Of Ware

This could be the most popular object in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s a four-poster bed and there’s no exaggeration when it is said that this is a very large bed. It’s over 3 meters wide and could possibly accommodate at least four couples!

It was originally built as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire in 1590. Back in the day, Ware was a stop for travelers who were visiting Cambridge University and other nearby places. The visitors that time would often carve their initials or applied red wax seals on the bed – some of it can still be seen to this day.

The bed was so popular it was mentioned in plays including William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It is an unusually large bed but the woodworks and craftmanship displayed what was popular back then. It represented the opulence of beds during the late Elizabethan period.

Sleeping on the Wall…Bed

Earlier the wall bed or the Murphy bed was mentioned as among the inventions of the 20th century. It’s quite an interesting invention so we must go back to it. After centuries of fancy four-poster beds, why invent a wall bed?

In the late 19th century, William Lawrence Murphy the inventor of the wall bed had a one-room apartment in San Francisco. According to stories, he was in love with a lady but won’t dare invite her to his apartment.  Reason being, it was not proper that time to invite a lady to a gentleman’s quarters.

We can assume that love brought out the creativity, a bed that can be stowed away was the result. It was an invention that came at the right time also due to housing shortage caused by increase in population. Murphy had his bed patented in 1911.

As of late 20th century, the Murphy bed is no longer a trademark as the court ruled out that it has become a generic name for a bed that can be pulled out of the closet.

The Luxurious Bed of the Nawab of Bahawalpur

 There was a time when the maharajas ruled India. They were wealthy and powerful. Maharaja is a Sanskrit title, meaning great king or ruler.

In 1882, Saddiq Muhammed Khan Abassi IV, the Nawab or Viceroy of Bahawalpur (a state in British India now Pakistan), ordered a silver-encrusted bed.

The design was sent to Paris, it was made of dark wood and 290 kilograms of silver was used to embellish it. It had four life-size, naked females figures in bronze, painted in flesh, complete with natural hair, moving eyes and arms. They were holding fans and had horse tails.

The four female figures had different hair colors and skin tones because they were representing these countries: France, Greece, Italy, and Spain. The bed design was so intricate that the figures can fan the bed user, while winking at the same time.

At the same time there’s music played at the background, 30 minutes of Gounod’s Faust. The music box was built inside the bed as well. You can say that it’s not just a luxurious bed, it is pretty functional too.

Music or Sleep?

Apparently, the Nawab of Bahawalpur is not the only one who likes music. What do you do when you love music, but sleep is still life?

Around 1885, a convertible bed in the form of an upright piano was made. Ingenious right? In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the piano is an important piece of the parlor in the United States.

Probably, this piano-bed was created as an answer to a household who does not have the luxury of space. It’s actually a great idea. It converts into a bed at night and a fine musical instrument during the day without compromising the family’s limited space.

 The Golden Bed

The Golden Bed

If the Nawab of Bahawalpur had a silver bed, there was also a golden bed. William Burges designed this bed for the guest chamber of his own home – the Tower House in Melbury Road in Kensington, London. That makes us wonder how opulent was his own personal bed?

He designed his own house so it’s no wonder he himself designed the golden bed. The bed was made around 1879 and his guest chamber had a theme which is “Vita Nova”, this means new life. The bed wasn’t actually made of gold. It was made of wood, but it was entirely gilded except for some few parts on the head, foot board and side boards. These parts were polished hardwood. The words “Vita Nova” was carved into the foot of the bed.

The bed and the mattress may be your ordinary furniture but there’s nothing ordinary about these interesting stories. When you think about it, each bed tells a different story. We spend nearly half our lifetime on it and they are the silent witnesses of our day to day lives. If your bed could speak, what could be the story? Would it be as interesting as these tidbits?