Sleep Well//

A Brief History of Beds: A Look Back at the Crazy, Comfy, and Surprising Things We Slept On

An archaeologist and a historian on the evolution of beds, from caves and trees to mattresses and smart beds.

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We spend a third of our life in bed, and science has shown that what we sleep on matters. It mattered to our ancestors too, though they had different priorities — like staying alive, for example. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, Ph.D., co-author of the new book, What We Did In Bed: A Horizontal History, along with Nadia Durrani, Ph.D., says the earliest humans simply needed to stay safe. “They almost certainly slept in trees, because they had to get out of the way of predators on the ground.” Comfort was a secondary consideration. “After that, beds were simply hollows in the ground.”

The first beds

The earliest known bed, made of woven weeds and rushes, was found in a 77,000-year-old cave in South Africa. “You’d think they would have been full of bugs, but people lined them and covered themselves with a bundle of grasses from the nearby river, which acted as insect repellent,” says Fagan, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “People slept that way for thousands of years.” 

Beds in ancient times 

Beds were elevated on legs as societies became more sophisticated. The pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, slept on a raised bed covered with a gold sheet. His tomb contained elaborate beds adorned with sacred animal figures that symbolized his journey to eternity. Meanwhile, most ancient Egyptians slept on mats on the ground. At Skara Brae in Scotland’s Orkney islands, archaeologists found evidence of box beds made from stone slabs. “Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much change in the basic shape of the bed for thousands of years,” says Fagan. “In Malta and Egypt, by 3,000 B.C., people were already sleeping on elevated platforms with mattresses.” He notes that in China and Mongolia, people slept on heated brick platforms as early as 5,000 B.C. “They are still used in northern China to this day.”

Early mattresses and bedding 

For centuries mattresses were filled with feathers, straw, hay, and grass. “They were quite uncomfortable,” says Fagan, “so you would put layers of hides or blankets on top for extra cushioning.” Beds in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome improved considerably — for the wealthy, says Roger Ekirch, Ph.D., university distinguished professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past. “For families of property, the quality of bedding contrasted starkly with the piles of straw on which the poor slept.”   

The communal bed

“The Romans and Greeks weren’t interested in privacy,” says Brian Fagan, and that continued to be true around the globe for years to come, across the social spectrum. “In the Middle Ages in Europe, people would sleep together in large rooms. Leaders and people of status would sleep surrounded by their followers. The mythical Beowulf, the sixth-century Scandinavian hero of the Old English epic poem, slept surrounded by his sea warriors.” 

“We know that in parts of Ireland, as late as the 19th century, each member of the family had an assigned position, with daughters sleeping closest to a wall, farthest away from any place of entry, as a matter of security, because of the risk of intruders,” Ekirch tells Thrive. Sons would lie nearest to a door. Travelers would be welcomed into homes as a gesture of hospitality and would occasionally share the family bed. Strangers meeting on the road would often share a bed at an inn. Even now, some tribes in the Amazon and Papua New Guinea live (and sleep) communally. 

The royal bed

“The first people to have private chambers were kings and noblemen, and they often attended to business while in bed,” says Fagan. “Monarchs slept with their senior servants. Chinese emperors slept with concubines. Queen Elizabeth I shared her bedroom with her handmaidens. “Kings would sometimes share their beds with other men as a gesture of favored status,” adds Fagan. 

Slumber parties

In Britain, the 17th century Londoner and diarist Samuel Pepys was notorious for his extramarital affairs, but he slept regularly with male companions too, on a platonic basis. President John Adams also spent the night with male friends. In September 1776, he shared a bed with Benjamin Franklin at a New Jersey inn. 

One of the world’s most famous beds is The Great Bed of Ware, built in 1590. “In 1689, 26 butchers and their wives are said to have frolicked on the ‘king-size’ bed, which has a well traveled history,” Fagan tells Thrive. “It was sold from one inn to another and almost went to the United States before World War II. But the Victoria and Albert Museum in London bought it, where it is now on display as one of their most prized exhibits.” 

What happened in bed

Groucho Marx once said: “Anything that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all.” And for centuries, beds weren’t exclusively for sleep and sex. “People slept, talked, held meetings, and ate meals in bed. Women often gave birth in beds, and people ended their lives in bed,” says Fagan. 

For middle and lower class families, the bed was one of the few pieces of furniture in a home, providing seating during the day, says Roger Ekirch. “Nonetheless, no one was under any doubt that the primary importance of a bed was for sleep, to provide a refuge of comfort.”

“It’s only in recent years that bedrooms have been limited to nighttime use,” Fagan tells Thrive, though there have been notable exceptions. “Winston Churchill ran a lot of World War II sitting in bed with a glass of whiskey and a large cigar, surrounded by papers and dispatches!”   

Beds as status symbols

From the Middle Ages right through to the 18th century, the bed was the most expensive item in a family home. “They were a mark of social prestige,” says Ekirch. Beds were considered so valuable they were often the first possessions bought by newlyweds, and the most important items bequeathed in wills to favored heirs. 

The “Age of the Bed”

“In early modern times, between the 15th and 17th centuries, people with means were seeking greater comfort by investing in chimneys, glass windows, partitioned rooms — and better beds,” says Ekirch. “English beds evolved from straw pallets on bare floors to elevated wooden frames complete with pillows, sheets, blankets, and flock mattresses, filled with rags and stray pieces of wool. It was considered essential not to lie too close to the ground, where the night air was thought to be noxious,” says Ekirch. Recognizing the health properties of deep rest, the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius wrote: “Nothing is holesomer than sound and quiet sleepe,” commenting that it was important  “to sleepe in a soft bedde.” In wealthy homes, four-poster beds came into widespread use, with feather mattresses and usually with curtains. Some historians have called this period “The Age of the Bed.”

Bedtime rituals were common. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he would try to tie his hands inside his bed to keep from catching a cold. The family patriarch was responsible for setting minds at rest by conducting household prayers at bedtime. In less affluent households, families would invoke magic: They would take potions to prevent bedwetting and encourage sleep. Night spells were supposed to shield the home from fire, thieves, and evil spirits. Families hung amulets and recited charms to avert nightmares and fend off demons.

People would go to bed around 9 or 10 p.m. and typically wake up for an hour shortly past midnight before taking their “second sleep.” “While awake, they would pray, perform chores, and commit petty crime, if impoverished,” says Ekirch, who unearthed numerous references to “segmented sleep” ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of the Tiv people in 20th-century Nigeria. As early as the medieval era, doctors recommended that for purposes of conceiving children, it was advisable to have sex between the “first sleep” and “second sleep,” when people had more energy. “It’s only in the last 150 years that having eight hours of uninterrupted sleep at night has become the goal.”

The mobile bed

In times past, people were so attached to their own beds they took them along when they traveled. Tutankhamun, for example, had a folding camp bed. At the start of the 19th century, the Emperor Napoleon slept on a camp bed, so did his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington. In India and Pakistan, people still sleep on a portable bed called the charpoy, says Brian Fagan: “It’s a light bed on legs with a woven platform. In some small towns, they have large charpoys in public areas where you can sit and gossip.” These beds are for socializing, not just sleep.

Private beds  

The Victorian times put an end to most communal sleeping. More houses boasted dedicated bedrooms. In line with the era’s strict morality, a magazine called The Architect published an essay in 1875 which stated that “to use a bed for any other purpose but to sleep was immoral.” “Bedrooms became private places for couples. And one of the essential pieces of furniture in a house was a long couch where the lady of the house could collapse when overwhelmed by her domestic duties,” says Fagan. “Children often had their own beds. Servants normally slept downstairs in the kitchen area.”

The Industrial Revolution 

During the 19th century the quality of beds improved considerably, says Fagan. The coil spring was invented in 1857. Initially for use in chair seats, and then patented for bedding in 1865, it revolutionized mattresses.  

Modern trends

Memory foam (originally developed in 1966 by NASA to improve the safety of aircraft cushions) again increased the comfort of beds. Some trends came and went, for example waterbeds. Other innovations have stayed the course, notably the duvet or comforter, which was introduced from Scandinavia in the 1970s, and transformed bed-making by doing away with layers of sheets and blankets.

Smart beds

The sleep-tech category from Sleep Number marks a new chapter in the ongoing history of beds. Their 360® smart bed measures over 8.5 billion full-body biometric data points every night, sensing movements and automatically adjusting the bed’s firmness to ensure the best quality sleep throughout the night. This technology tracks how well you sleep each night, giving you personal insights into your sleep so you’ll learn how life affects your sleep, and how sleep affects your life. Sleep science continues to advance, teaching us that, like diet and exercise, quality sleep is essential for optimal health and performance. Since we spend one third of our life in bed, it’s important to make sure you end your day on a comfortable, quality mattress. “It’s a new horizon,” says Fagan. “Beds will continue to develop as they become equipped to detect disease. I think the potential is exciting.” 

This article was produced by Thrive Global and sponsored by Sleep Number. Thrive Global and Sleep Number believe quality sleep is essential for optimal health and performance. Visit sleepnumber.com to find the best sleep solution for you, so you can wake up to your greater purpose. To improve your sleep habits before bed, try the free Sleep30® Challenge by Sleep Number.

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