History of the bed
Ever wondered how we came to sleep on the beds we commonly use today?
Take a trip back in time with Bensons for Beds and discover how where we sleep has evolved through the ages. From simple feathers and fur to technologically advanced iGel… it's a journey that will help you appreciate your bed at home that little bit more.
The history of the bed is a story that began thousands of years ago, and it’s one that’s still developing today. Read on to find out more.
Fascinating facts on the history of the bed revealed
- What inspired the phrase 'night night, sleep tight'
- What made Queen Elizabeth I’s four-poster bed the most decadent of all
- How an early incarnation of the modern waterbed involved a vinyl sack and jelly
- An amazing mattress that cools you when it’s hot and warms you when it’s cold!
But essentially, you slept where you lay
In fact, it wasn’t until a few thousand years later that the first example of what you would consider a standard bed set-up (bed base, mattress and blanket) was discovered. In 1850, a great storm battered Orkney in Scotland, UK and unearthed a Neolithic village of eight dwellings named Skara Brae, inhabited sometime between 3200BC and 2200BC. In each dwelling sat a large stone slab bed, which would then have been topped with soft fern and animal skins.
If the first European beds were basic, elsewhere they were anything but. Between 3,000 and 1,000BC the Egyptians were building elaborate beds for the Pharaohs.
Ornate wooden bed frames were carved then covered with gold sheathes. Woven mats were placed on top to provide stability, then topped with a wooden slat mattress. And wool cushions would be added, along with sheets fashioned from linen. Meanwhile, around 1580BC, the Persians started filling sewn-up goatskins with water in what is considered to be the first example of a waterbed.
Yet these early experiments in bed technology were reserved purely for people in the higher reaches of society. If you were poor, it would be after the turn of the century before you had something you could call an actual bed.
In medieval times, for example, most people would doss down on the floors of the hall in which they lived. Their bed consisted of a “mattress” fashioned from wooden boards covered with an animal fur. It’s actually from this set up that we get the phrase “bed and board”.
If you were a Saxon, you’d probably have a kind of bunk bed, usually placed up against a wall. You’d sleep on a rough mattress of sackcloth and straw, which was placed on top of boards. Curtains would be suspended from above and drawn round the bed. This served two purposes: letting draughts and light out and keeping warmth and sicknesses in.
If you were a servant, you would probably sleep underneath your master’s bed. But that was a rare luxury. Typically you had no bed at all – you slept where you worked. If you were a laundry maid, you slept on piles of laundry (which doesn’t sound too bad at all, actually), or if you were the cook, you slept on the floor in front of the fire. The most important thing was to keep warm, so people slept together in groups, with the oldest sleeping closest to any source of heat.
It was perfectly normal for the lady of the house to entertain guests in her bedroom. Warm, cosy and inviting, the bedroom became the typical reception room of the average Tudor house. It may also have been the inspiration for the creation of the “day bed”– where one could recline and receive guests in comfort.
Eventually, the rope straps would be replaced with bed strings, an intricate criss-crossing of ropes, threaded up and down and from side to side across the bed frame. Over time these strings would sag and require tightening. The phrase 'night, night sleep tight' comes from this process.
The concept of the portable bed was born around this time too. In some instances, particularly if the nobleman and his lady travelled a lot, bed frames were designed so that they could be dismantled and then rebuilt quickly and easily. Though these would not be nearly as ornate, usually no more than a wooden box on legs that could be carried fairly easily by a group of servants. Meanwhile in the richest houses, beds began to be regarded as more than a piece of furniture. Magnificently ornate bed frames were built, complete with ornate canopies, carved wooden bed frames, rich embroidery and soft mattresses filled with feathers, a new luxury imported from across the Channel in France.
Now the bed wasn’t just a place to lay your head at the end of the day: it was a symbol of your wealth and status.
Beds as a status symbol
The bed most synonymous with wealth, and the social standing of its owner, is the four-poster. It was first introduced into the UK by the Tudors. Tudor noblemen and women would compete with one another to see who could make theirs the most elaborate. Solid oak, intricately engraved pillars up to 18 inches round, fine velvet drapes, woollen curtains, heavily embroidered hangings bearing the coat of arms, resplendent colours and vibrant designs, lavish canopy to offer protection from twigs and feathers falling from the roof… the list of adornments went on and on.
Naturally the person with the most decadent bed of all was the most noble woman of all, The Queen. Of all The Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I had the winning bed. A receipt dating from 1581 details her requirements as ‘walnut, richly carved, painted, and gild… valance of silver cloth, figured with velvet, lined with a changeable taffetta, and deeply fringed with Venice gold, silver, and silk.’And that was just the bedstead.
There were also curtains cut from extravagant tapestry with each seam bordered with gold and silver lace, a headboard of scarlet satin, edged with silk, and plumes of ostrich feathers garnished with gold leaf. If the decoration on the bed was lavish, the mattress was still of a fairly basic standard. But over the next few years, this would start to change dramatically.
The development of the mattress
By the turn of the 17th century, people had begun to appreciate the benefits of sleeping on feathers, and this had become a more common mattress filling. Yet it was still something of a luxury. A feather bed was a prized possession, often handed down from one generation to the next. If you were a maid working in the kitchen of a large manor house, you might be permitted to keep the feathers from the birds you roasted as a kind of dowry towards your own marital bed – such was their value.
If you couldn’t afford feathers you were probably still sleeping on a sack filled with something soft, usually straw but sometimes wool, and this continued until well into the 18th century.
It was during this time however that a much wider range of materials became available for bedding. Pillows and mattresses stuffed with wool, horsehair or coconut fibre began to be sold. And cotton sheets, the vast majority of which were produced in the mills of Manchester, began to dress the beds of the common man up and down the country.
Indeed bedding became as much a display of wealth as the ornate beds of the era. A typical bed would be dressed in sheets, including a top sheet, blankets and an eiderdown – basically, the more bedding you had, and the longer it took your servant to make your bed, the better.
Realising the limitations of the standard wood frame and rope strap set-up, many tradesmen began constructing iron or steel bedframes. These offered two advantages: firstly durability, and secondly protection from disease. This was a period when tuberculosis was rife, and while wooden bed frames would often harbour lice, metal bedframes were practically sterile by comparison.
Meanwhile, several bed manufacturers began to use steel coils to support the mattress and in 1865, a man named Samuel Kettle patented what is now recognised as being the first ever open spring mattress. It was a huge success and the combination of a metal bedframe and a coil-sprung mattress would become the norm for decades to come.
What the coil-sprung mattress offered was comfort. The springs spread the weight of the person sleeping on the mattress more evenly, easing pressure and ensuring a more peaceful sleep.
In 1900 however, James Marshall, an English engineer living in Canada went one better, patenting the first ever pocket-sprung mattress.
What made Marshall’s invention unique was it contained lots of individual springs sealed into fabric pockets. Each spring provided support independently of its neighbours. Put together, they provided a support system that adapted to the individual contours of a person’s body. It was a revolutionary idea: a mattress that offered unparalleled support and comfort, no matter what your size, shape or weight.
Meanwhile, across the border, an American by the name of William L. Murphy was writing his own name into the history of the bed. Having moved to San Francisco to seek his fortune, he found himself frustrated at the lack of space within his tiny studio apartment. He didn’t like the way his bed intruded into the space where he wanted to entertain guests. His solution to the problem involved several experiments with a doorjamb and the hinges of his wardrobe. The result was what is now know as the fold-away bed, pull-down bed or, as he would probably have preferred it to remain, the Murphy Bed.
Natural, hypoallergenic, and extremely supportive, latex mattresses became very popular, particularly amongst people with back troubles. By 1939, over 30,000 had been sold in the UK alone. But then during the Second World War the supply of latex was cut off by the Japanese, and they became more and more expensive, in some cases only available if prescribed by a doctor. Sprung mattresses began to enjoy a resurgence and would remain popular until a new mattress fad arrived in the late 1960s.
In 1968, San Francisco State University students Charles Hall, Paul Heckel and Evan Fawkes were attempting to build the ultimate comfortable chair. Their plan was to fill a vinyl bag with warmed cornflour, though this proved unsuccessful, as did a subsequent attempt using jelly as the filling. Pondering the problem one evening, Hall decided that the elaborate shape of a chair meant that using a malleable filling inside was not workable – it just wasn’t supportive enough. So instead he decided to focus on creating the ultimate bed. This time he filled the vinyl bag with warmed water and even fitted a temperature control device designed to match the water temperature with the sleeper’s body heat – the waterbed as we know it was born.
Over the next 20 years waterbeds became hugely popular, but not really for the reasons Hall had hoped. While he saw his invention as a bed designed to ease pressure points and provide warming relief from aches and pains, everyone else saw the waterbed as something else entirely.
The waterbed became synonymous with the sexual revolution. Hugh Heffner boasted of having one in the Playboy Mansion. An advertisement ran with the slogan, ‘Two things are better on a waterbed. One is sleep.’
They were massively popular and by 1986 waterbeds accounted for 20% of the bed market. But it couldn’t last and it wasn’t long before it was replaced by something infinitely more sophisticated. Memory foam was developed by NASA in the 1960s to make the seats on aircraft more comfortable for the pilots.They created a kind of solid foam that was heat sensitive. When it came into contact with bodyheat it would soften, then firm up again when it cooled. This meant that it could mould to an individual’s bodyshape and offered unrivalled, personalised support.
The benefits to the sleeper were obvious, though it wasn’t until the early 1980s that NASA released the technology to the public, and even then it was incredibly expensive. But by the early 1990s, memory foam was the mattress of choice for people determined to have the best night’s sleep possible.
Memory foam was not without its drawbacks. Because it is basically a solid mass product, it doesn’t “breathe” like a coil based mattress might. Therefore when it’s warm outside, during the summer months for example, memory foam mattresses can feel warm, maybe even too warm for some.
What was needed was a mattress that could cool you in the summer and warm you in the winter. And that dream became a reality in 2013, following the launch of the iGel mattress range.
While traditional memory foam mattresses can leave you too warm and uncomfortable in the night, iGel mattresses adjust with your body temperature to ensure you’re never too hot or cold.
Each mattress contains thousands of tiny gel support beads that conduct heat away from your body and prevent you from getting too hot. When it’s cold, these beads first store then release heat throughout the night so you don’t wake up because you are too cold.
Dr Lucy Worsley
BA Hons (Oxon), DPhil (Sussex) – English historian and curator – presented Tales from the Royal Bedchamber on BBC4 – author of If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home