Five Thousand Years in Bed: A Brief History of Where We Sleep

published Mar 8, 2017
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

The average person spends about a third of their life in bed, but in discussions of history we seldom ever mention sleeping (unless, perhaps, someone had the misfortune to be murdered while doing it) and even more infrequently mention the place where the sleeping happens. For reasons both illicit and practical, I’ve always found the bed to be the most interesting of furniture pieces, and yet it is missing from most of history (and from the history of design as well, since a bed turns out to be harder to innovate than a chair or a table). So to satisfy my own curiosity (and perhaps yours) about where our forebears slept, I decided to embark on a little research about the history of the bed.

Let’s start our discussion on the history of the bed where many discussions of history start—with the Egyptians. Wood was a bit of a rare commodity in Egypt, and the beds we have found, preserved in tombs and such, are delicate affairs, sitting low to the ground and using a minimum of timber. (The chief advantage of having a bed that sits high above the ground is avoiding drafts, something that was less important in Ancient Egypt than it would be in Northern Europe.) Cords stretched between the horizontal members of the bed served to support the mattress. Sometimes, the sides of the bed were curved, and sometimes they would even slope downwards, with a footboard to keep the sleeper from sliding out.

(Image credit: The Cultural Concept)

Even so, the Egyptian bed is at least passably recognizable as such. What’s really unusual about the Egyptian way of sleeping is the pillow, which is not a pillow at all but a sort of prop for the head. Historians speculate that the Egyptians used them to preserve their famously elaborate coiffures. (Similar headrests were used throughout Africa for centuries, and in some places are still in use today.) To someone used to sleeping on pillows, these headrests may seem remarkably uncomfortable, but it’s possible the Egyptians were just used to them. Also, as strange as it may seem, people in the past just did not think of personal comfort in the same way that we do—an important thing to keep in mind when considering the sleeping situations of our forefathers.

(Image credit: Met Museum)

And these were just the sleeping arrangements of the wealthy. The average person in Egypt—like the average person throughout much of history—slept on the floor, probably on a mat of reeds or a mattress stuffed with straw. Entire families would’ve bedded down together, since privacy, like comfort, is largely a modern idea.

(Image credit: Met Museum)

Greek and Roman beds closely resembled their Egyptian counterparts, with the addition, in some cases, of paneling on three sides, which turned the bed into a sort of daybed. Roman bedrooms, called cubiculum, were small, humble affairs, but the Romans also used what we would call daybeds in public spaces, since they were quite comfortable reading, writing, socializing, and evening dining, while lying down.

(Image credit: The Iris)

During the Middle Ages, even the very wealthy slept on beds made from rough-hewn timbers, since a lot of the niceties of furniture making had been lost. The less wealthy continued sleeping on the floor, as they had throughout most of history. The large manor houses where many people lived typically had only one bedroom, for the lord of the manor and his lady, and everyone else—from the highest ranking hanger-on to the lowliest servant—would sleep on the floor of the great hall. Conveniently, said floor was customarily covered in straw or rushes, which the sleepers would use to stuff their mattresses (literally “making a bed”). A very lucky few might place their mattresses on top of chests, tables, or benches in adjoining alcoves, elevating the sleeper above the drafts (and the smells) of the floor.

(Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)

It wasn’t until the 14th and 15th century, with the rise of the middle class in Europe, that beds became common for the average person. Even so, beds—which typically were outfitted with curtains to keep the sleeper cozy during cold winter nights in poorly heated homes—were expensive pieces of furniture, and frequently mentioned as bequests in wills.

(Image credit: Maison Decor)

In the French court, the king’s (and queen’s) beds became the center of an elaborate ritual surrounding waking up and going to bed. Different members of the court were granted certain honors, such as handing the queen her nightgown, according to their rank. These elaborate state bedchambers, with their beautifully canopied beds, look very comfortable, but they were certainly not private, since close to 100 people would file into the room to attend these ceremonies.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

The Chinese are responsible for some of the most beautiful and elaborate canopy beds. Chinese beds, like Roman beds, were used not just for sleeping, but also for lounging during the day. The bed was the most important piece of furniture in the home, and beds created for Chinese wedding rituals were almost like little rooms, with canopies, curtains and even vestibules.

An important (and fairly recent) innovation in the history of the bed is the invention of rolled steel, which made possible the creation of what we call a bedframe. A basic bedstead has always been essentially just a frame to elevate the mattress above the floor, and now we’ve reduced that to the very minimum of materials, although often we attach a headboard to the frame as a nod to the grander beds of old.

These days, when you can just go out and buy one at IKEA for a couple of hundred dollars (or buy a simple bedframe for even less), the bed has lost a little bit of its cachet. But tonight, as you slip between the covers, maybe send a little thanks out into the universe for how far we’ve come from sleeping on straw mattresses on the floor.

It is, of course, impossible to condense the entire history of the bed (and of sleeping) into only one article. If the subject interests you, I would highly recommend the book Warm & Snug: The History of the Bed, to which I am indebted for much of the information that appears in this article.