The Ridiculously Royal History of the Canopy Bed

published Sep 14, 2019
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Nowadays, the canopy bed is thought of as a staple for children’s bedrooms or fairy tale princesses. And there is a good reason for that—for a long time canopies were the mark of decadence. But their origins didn’t start because of extravagance, but instead, out of necessity.

Canopy beds have been in China since as early as the 4th century, and those older versions were made with brocade silk. When they came into use in Europe, it was for a highly serviceable reason: Medieval noble families slept in the great hall of their castle, and most of their servants slept in the hall with them. Canopy curtains went up to create a handy sense of privacy—a sort of “cozy room within a room.” Plus, castles were cold and drafty, which meant the curtains also added a much needed extra layer of warmth.

As time went on and castles got their own separate bedchambers for nobility, the curtains remained. During the 16th century, it was common for a servant or two to sleep on floor palettes to be handy at any moment. Translation? The drapes were still a handy necessity.

While the physical beds were mostly understated in the Middle Ages, drapes were rich, heavy, and made from luxurious materials. The rise of the Renaissance inspired carved headboards and posts, inlaid paintings, and heavy fabrics of velvet and brocade. The canopy was so elaborate that sometimes it cost even more than the wood of the bed itself. 

France took it up a notch with canopies in the early 17th century, and turned the bed into an important status symbol. In France, the “Chambre” was a type of grand bed-slash-sitting room in high society houses. The bed was the most important part of the room, and was often an elaborate canopy style. The Chambre was a suite of rooms, but the bedchamber was the innermost formal room of reception. Because of this, it became an honor to be invited inside—so much so that high-ranking individuals often received visitors while in bed

Unfortunately, bedrooms as status symbols reached a low-point in the early 1800s,  thanks to concerns over hygiene and the large amounts of deaths caused by infectious diseases like cholera. Bedrooms were thought to be possible “ground zeros” of infection, so bedrooms had a tendency to be furnished simply.

During the early decades of the 1800s, canopies were still somewhat popular; however, the fabric would extend halfway down the length of the bed. As health concerns became more mainstream, these types of beds began to be replaced with metal bed frames. By the 1870s, canopies began to feel old-fashioned and outdated.

But not for too long! The lacy canopy beds that we think belong to princesses and frilly bedrooms first popped up in the late 1890s. The lacy look was part of the Colonial Revival of the 20th century, which lasted up until the 1940s. Since these canopies didn’t need to serve an actual purpose—like creating warmth or impressing visiting nobility—they were made with lighter dressings. That’s where the sheer curtains, lace accents, and light linens came in. 

Nowadays, canopies are making a comeback, but in a more modern way. Rather than using heavy brocade, rich velvets, or Victorian lace, they come in the form of sheer fabrics and airy materials. It’s once again just a decorative accent—though it does still have a ridiculously royal feel to it.