The History of Beds and Mattresses

December 9th, 2014

Here in the UK, and across the world, almost everyone sleeps on beds and mattresses. But have you ever wondered when they were first used? Or how about how they have changed to become the beds and mattresses we use today? Read on to find out about the history of beds and mattresses, from around 7000 BCE (that’s almost 10,000 years ago) to now. 

The history of the bed can be traced back to around 7000 BCE – the Early Neolithic age. From then until now there have been a number of advancements in the making of beds throughout the Bronze, Iron and Middle ages, throughout the Renaissance, throughout the industrial revolution and throughout more modern times to what we know as a bed today. 

Neolithic Beds 

The Neolithic period refers to the last part of the Stone Age, beginning around 10-9000 BCE in the Middle East and later in other parts of the world. This cultural period is marked by the beginning of farming, domestication of animals, manufacture of pottery and other crafts, and the making of different kinds of tools. In the Neolithic period, people used primitive beds for sleeping. These beds were made by laying down leaves, grass and animal skins for comfort. 

Ancient Egyptian Beds 

The Bronze Age refers roughly to the point in time where a culture starts using bronze in their metal work. In some areas of the world, the Bronze Age came right after the Neolithic age. However, in others, there was no Bronze Age, and in some cultures there was a Copper Age between the Neolithic Age and the Bronze Age. To read more about this, visit here

Ancient Egyptian Bronze Age occurred between around 3100 BCE and 1200 BCE, during the time of the first to the nineteenth dynasties. Much of the evidence from this period comes from hieroglyphics, but there have also been excavations revealing much about the lives of Ancient Egyptians. 

During this time, rich ancient Egyptians slept on beds of wood carved into elaborate designs. The legs of the beds of the wealthy were carved to resemble animal legs. Headrests were also carved and used by the Ancient Egyptians, and may have been wrapped and padded for comfort. These headrests were allegedly used, as opposed to pillows, as they were a cool way to rest your head in such a warm environment, with air circulation right around the head. 

Many Egyptian beds were slanted so that the head was raised, and the beds had footboards so that the occupant wouldn’t fall off in the night. Reeds were then woven across the bed frame to create a sturdy surface for the mattress to sit on. The mattress would have been made from wooden slats and cushions made of a soft material such as wool. Ancient Egyptians used linen sheets for the beds, often woven by lower-class women.  Some beds of pharaohs were allegedly made of gold – Tutankahmun’s, for example, was allegedly made entirely of gold and ebony. The ancient Egyptian furniture of pharaohs were often decorated with silver, bronze, ebony and ivory.

 The beds of the poor, on the other hand, were often much simpler. They generally consisted of a simple mattress containing wool or straw, but sometimes the poor had to make do with the floor and no cushioning. In this case, they would often sleep on palm leaves. 

Ancient Rome 

Ancient Rome refers to an Italian civilization that existed between the years of 753 BCE and 476 AD. Ancient Rome was located by the Mediterranean Sea, focussed on the city of Rome. 

Well-off Ancient Romans slept on beds made out of wood that were decorated with shells, ivory, gold, silver or bronze. Similarly to the Egyptian beds, Roman beds were raised off the ground – often needing steps to gain access. Roman beds had headboards and often footboards too, but they didn’t have slanted beds like the Egyptians. Roman beds had mattresses on them, which were commonly stuffed with reeds, hay or wool. If you were particularly well-off then you might have had a mattress stuffed with feathers, as this was fashionable amongst the wealthy. Ancient Romans also used small cushions for comfort, as we do nowadays, and they decorated their beds with colourful fabrics. 

Much like the Egyptians, poor Ancient Romans had much simpler beds. They generally consisted of a simple mattress stuffed with a material such as hay, and families often shared the mattress with a simple animal skin blanket. 

Roman beds were also multi-functional, often being used for relaxing, socialising, eating and drinking. Whilst the wealthy would have multiple beds for these purposes, those who could only afford the one bed used it for both sleeping and entertaining. Of course, those who had no bed didn’t indulge in this socialisation and often didn’t have the room for a bed either. 

Medieval Europe

Medieval Europe refers to the period of time roughly between 400 AD and 1400 AD and began with the end of the Western Roman Empire. 

In Medieval times, the rich would have a wooden bed, with ropes woven across the middle for the mattress to rest on. The mattress would usually be stuffed with straw, although sometimes stuffed with feathers or down towards the end of the Medieval times, and covered with a decorative fabric. The poor would sleep on leaves, straw or hay covered with animal skins or other fabric. The poor servants would often only have their cloaks for warmth, but may have had animal skin covers like the rich. 

Often, curtains would be hung around the bed for warmth and privacy as multiple people slept in the same room – servants even frequently slept in the same room as their masters. Later on, iron railings began being used to hang the curtains, which were also made of a decorative fabric. In Medieval times, you were fortunate if you had a bed frame and so they became like family heirlooms – passed proudly down the family. These bed frames developed to become four posters that were elaborately carved, or decorated with cloth hangings. If you travelled a lot then your bed frame would be simple so it could be dismantled and rebuilt easily. These beds could still be decorated, however, as the hangings could also be easily transported. 

During this time, box-beds (or cupboard beds) were also invented. These were literally boxes or cupboards built into a wall or corner which provided warmth and privacy. These beds would sometimes be stacked on top of each other like bunk beds, and were sometimes carved elaborately. 

Renaissance to Early Modern 

The renaissance began in Europe around 1300 AD and finished around 1600 AD. It was a cultural movement, whose name is the French word for “re-birth”. This period of time is so-called because there was a renewed interest in science, art, literature and architecture. The French King Louis XIV, who ruled for 72 years from the year 1643 when he was four, famously allegedly owned 413 beds – which would have been of the elaborate French style of the time and were decorated with gold, silver and pearls. 

During the Renaissance, a style of bed which only had the tester (the ‘roof’ of a four poster) and curtains at the head of the bed became popular in France. People still tended to have either an elaborately carved bed frame or a light frame with elaborate hangings. However, as the Renaissance drew to a close and the 17th and 18th Centuries began, the focus became the elaborate carvings and the hangings became lighter and simpler.

Although the poor would still have slept on straw mattresses with their cloaks, linen sheets or animal skins for warmth, it became more common for better-off people to sleep on mattresses made of feathers during the Renaissance period. The mattress was placed on top of ropes which needed tightening often – this is sometimes said to be where the phrase ‘sleep tight’ comes from. People would use sheets made from hemp or linen, blankets and a coverlet linked with fur for warmth. 

1700 AD – Present 

During the 18th century, iron and steel beds were developed to replace wooden ones. Disease was common and wooden beds often harboured bugs and insects, and may have been infested with lice or bed bugs. This explains the origins of the remainder of the phrase aforementioned: “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”, as bed bugs would often bite the occupant of the bed. In the 18th Century we also saw some change in mattresses as the covers began to be made of linen or cotton, with buttons to attach the stuffing to the cover. 

Iron beds tended to be handmade, and were so from their initial production until after World War One. Making beds by hand often took days, so it is not surprising that they eventually became mass produced. This happened after World War One, as the methods used in war time were applied to other areas of the iron industry. As with anything that is mass produced, this allowed for more cost efficient production, increasing the accessibility of these bed frames. 

Beginning in the 19th Century, there were a number of significant developments in the way mattresses are made, with a series of fundamental advancements. Firstly, box springs were invented for shock absorbance and weight distribution in the latter half of the 19th Century. Then, in the late 1920s, Dunlop invented the first latex foam – Dunlopillo latex. Soon after this, in 1931, the first latex mattresses were also made. Around that time innerspring mattresses were also becoming popular, a type of mattress that was invented in 1871. This type of mattress was originally invented for the seat part of chairs, by a man named Heinrich Westphal. 

Soon after the rising popularity of innerspring mattresses and latext mattresses, air beds were invented in the 1940s. Then, in the 1960’s, water beds were invented by San Francisco State University Students Charles Hall, Paul Heckel and Evan Fawkes. The students were trying to make the most comfortable chair possible, but soon realised that having a malleable filling inside a chair was much less efficient than having a malleable filling inside a mattress. After some experimentation with fillings, they eventually came up with the water bed, which became a fad until the 1990s. 

In the 1960’s, NASA created memory foam in order to make the seats on aircrafts safer for the pilots. The material used was a heat sensitive solid foam, meaning it would soften and mould to your body when it warmed, and return to its original firm state when it cooled again. This material was released to the public in the 1980s, with Fagerdala World Foams releasing their product ‘Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress’ in 1991. Although initially expensive (notoriously so), memory foam mattresses have become less expensive over the years and can be particularly popular with people who suffer with back problems. There is one main problem with memory foam mattresses, though, and that is that they tend to be particularly warm to sleep on. The foam material struggles to ‘breath’ – causing the mattresses to become too warm for some sleepers. 

One of the most recent advancements came in the year 2000 with the invention of the ‘no-flip’ mattress. This style of mattress is made in a way that doesn’t require regular flipping for prolonged comfort and life, and reduced wear. Other than not having to flip the mattress, these offer very little extra in comparison to two-sided mattresses - but they have still become quite popular since their invention. They can be cheaper than double sided mattresses, as no-flip mattresses require less quilting on the outside of the mattress, and this could explain their popularity. 

 From leaves on the floor, to bags filled with straw, to beds made of a material invented by NASA, over the years – and especially over the last couple of hundred – humans have revolutionised our sleeping arrangements. Nowadays, bed bugs are much less of an issue than before and it’s perfectly safe to choose a wooden bed if that’s what you desire. Regular cleaning of your bed can help with that. For more information about what beds to choose, what mattresses are best for you, how best to clean your bed – visit www.sealy.co.uk. You can find all our models on the Official Store

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