A Brief History of Beds and Mattresses

The origins of our modern beds and mattresses can be traced back to the Early Neolithic Age--around 7000 BC. Since then, our slumber furniture had to go through some significant changes before it could arrive at the shape and form we recognise today. Here's a brief history of our modern beds, from simple leaves and animal skins to the memory foam and other developments which today we all take for granted.

Neolithic Beds

Beginning in the Middle East around 8-7000 BC, this period marks the emergence of farming, the crafting of pottery, and the development of simple tools. People slept on the floor, and 'beds' were made of leaves and grass covered with animal skins for comfort.

 

Ancient Egyptian Beds

Wealthy ancient Egyptians slept on elaborately carved wooden beds with the legs of the bed carved to resemble animal legs. Carved headrests were wrapped and padded for comfort and were probably used because they provided better air circulation than a pillow. A critical comfort factor in the hot climate.

 

The mattresses of the rich lay on wooden slats and consisted of cushions made of soft wool and covered with linen sheets. The poorer Egyptian, on the other hand, slept on a much more straightforward mattress of wool or straw, placed on a layer of palm leaves on the floor.

 

Ancient Rome

Well-off Romans slept on beds of wood decorated with gold, silver, ivory, bronze and shells. The beds were raised off the ground, had headboards and footboards, and mattresses were stuffed with wool or hay, or if they were particularly wealthy, with feathers. Ancient Romans used small cushions for comfort and decorated their beds with colourful fabrics. Poor Ancient Romans slept on a simple mattress stuffed with hay, and whole families often shared one mattress and a simple animal skin for a blanket.

 

Medieval Europe

Roughly between 400 AD and 1400 AD, Medieval times saw wooden beds with ropes woven across the middle to support a mattress stuffed with straw or feathers, depending on wealth and social standing. The poor slept on leaves, straw or hay covered with animal skins or other fabric.

 

Curtains would be hung around the bed for privacy and warmth as multiple people slept in the same room. Later, iron railings were used to hang curtains made of a decorative fabric. Bed frames were rare and sometimes passed proudly down as family heirlooms. Over time, the bed frames developed into four poster beds which were elaborately carved and decorated with curtains. Box-beds, or cupboard beds, were also invented and would sometimes be stacked on top of each other to create the very first bunk beds.

 

Renaissance Beds

The Renaissance saw the rise in popularity of the so-called 'tester bed'. The tester had the ‘roof’ of a four poster and curtains at the head of the bed. 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 intricate carvings, and the hangings became lighter and more straightforward.

 

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. The mattress was suspended across ropes which needed frequent tightening, which is probably where the phrase ‘sleep tight’ originated. People covered themselves with sheets made from linen or hemp, and blankets with a coverlet lined with fur for added warmth.

 

1700 AD-Present

It was during the 18th century that iron and steel beds began to replace wooden ones. Wooden beds were a haven for insects and bugs and were often infested with lice. Mattress covers began to be made of cotton or linen, and the stuffing was attached to the cover with buttons.

 

Until WW1, beds forged from metal tended to be handmade. The process usually took days and improved only when the post-war technology was applied to the industry, and the manufacture of iron and steel beds became industrialised. As with just about anything and everything that is mass-produced, the more cost-efficient production increased the accessibility and the popularity of bed frames throughout the Western world.

 

The start of the 19th Century saw some significant developments in the way mattresses were designed and manufactured. Box springs were invented for better shock absorbance and improved weight distribution. In the late 1920s, Dunlopillo Latex, the first latex foam was developed by the giant tyre producer and soon after, in 1931, the first latex mattresses appeared. It was also around this time that a mattress type that had been developed back in 1871, the innerspring mattress, also became popular.

 

Soon after the rising popularity of innerspring mattresses and latex mattresses, air beds were invented in the 1940s. Then, in the 1960’s, a group of San Francisco University students,  Evan Fawkes, Charles Hall and Paul Heckel, created the first waterbeds. The students had set out to make the most comfortable chair possible but soon realised that while a malleable filling inside a chair was much less than efficient, filling a mattress with something pliable could be a huge commercial success. After some experimentation with fillers, they eventually came up with the waterbed, which became a fad until the 1990s.

 

Modern Times

In the 1960’s, NASA was looking at ways to make aircraft seats safer for their pilots. They developed heat sensitive foam which would soften and mould to the pilot's body when it warmed. But what made this foam genuinely unique was that it could return to its original state once it cooled down. And it was from this invention that memory foam was born. Memory foam mattresses have become particularly popular with people who suffer from back problems.

 

One of the most recent advancements came in the year 2000 with the invention of the ‘no-flip’ mattress. This type of mattress doesn’t require regular flipping to maintain comfort or to reduce wear.

 

 

 

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