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304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Since we spend nearly a third of our lives in bed, it plays a significant part in our lives as the symbol of leisure and rest. Today’s beds can be customized to meet any purpose. Not too soft, not too firm, Tempurpedic, loaded with springs, or equipped with a robotic launcher that can lift us out of bed if necessary. What did we do, though, prior to modern beds? As long as humanity have existed, there has been a need for a pleasant place to sleep at night, yet comfort has undoubtedly evolved as a concept.
Let’s talk about the origins of the bed and how sleeping habits have changed over time.
As far as we know, early humans would just sleep on the ground without mattresses. Nevertheless, we soon switched to the cozier choice of sleeping on a pile of greenery and animal skins. The oldest mattress ever found was found in South Africa and has a 77,000-year age estimate. A remarkable “12 inches thick and a massive 22 square feet, offering enough of room for the entire family” was created from vegetation to create the mattress. Because early humans were frequently nomads, mattresses had to be constructed wherever they went. These improvised beds were built by small earthen depressions filled with flora around 8,000 B.C., according to archaeologists.
More durable furniture was created as humans started to transition from a nomadic to a settled existence to provide comfort in the home. The development of the raised bed by the Ancient Egyptians is one particular illustration of this. The first known people who are known to have slept on raised beds are the Egyptians. The wealthy and the regal slept on raised beds made of gold, wood, or ebony, while the common folk at this time most likely slept on floor mats. A mattress constructed of woolen cushions and linen sheets was placed atop these raised beds. However, the Egyptians rejected pillows in favor of a peculiar head and neck support. These uncomfortable headrests had a neck rest that was curved and protruded from the bed like a guitar mount. Instead of pillows, which would invariably ruin their dos, many “historians assume that the Egyptians utilized them to preserve their notoriously ornate coiffures”.
The Romans adapted the Egyptian elevated bed style, “in some cases adding paneling on three sides, which transformed the bed into a sort of daybed”. Romans loved a lot of their everyday activities in a prone posture, including eating, reading, and socializing, therefore daybeds were a common sight in both the home and the public domain. Roman beds were still considered a luxury, and many commoners slept on the ground in burlap sacks filled with hay.
So why was the raised bed created? For many years, sleeping on the floor was sufficient; however, as humans began to settle down, standards changed, and sleeping on the floor now encouraged a variety of creepy crawlies to cuddle up with you. Pests that lingered to eat the leftovers of compressed human life grew as populations moved into cities and villages. Because of this, the raised bed was particularly useful to the Egyptians for keeping out slithery rodents, insects, and snakes as they slept. Many people found this avoidance of frequently disease-carrying animals on the ground to be appealing as they started to seek out a more sanitized way of life.
In the Middle Ages, the nightmare-inducing beds of the past would start to take on a more recognizable shape, but they had their own set of problems. The standard was a raised bed with a mattress on top, but compared to Egyptian and Roman beds, beds grew significantly in size. Beds were made of lavishly carved hardwoods, ornamented with pricey quilted duvets in exotic hues, bed skirts, and even canopies because, like many other things in the Medieval period, they were a status symbol and a sign of riches.
Thankfully, pillows were also provided with beds in place of headrests made of wood or stone. At the time, beds were among the priciest items of furniture that one could get their hands—or heads—on.
Compared to what is typical today, beds during this time were significantly larger. In fact, the purpose of the extra-large beds was to house entire families. Beds were effectively a sleeping dog pile for your entire family in the 15th and 16th centuries, although by modern standards they are a haven for seclusion and privacy. In fact, unless you were literally or symbolically on your deathbed, it was rare that you would ever sleep alone in a bed.
The common people continued to sleep on woven mats or burlap that had been filled with wool and hay during the Middle Ages. It was a breeding ground for lice, ticks, and the spread of disease to sleep on floor mats. Since it improved the health and wellbeing of individuals who used it, the invention of the raised bed wasn’t only for show. Unfortunately, basic wooden raised beds didn’t become widely accessible to the general public in the western world until the 16th century, as the middle class expanded and people could finally stop sleeping on the floor. The middle class began to have separate sleeping quarters or bedrooms more frequently in the 16th and 17th centuries, which had previously been an upper class luxury. Even yet, there was still some jostling over the blankets even though the beds of the wealthy were larger and more opulent than before.
In the 18th century, beds lost their majestic canopies and adopted a more straightforward shape. They were often four-posters constructed of carved wood. Families gradually started to separate into their own bed chambers as separate bed chambers became the new standard.
Sleep didn’t change into a solitary occupation until the Victorian era. I appreciate Victorians! People were no longer required to share a bed with their parents, siblings, maids, butlers, and dogs. Even married couples were forbidden from sharing a bed because the Victorians insisted on the value of modest seclusion. Some couples would continue to use separate beds throughout their marriage long into the 20th century. Although bed-related social customs had changed by the 19th century, mattresses were still not very comfy by today’s standards.
The Victorians created the spring mattress to eliminate the pain of lumpy organic mattresses. The spring pocket mattress was created in 1899 by James Marshall, a Canadian, and it quickly gained acceptance throughout the western world. The spring coil mattress was intended to provide “unparalleled support and comfort”by acting as “an independent suspension system that conformed to each person’s form and weight.” Marshall’s invention would change the way we sleep for all time and establish it as the industry standard for spring mattresses. Today, the Marshall Mattress Company is still in business.
Throughout the 20th century, spring mattresses ruled the market, but innovation never stopped and new creative sleeping arrangements were conceived. You can select from an infinite number of sleeping arrangements, including bunk beds, loft beds, circular beds, waterbeds, Murphy beds, and even racing beds. The memory foam mattress was created in the 20th century and is still widely used today.
While beds from the Middle Ages through the 19th century might be massive in size and weight and extremely decorative, current design in the 21st century has somewhat returned to the essentials, with many beds now only having a headboard. The “discovery of rolled steel, which made it feasible to create what we call a bedframe” was a contributor to this minimalism. As a result, it is feasible to simply place a mattress on top of a steel frame that is supported by steel or wooden slats. With the exception of stone cushions, many beds with a straightforward (or no) headboard resemble ancient Egyptian and Classical Roman beds more than the more modern Medieval and Renaissance bed frames.
Today, a bed from IKEA or Wayfair can be constructed in a single afternoon. In a relatively short period of time, we have unquestionably gone a long way from huddling under haysacks for comfort. And perhaps tonight won’t have any unwelcome pests cuddling in next to you thanks to the Egyptian idea of the elevated bed.
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