One of the many benefits of living in today’s world is the simple delight of slipping in between soft sheets on a supportive, comfortable mattress when it’s time for your nightly repose. But what if instead of those soft sheets, you covered yourself up with leaves at night? Or how about instead of your favorite memory foam pillow, you laid your head on a pillow made of stone? Or you had no real mattress on your bed, just a sack of hay likely infested with fleas and lice? Well, if you had lived... far enough in the past, those options wouldn’t be fantasy – they would be your reality.
While the basics -- a cushioned spot to rest and stay warm through the night – have remained the same throughout history, the details of what constitutes a bed have changed quite a bit through the millennia. Here’s a brief history of beds through the ages.
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Oldest Known Mattress, 77,000 Years Ago
Your mattress is considered old after around seven years, but according to the National Geographic, the oldest known “bed” in the world was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and dates back 77,000 years. Basically, it consisted of layers of plant material gathered into mats, which were periodically burned, perhaps to eliminate pests. The bed was around 12 inches thick and a whopping 22 square feet, providing plenty of room for the entire family. Leaves provided a cozy top sheet, and possibly also aided in keeping away bugs.
In this photo,a plaster cast holds fossilized leaves from the oldest known mattress.
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Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers, circa 8,000 B.C.
For prehistoric nomadic people, life on the move meant that nights were generally spent resting on a pile of leaves or grass mounded into a depression in the ground. At Hinds Cave in southwestern Texas, researchers speculate that the many bands of hunter-gatherers who used the spot as a temporary home slept curled in the fetal position, as the small, oval “beds” wouldn’t have provided enough room to stretch out fully. Perhaps this kept the sleeper warm and cozy during the night.
The photo here shows amazingly well preserved leaves and plant fibers from an ancient bed in the Hinds Cave.
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Ancient Egypt, circa 3000 B.C. - 1000 B.C
Along with their other amazing inventions and technologies, including written language, advancements in engineering, building and quarrying, eye makeup, toothpaste, the door lock, and hair shaving/grooming implements, you can also thank the ancient Egyptians for the invention of the raised bed. This kept the sleeper off the cold ground and also made it harder for rodents, insects or snakes to crawl over the bed. Made of plain wood (if you were a commoner) or covered with gold, jewels and ebony if you were of high social status, the simple platform bed was topped with a mattress made of wool cushions. Linen sheets and a stone or wooden head support added extra comfort.
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Ancient Rome, circa 1000 B.C. - 476 A.D.
The wealthier citizens of ancient Rome slept on raised beds made of metal, with woven metal supports to hold the feather or straw-stuffed mattress. Less-wealthy people had similar beds made from wood, with wool strings holding up the mattress. If you were poor, however, you still had to make do with a mat on the floor. But whatever type of bed, you probably would have been warm underneath your woolen blanket, which were common throughout the Roman empire. The bed shown here is in the Vatican Museum.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Medieval Life, circa 5th through 15th century
If you lived in medieval Europe, your sleeping arrangements would have largely depended on your position in life. If you were lucky enough to be wealthy, your bed was an opportunity to show off your status. Large, impressive, often ornately carved or encrusted with gold or jewels, beds expanded far beyond a simple platform during the Middle Ages.
Typically made of heavy wood, the beds of the wealthy were raised high off the floor (sometimes so high that a stepstool was required to reach them.) Four-poster beds were created during this time, hung with heavy velvet drapes and canopies, which served to show off the owner’s wealth, and also warded off drafts and insects. The mattress was thickly stuffed with down and feathers, and sheets were made of fine linen.
As these beds were very expensive, they were treasured belongings and passed down through the generations. It even became common for royal or wealthy owners to remain in bed to receive visitors, eat meals and carry on business.
Although not as lavish as some, the bed in the photo here is typical for the period.
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Medieval Peasant Life
If you were poor in medieval times, you would have slept on a hay-stuffed bag on the floor or on a simple platform. There’s a good chance your family would be sharing the bed with you, or at least be nearby; privacy was not a medieval concept. Before turning in for the night, you would have “hit the hay” in an attempt to dislodge bugs from your mattress. Once in bed, you’d cover yourself with a rough wool blanket – no fine linens for you. Because the homes of the poor were very small and families were typically large, your bed might well be used not just for sleeping at night, but also for sitting or as a table during the day.
This room is typical of a medieval peasant's hut.
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Renaissance, circa 14th through 17th century
While the poorest folks continued to sleep on simple pallets of hay laid on the floor or on a simple platform, it was now common for those of middle-class status to have not only a four-poster bed, but also a separate bedroom to hold it. Typically, a bedroom during the time of the renaissance would be on an upper floor of the home, and would contain a bed with a trundle underneath that could be pulled out to sleep family members or servants, along with a wooden trunk to hold clothing.
For the wealthiest people, the bedchamber continued to be a popular spot to receive visitors and carry on business. The ubiquitous four-poster grew even more lavish and ornate during this period, with fanciful carvings, inlaid paintings, colorful trim, and luxurious, heavy fabric curtains to enclose the bed on all four sides when desired, along with a canopy that might be fabric or wood. Ropes or woven straps provided support for the mattress, which was generously stuffed with down and topped by fine linen sheets and wool blankets. Because these beds were so expensive, they were prized possessions to be passed down through a family’s generations.
The fantastic bed shown here is called the Great Bed of Ware, and is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Large enough to sleep eight people comfortably, the bed was never in a private home, but was created in 1590 as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, England. It was so famous during its day that Shakespeare included a reference to it in his play “Twelfth Night.” Amusingly, the bed has carved graffiti on the posts from those lucky enough to sleep in it hundreds of years ago.
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During the 18th century, beds became simpler in style, although still often surrounded by heavy curtains. While beds were still usually made of wood, metal bedframes were starting to become popular as well. Cotton-stuffed mattresses replaced down or hay, although they were still suspended in the bedframe with a system of wool straps or ropes.
One of the biggest changes during the 18th century, however, was that the concept of the bedroom as a private space for sleep became firmly entrenched throughout all classes of society. No longer did royalty or the wealthy receive visitors in their bedroom, and it was no longer typical to have servants sleeping on the bedroom floor.
This is a typical middle-class colonial bedroom.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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During the 19th century, bedrooms became more like the ones we enjoy today, mostly devoted to sleep or sex, although if you were a woman during this time, you would probably also use your bedroom for giving birth. The heavy curtains of earlier centuries faded away, although four-poster beds were still very popular. By the late 1800s, however, the posts were typically much smaller, and headboards and footboards also shrunk accordingly.
One striking advance to the bed during this time was the invention of metal bedsprings to support the mattress, instead of ropes or wool straps. While these gave more support and stability to the mattress, they were also annoyingly squeaky.
This Victorian-era bedroom shows off the fussy style typical of the period.
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The 20th century was a busy time for bed innovations: the Murphy bed and the waterbed both were invented and rose in popularity during this era. But those certainly weren’t the only mattress improvements: the two most common types of mattress today -- innerspring and memory foam -- were both developed during the 20th century.
Although they had been invented decades earlier, it wasn’t until the 1950s that innerspring mattresses skyrocketed in popularity to become by far the most common type of mattress. This ushered in the use of box-spring platforms to hold the mattress, creating a far more comfortable and supportive bed than those used in earlier times.
By the 1960s, mattresses and pillows were often made of foam instead of cotton or wool. Tempur-Pedic sold the first memory foam mattress in the U.S. in 1992. Today, memory foam mattresses have the highest rate of customer satisfaction of any type of mattress.
The picture here shows a typical middle-class 1950s bedroom.
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Today, you have more choice than ever before when it comes to your mattress and style of bed. Innerspring, memory foam, hybrids, latex, and air are just some of the mattress types available. And while platform beds and four-posters are still very popular styles, there are many other types of bed: wrought iron, sleigh, bunk, loft, and futon, to name a few. The bed has come a long way since the earliest grass-lined pits, but the basic concept is unchanged: a comfortable, safe and cozy spot to sleep and restore your energies through the night.