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The History Of Your Bed

May 23, 2008
For centuries the bed has been one of the most important items of furniture in a household.

Beds are a status symbol: the Tudor royals and noblemen showed off their wealth through their huge four-poster beds and elaborate drapes and hangings, and many people today covet a spacious and beautifully designed bed in their home.

The difference in the quality and comfort of beds has always separated rich from poor and continues to do so. While some of us enjoy the luxury of fine Egyptian cotton sheets, others around the world still prepare for the night by rolling out a simple sleeping mat.

Beds in the ancient world

The earliest beds were little more than piles of straw or other natural materials to ease the discomfort of lying on a bare, cold floor. An important change occurred when beds were first raised off the ground to protect the sleeper from draughts, dirt, and pests.

More than 3,600 years ago, the Persians filled goatskins with water to create the first water beds. In ancient Egypt, beds were made from wood and reed matting, and the bed functioned as a place to eat and entertain socially as well as to sleep.

In Homer's Odyssey, the bed of Odysseus is described as being made of woven rope, while the ancient Romans had a variety of beds for different purposes. These included the lectus cubicularis, or chamber bed for sleeping, the lectus discubitorius, or table bed, on which up to three people would lie to eat, and the lectus funebris, on which the dead were carried to the pyre. In most ancient societies, however, only the rich would have enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in a bed.

Beds in the Middle Ages

In Saxon England, a bed typically consisted of a mattress on wooden boards, covered with quilts and fur rugs. In the later Saxon period, some beds were raised wooden platforms. Again, it was only the rich who slept in beds; everyone else spent the night on the floor huddled around the fire in the great hall.

The 13th century saw the arrival of the canopy or tester, which was suspended by cords from beams above the bed. Curtains were hung on it to block out draughts and light. Gradually bed covers became more elaborate, often incorporating gold cloth and decorative fringes. In the early 14th century, feather beds imported from France became popular in English homes. In the wealthiest households a feather bed was placed onto the matted truss (mattress) of straw, with a layer of canvas in between. The woollen blanket also appeared around this time.

The great four-poster bed was first introduced in the 15th century, probably from Austria. These beds were typically enormous with huge intricately carved pillars up to 18 inches in diameter carrying the vast weight of the wooden panelled tester. Carvings on the bed included the family coat of arms, monsters, griffins, Cupids, and knights, and drapes and tapestries were heavily embroidered in splendid colours and exotic designs. When lords travelled between manors, they frequently took their beds with them. Portable beds were known as 'trussing' beds and the hangings were referred to as 'the portable chamber.'

In 1600, the bed in a poor household would consist of a timber frame with rope or leather supports. The mattress was a bag of soft filling, usually straw or sometimes wool. However, a tradesman might have several feather beds in his house, often with an elaborately carved back and posts.

The origins of the modern bed

By the mid 18th century, a greater range of materials for bedding had become available. Quality linen or cotton was used for covers, while coconut fibre, cotton, wool and horsehair filled mattresses and pillows. By the late 19th century, iron and steel frames had largely replaced the traditional timber bed.

In 1873, Sir James Paget at St Bartholomew's Hospital first used a waterbed to treat and prevent pressure sores. The water-filled mattress allowed pressure to be evenly distributed over the body. By 1895 a few waterbeds were sold by Harrod's via mail order. But due to a lack of suitable materials, the waterbed did not gain widespread popularity until vinyl was developed in the 1960s.

In 1900, American William Lawrence Murphy invented the space-saving 'Murphy Bed', which folded up into a closet. 1929 saw the arrival of expensive latex rubber mattresses, and at around the same time pocket spring mattresses were introduced. These consisted of individual springs sewn into linked fabric bags.

The pocket sprung mattress is still sold worldwide today, though new technology has enabled alternatives to be developed such as the memory foam mattress, which moulds perfectly to the shape of your body and ensures a great night's sleep.

From an aesthetic perspective, beds made from natural materials such as pine have enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity.
About the Author
Leigh A. Matelas is a freelance writer living in the UK. She regularly contributes articles for Taurus Beds, a leading supplier of pine beds in London.
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