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13 facts about the history of the bed

After a long journey, there’s nothing better than climbing into one’s own bed. It’s where we sleep, read, experience intimacy – and it’s often the first major purchase we make when we grow up and leave home. So where did the bed come from, and what can this everyday object tell us about ourselves?

In The Origin of Stuff, Katy Brand is joined by sleep expert and neuroscientist Prof Russell Foster, historian Greg Jenner, and expert on Early Modern History Prof Sasha Handley, to discuss how the bed has been shaped by our attitudes to sleep, sex, and status.

1. Mattresses existed 77,000 years ago

The earliest evidence for mattresses is from the stone age, 77,000 years ago. In caves in South Africa people were sleeping on mattresses that they had hand woven. Caves weren’t very comfortable, plus being raised off the floor was a way to escape crawling insects and bugs. Because they would eat their dinner in the same space, the mattresses would get a bit greasy after a while, so they would then set fire to them.

2. The first beds were piles of stone

In Catalhoyuk in Turkey – the first ever town, way back in the Neolithic period (10,000 years ago) – they had raised platforms to sleep on. In the settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, which is 6,000 years old, inhabitants would pile up stones that they would then would lie upon (much like in the Flintstones!). These raised platforms were essentially the first beds.

3. Egyptian beds had carved legs and sloped downwards

The wealthy Egyptians had legs on their beds that were beautifully carved, with animal feet on the bottom of the four posts. In contrast to modern beds, they weren’t flat but tended to bow in the centre, or slope downwards so the feet were lower than the head. This meant they often had a footrest to keep you from sliding out the bottom!

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4. In the East, a raised bed did not mean higher status

In the West, being raised off the floor came to mean that you were of a higher social status, but this was not so in much of the world. In Japan, traditional Tatami mats sit on the floor. In parts of Kazakhstan, it’s still common to sleep on the floor in rolled up sleeping bags known as tushuks. This is because traditionally people were nomadic and had to carry their tents and beds with them.

5. The Romans and the Greeks ate their meals in bed

Roman and Greek beds were multi-functional: they were for sleeping in, but they were also used at mealtimes. People would recline on one side and reach out to pick up whatever morsel they fancied from the table. (We actually get the word recline from the Greek word for bed.) No need to feel guilty the next time you take that bowl of cereal to bed – you’re simply following in the footsteps of the Roman rich.

6. Medieval great beds could accommodate a whole football team

In Medieval Europe, most poor people were sleeping on straw and hay but the wealthy were beginning to develop what’s called the “great bed”. These were a whacking great piece of furniture, the most famous of which is the late Elizabethan Great bed of Ware. These beds were so vast you could probably get a whole football team in them! They were designed to be dismantled so the wealthy could take them with them when they travelled to their next country pile or castle.

7. The phrase “sleep tight” is all to do with how beds were made

These Early Modern beds would have been wooden in the legs and frame and then across the middle there would have been a lattice-work of cords made of natural fibres. These cords would stretch and go slack so they would need to be tightened. And that’s where the phrase “sleep tight” comes from.

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8. Four poster beds were a way to show status

The 1400s and 1500s saw the birth and rise in popularity of the four-poster bed.

They had a canopy over the top called the tester and thick curtains and lots of cushions – almost transforming them into little theatres.

These beautiful beds were a way of showing status, not least because a person required staff to help them get past all the elaborate drapery!

9. The bed used to be the centre of political life

The Early Modern Period is famous for beds of state. Two monarchs prominent in developing that culture in the royal courts were Louis XIV of France and our very own King Charles II. For them, the bed was the centre of political life. Baroque political culture had at its heart the idea that the power of the state was present in the physical person of the king and queen – so the closer you could get to the monarch’s body and their intimate daily routines the more favoured you were. The bed was a stage on and around which various rituals could be performed by the monarch to demonstrate which courtiers they liked the most. At Versailles the most favoured courtiers were even invited to observe the king waking up.

10. We used to hang knives above babies’ cradles to fight off evil

Christians used to believe they were very vulnerable from spiritual attack as they slept – the devil’s powers being at their peak during the hours of darkness. The bible is full of examples of people being murdered in the night whilst asleep. This resulted in an enormous amount of bedtime rituals.

Aside from bedside prayer, which was the most common, people would have charms and amulets made from coral, which was thought to preserve life. They would also wear wolves’ teeth around the neck, and (despite the obvious hazard) iron knives were hung above the cradles of babies. The metal was thought to be a defence against supernatural attack.

11. We used to sleep on as many as six stacked mattresses

In the Early Modern period, families invested an incredible amount of money, time and resource in beds.

In his will, Shakespeare famously left his second-best bed to his wife!

Depending on how important you were, you would have between one and six mattresses stacked on top of each other, and typically the bed and its textiles would account for around a third of your assets. In his will, Shakespeare famously left his second-best bed to his wife!

12. The Victorians introduced iron bed frames to fight disease

Almost all beds were all made of wood until the 19th century. Then, around the 1860s, people started to become aware of germs, and wooden bed frames (that were a target for lice and bugs) were replaced with iron ones. These were easier to clean and therefore more hygienic. There was a change in mattress design too and the coiled spring mattress sprung into being.

13. The Victorians invented the children’s bedroom

Historically, a family would sleep all together in the same bed. But the Victorians really started to tussle with the idea that people should sleep separately. Victorian health experts wrote that children should sleep away from their parents to prevent the adults sucking out the children’s youthful energy during the night!

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