Mattresses And Beds Throughout History

A bedroom designed by an interior designer.

When you picture a mattress, you likely think of something comfortable. You imagine modern iterations, like the one on your own bed. Maybe it’s a traditional box spring mattress, or perhaps you opted for memory foam or organic materials as stuffing.

The Oldest Known Mattress

Sleeping mats, which are the earliest form of mattress, have been excavated by researchers in South Africa that date back 77,000 years. Found in the Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal, the mattress was composed of layers of reeds and rushes, with grasses and leafy plants used as bedding. 

These mats were large enough to hold an entire family, likely to share body heat during cold nights, being about 22 square feet. The mattresses also had a covering of aromatic leaves called river wild quince, which naturally repel insects like mosquitoes.

Around 73,000 years ago, the bedding was periodically burned, which researchers theorize was meant to get rid of pests and garbage.

Stone Beds of the Neolithic Period

During the Neolithic period (3200-2200 BCE), inhabitants of the Orkney Islands did not have much wood to construct furniture out of. Instead, they used stone for much of their construction, which included beds.

Thankfully they likely did not simply sleep on slabs of stone. The beds were stone “boxes” built near the hearth in the center of the room. These boxes were theorized to have been stuffed with wool to act as the “mattress.” What’s interesting is that there were often two beds of different sizes. It’s believed that the larger one was for the man, while the smaller one was for the woman. This predates “I Love Lucy’s” use of separate twin beds for a husband and wife by approximately 5100 years!

Raised Beds and Stone Headrests in Egypt

Meanwhile, the Egyptians in 3000 BCE were making their own beds. As they had access to wood, they created a raised bed similar to what we use today.

The materials of these beds were a good way to determine someone’s status. Plain wood was used for commoners, while those of higher social status had beds made of ebony and covered with gold and jewels. Regardless, these raised beds all had the same purpose of keeping insects, snakes, and rodents on the floor and away from sleeping individuals. 

The mattress was a large cushion made of wool, while the sheets were linen. The “pillow” was unusual in that it was typically a stone headrest with protective hieroglyphs carved into it. This might seem uncomfortable, but it was actually quite practical. They prevented insects from crawling across the sleeper’s face. It also allowed air currents to flow under the head and keep it cool, which was important for a good night’s sleep in a hot climate.

Ancient Egyptian Wooden Headrest

The First Waterbed

You might believe waterbeds are a modern luxury, but they’ve been around for a while. Between 3600 BCE and 1600 BCE, the Persians created the first waterbed mattress. Made of goatskins filled with water and warmed in the sun, it’s unknown exactly why they were invented. Some researchers theorize that they were designed for the sick and elderly. Others believe they were meant for royalty. Regardless, they were a luxury item that the western world did not recognize the potential of until the 1800s.

Roman Beds

Over in 1000 BCE Rome, the wealthy had started to use raised metal beds, often with silver or gold feet called fulcra. The base of the bed was made of woven metal supports that would hold the mattress. The wealthiest Romans would typically have a cloth mattress stuffed with straw, wool, or feathers.

Those with less money had similar beds, but they were made of wood with ropes or wool string to support the straw-stuffed mattress. The truly poor would have to make do with a woven mat on the floor. People of all statuses usually had blankets made of wool, however.

Medieval Europe and the Invention of the Four-Poster Bed

Now we’re getting closer to beds and mattresses as we know them today. From the 5th century to the 14th century, Medieval Europe was a place of unrest, with many wars, land and power struggles, and other hardships. Thus, furniture needed to be more portable in case one had to up and leave to avoid conflict or lend aid to a king or baron.

In early Saxon times, beds consisted of a board with curtains hung around it for warmth and privacy. Later, things became more elaborate as the Normans brought a more elaborate bed style with them from France. Iron railings were used to hang the thick curtains that typically matched the bed coverings. These gradually developed into the huge four-poster beds we picture today. The beds were an indication of someone’s wealth, with elaborate headboards and curtains made from rich fabrics.

Yet, despite the expensive and decorative hangings and covers, early beds were still based on a mattress of straw. This changed for the wealthy in the 14th century, when featherbeds were introduced. Stuffed with downy feathers, these mattresses provided unheard of comfort to the rich. Peasants were still relegated to straw, but for the wealthy nobles, a feather mattress was a prized family possession.

Medieval four-poster bed

Mattresses in the Colonial America

Over in 18th and 19th century America, the colonists continued to sleep in four-poster beds made of sturdy wood. Intricately-carved bed frames would often be handed down as family heirlooms. 

The cushioning for the bed of a well-off American was made up of several layers. At the bottom was a simple, firm mattress pad filled with corn husks or horsehair. On top of that was a big featherbed for comfort. As the featherbeds typically sagged and were hard to lie flat on, people slept propped up on feather-filled bolsters and pillows.

If you were wealthy, you might have bought your feather mattresses from someone like Betsy Ross. If you lived on farms, or close to them, you may have made your own from goose and duck feathers.

The Waterbed in Victorian Hospitals

While the waterbed might have been invented in Persia, western society got on board with the concept during the Victorian era. In 1873, Sir James Paget of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital presented to the board a waterbed designed by Neil Arnott. This bed was proposed as a treatment and prevention of pressure ulcers, which are now known as bed sores. Dr. William Hooper of Portsmouth, England also saw the benefits of waterbeds for patients suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

These beds looked like giant hot water bottles and functioned in a similar manner. Unfortunately, no one could figure out a way to regulate the temperature of the water, making them commercial failures. Only once vinyl was invented in the 1960s did the problem get solved and the waterbed became popular, particularly in the United States.

Mattresses Today

Today, we have more variety in terms of materials for our mattresses. Timothy Rose and Platt S. Buell patented a bed spring in 1869, even if it didn’t actually catch on until the 1950s. Despite this, their work forms the foundation of the modern mattress we now sleep on. In the 1970s, memory foam was developed under a NASA contract. We have both organic and synthetic materials that can better regulate temperature. We can adjust the firmness of a mattress or provide adjustable bases to provide better back support and alleviate back pain.

Beds and mattresses have come a long way throughout history. No matter the century or culture, mattresses have evolved for the sake of providing mankind a better night’s sleep.


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Gardner Mattress Showroom in Salem, Massachusetts

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