The Peculiar Social History of Beds
As much as we think of a sleeping in our bed as a private thing, history provides us with a rather crowded counterpoint. In fact, the first people to regularly sleep alone in a private bedroom were kings and noblemen. Before that it was common to share a bed with friends, strangers, travelers, even entire towns.
Initially, our ancestors took to sleeping in trees so they could actually get some rest without having to worry about being eaten by predators during the night. After that, they began to sleep in hollows dug out of cave floors and wrapping themselves in grasses with insect-repelling properties. Which, if you’re ever camped outside, you’ll agree is an excellent idea!
While our mattresses have certainly evolved over the years the raised frame bed as we know it today has been around for over 5,000 years. Besides becoming more comfortable, the biggest change in our sleeping habits came with the private bed chambers.
The More the Merrier
For most of human history, we thought nothing of piling family members and friends into the same bed. Friends slept next to friends and enjoyed nighttime conversations. Travelers bedded down with strangers and shared stories, advice, and warmth. Of course, it wasn’t always pleasant due to personal hygiene, intoxication, or just differing opinions on topics.
One of the most famous social beds was the Great Bed of Ware—a huge bed located in an inn in a small town in central England. Constructed of richly decorated oak around 1590, the four-post bed was about the size of two modern double beds so, approximately 9 feet wide by 12.5 feet long! Twenty-six butchers and their wives—a total of 52 people—are said to have spent a night in the Great Bed in 1689.
Louis XIV of France was known to sit in his bed, propped up by pillows, and oversee elaborate gatherings. Surrounded by courtiers and Lords, he would compose decrees and consult with high officials while remaining in bed.
It’s during the Industrial Revolution that private bedrooms became more common with compact row houses featuring small rooms, each with a specific purpose. Another impetus for the demise of the social bed was religion. The Victorian era was a devout age, and evangelical Christianity was pervasive by the 1830s. Religious leaders placed great emphasis on marriage, chastity, the family, and the bond between parent and child; allowing strangers or friends under the covers was no longer aboveboard. By 1875, Architect magazine had published an essay declaring that a bedroom used for anything other than sleeping was unwholesome and immoral.
Today, technology has brought about a different form of the social bed with smartphones now being commonly brought into the bedroom and used for chatting with friends well into the night. While the effects of this trend have been proven to be unhealthy for numerous reasons, we’d like to think it’s preferable to inviting a drunk stranger to join us in bed.
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