How Did the Bed Develop as Household Furniture?
We spend much of our lives in beds. We obsess about our beds. Bed stores seem like they are in every strip center. Advertisements promise us a good night while peddling comfort zones or space age foams. Remarkably, even today what represents a bed differs greatly from culture to culture. The history of the bed, like most furniture, has been shaped by its complex development. It is, on the one hand, an essential item of furniture, but for different cultures it has varied as an important object of cultural value to simply a utilitarian furniture piece.
The bed develops as humans began to built long-term settlements or more permanent dwelling places by around 8000-7000 BCE. Before this time, beds were mostly ad hoc construction that would have been made from surrounding materials (e.g., straw or twigs) and often discarded as human populations moved or easily packed. Early beds were mainly built from wood, straw, or had underlying stone. However, what began to change in early agricultural societies is that beds began to be raised from the floor as settlement places developed. This became needed as many agricultural societies needed raised platforms, as agriculture also attracted rodents and other pests that now also came to humans' homes. Greater use of the physical space in homes, particularly the floors, also meant that raising a platform or level above the floor became needed for early beds to avoid the dirt and other activities going on (Figure 1).
While platforms of wood or stone raised the bed from the floor, cushioning was needed for a softer sleep. This led to the development of different materials, ranging from textiles stuffed with soft materials such as leaves, to other, less harsh forms of cushioning from basic materials, including feathers. Other innovations included filling a leather cushion made of goat skin with water, such as used in ancient Persia, which made, essentially, an early form of waterbed.
By the Bronze Age (3000 BCE), elites and likely wealthy classes, had begun to make specific bed frames, often made of wood (Figure 2). The frames not only made beds portable, but they also allowed beds to become decorative and media of art. Frames began to be decorated or were created from expensive woods. Inlays, ivory, and metal decorations were now found on bed frames in the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. Pillows also became decorated and covered over with pillow cases made of expensive materials and embroidery. Beds were also sometimes recessed into walls or made from material that folded, a type of cot that could be stored.
During the Bronze Age, beds began to be symbolically associated with the life cycle. While, on the one hand, beds were the creators of life, such as the marital or sexual bed, they were also the final resting place. In underground chambers used for burials for Mediterranean and Near East societies, beds were made into the chambers and the deceased were placed in a sleeping position. In essence, the burial of the dead was seen as one's eternal resting, where gifts were also showered on the sleeping departed. Even for cultures that burned their dead, such as Indo-Aryan groups, the funeral pyre was often shaped as a type of bed.
In the Roman period, five different types of beds were known. Beds were used for eating, studying, burying the dead, for lovemaking, and normal sleeping. The Romans differentiated these with different words and this may have also meant that different beds were used for each of these activities.
Societies in east Asia, particularly China, Korea, and Japan, developed a floor-based culture for many activities, including eating and sleeping. One main reason has to do with cooling and heating for different months. Heating, for instance, was done underneath floors, which meant that sleeping on the floor more directly, with only a thin mattress, would be more practical, as greater heat would be felt. In summer months, being nearer to the floor would also be cooler. Furthermore, the floor was seen as where sitting would take place in, thus the bed became the primary social space in eastern Asian societies. Beds such as the kang became the spaces that many social activities revolved around, but they were practical as it allowed easy heating of this space without having to create smoky rooms for heating such as found in many ancient and medieval homes in Europe and other colder climates.
In Europe, leather or rope was used in the framing. This probably led to the expression "sleep tight" as the rope or leather would loosen over time as the bed was used. Beds were often used as chairs and tables, as limited space in smaller homes with large families meant beds were generally not seen as a standalone piece of furniture. On the other hand, royalty and wealthy individuals used their beds for different activities. Formal beds were sometimes used as reception rooms to receive guests. A second bed might be kept for sleeping and sexual activity. It was also quite common to share beds, even with strangers, as bedding space was often limited in inns and other places for the public.
During the Medieval period, beds in different regions began to develop canopies or curtains. While this provided privacy, the idea was it also protected against insects and other pests that might be around at night. The curtains also allowed for warmth and protected against drafts, which were seen as harmful.
The Vikings (or Danes/Norsemen) were known to use a style of bunk bed, where cupboards were fashioned into beds that could then be stacked on to each other. The intent was to use this style of bedding to save room so that they can be moved during the day or multiple people can sleep in an area more easily. The Danes and Norse also built beds with slates that could also be easily placed inside small boats and be taken apart to move inside and outside of boats.
Native Americans also had developed a variety of bed types. These ranged from simple mats placed on floor to cots or even bunk beds that could be stacked in small accommodations or houses used by larger families. The bunk bed design by Native Americans has been seen as the ancestor to modern bunk beds.
Key developments from the 18th century and later included the use of iron frames for beds and switch to cotton for mattresses and covers. The switch to metal frames likely was practical, as micro-insects are less likely to burrow in non-wooden frames. In effect, iron frames reduced a form of bed bugs from spreading. Metal bed frames, including made of iron, were already developed by the Iron Age (~1000 BCE) but became more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th century also saw an increase in use of decorative paneling for beds and more use of embroidery in Western beds. This is because beds now became a central piece of furniture in households as it reflected the wealth of a household.
By the late 19th century, coils were now introduced to beds, including in use for box springs (added as another bedding layer) and mattresses. This provided some additional support or sturdiness for beds and have become the predominant bed type in North America. In the 1950s, foam was used for bedding and became more prevalent for materials used on mattress and sometimes for other parts of the bed, including cushioning. Mattress technologies continued to improve in the late 20th century. By the 1990s, the new popular fad in beds was the use of mattresses that could be shaped or designed for each persons posture or back. This was promised as giving a healthy and comfortable sleep for users.
Few pieces of furniture are seen so central to our homes or at least to our personal space today. The bed represents the piece of furniture that, for many of us, we might spend more time on than any other piece of furniture. However, the bed has had functional and spiritual roles far beyond its basic purpose. It has represented the entire life cycle, from giving life to being our final resting place. In other cultures, it is part of furniture that can be re-utilized for other functions, such as tables and chairs. Beds have varied from public space furniture, prominently display, and hidden or put away during waking hours in houses. In effect, the bed reflects the wide variety and attitudes present in human societies for sleep, sex, public display, social activity, and status.
- For more on early beds in the pre-Neoltihic and early settled societies, see: Robinson, Vincent Joseph. 2001. Ancient Furniture and Other Works of Art. Adamant Media Corporation.
- For more on ancient Persian waterbeds, see: Coughlan, S. (2010). The sleepyhead’s bedside companion. London: Preface.
- For more on early Bronze Age beds, see: Bottéro, J., & Finet, A. (2001). Everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- For more on the life cycle, beds, burials, and their association with households, see: Robben, A. C. G. M. (Ed.). (2004). Death, mourning, and burial: a cross-cultural reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
- For more on Roman beds, see: Williams, S. J. (2005). Sleep and society: sociological ventures into the (un)known--. Milton Park, Oxfordshire N.Y., NY: Routledge.
- For more on eastern beds, see: Liu, T.S. (2016). Environmental history in east asia: interdisciplinary perspectives. (2016). Routledge, pg. 110.
- For more on Medieval beds in Europe, see: Forgeng, J. L. (2013). The Middle Ages: everyday life in medieval Europe.
- For more on Medieval beds, see: Johnston, R. A. (2011). All things medieval: an encyclopedia of the medieval world. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.
- For more on Dane/Norse bed designs, see: Green, J., & Bergin, M. (2002). Gods & goddesses in the daily life of the Vikings. London: Hodder Wayland, pg. 75.
- For more on Native American furniture, see: Keoke, E. D., & Porterfield, K. M. (2003). American Indian contributions to the world: 15,000 years of inventions and innovations. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, pg. 42.
- For more on the increasingly ornate beds of the 18th century, see: Beds and bedroom furniture. (1997). Newtown, Conn: Taunton Press.
- For more on bed coils and later developments for beds, see: Wright, L. (2004). Warm & snug: the history of the bed (New ed.). Stroud [England]: Sutton.