Origin Stories: The History of the Bed

Many of us have bed frames and old mattresses waiting in our furniture storage for a second life. But have you ever taken a moment to think about the role of beds in our history? Or, like many of us, have you simply taken this important piece of furniture for granted, as if it’s always been there?

Here at Spacer, we’ve been thinking all about beds - water beds, beds with storage, pull out beds, and more. And we’ve decided that there’s just too much fascinating history for the bed to simply be forgotten in our furniture storage. So we’re rolling out the amazing historical developments, cultural differences, and many, many reasons why we should celebrate this game-changing design.

How old are beds really? 

If we’re to understand how old beds are, we first have to deconstruct the term a bit. After all, the four-post raised bed with a box spring and a mattress and every shape and texture of pillow is a fairly modern concept. But that doesn’t mean our earliest ancestors didn’t like to make their sleeping area comfortable. 

The oldest evidence we’ve ever found of the precursor to the modern bed was discovered in South Africa. There, archeologists found the remnants of the earliest mattress, which had been made with compressed plant materials like leaves and grasses. The humans who made it had even added aromatic plants known to ward off insects and other pests. Researchers believe this cozy sleeping pad dates back to around 77,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age.  

Around 73,000 years ago, the same researchers theorise that humans began burning their beds regularly as a way to keep their living areas clean and free of burrowing animals. By 58,000 years ago, humans had pretty much perfected their sleeping arrangement management, with regular changing and burning of materials for optimum comfort and minimum disturbance. 

So now we know how it all started: with some grass and leaves and aromatics. Luckily, today, we’ve moved on from keeping extra compressed plant materials in our furniture storage to more practical designs. So, how did our idea of the bed change?

Some interesting developments in bed design before the common era (BCE)

It probably wouldn’t surprise you that much of our collective bed making history actually didn’t stray too far from the 77,000 year old bed. Without modern technology, our ancestors in much of the world relied upon the materials at hand - hay, grass, straw, palm leaves, feathers, wool - to make their beds. Leather and animal furs could be used as temperature control and extra padding for the wealthiest of society.

Of course, different civilisations relied on their own unique design features. 

Dating all the way back to the Neolithic Period between 10,000BCE and 4,500BCE, communities in Northern China were starting to dabble with what would later be called Kang. This revolutionary development worked by constructing a large flat surface over a stove that would stay warm throughout the cold nights of the region. Cushions and mattresses weren’t used, but the entire family could stay nice and warm in the winter months. Plus, the surface could be used as a seating area for other practical tasks during non-sleeping hours. 

To learn more about how some societies have incorporated unique seating options, make sure to read our article on the Origin of the Chair. But, for now, back to beds.

A few thousand years later, around 3,000BCE, the Ancient Egyptians began experimenting with different bed designs. Some were angled, and most were raised off of the floor with strategic elements to prevent rodents from climbing up. 

By around 1600BCE, sleeping enthusiasts in Persia were designing the world’s first waterbeds by filling goatskins with water and warming the bags in the sun before bed time. These beds probably weren’t used by the masses but rather brought out for the elderly or sick members of society.

In Japan, various bedding styles have reflected shifting cultural views. Some periods were defined by simple straw mats, others were filled with luxurious silk bedding and cushions. In some centuries, you can find the influence of the Chinese lofty canopy bed style, which would later be swapped out for low-to-the-ground beds. 

Something might surprise you about these ancient beds

If you’ve been thinking of these ancient beds as variations of the modern bed you sleep on every night, think again. The main difference between our ancestors' beds and ours is that they were massive. They had to be if they were going to fit the entire family!

That’s right. One of the major elements in bed design at the time, and one of the reasons why ancient beds would never fit in our current furniture storage rooms, was that it was completely normal for all family members to sleep together. It was warmer, you could share bedding, and, hey, parents could say one bedtime story to all the children at the same time. 

In fact, in some regions of the world, you might even slip into bed with strangers. Remember the Kang? Those warm beds could be large enough to accomodate passing travelers or traders. In some inns throughout Europe, you could share a bed with other families or couples to save some money. 

Sharing a bed is something that we might look down our noses at nowadays - unless we’re curling up with our furry friends, of course - but it was common practice until very recently. 

When did we get our own beds?

Sleeping alone or with company was sometimes a matter of culture and other times a matter of wealth. From the time that bed frames were first invented, rich families and the ruling class were often the only ones who could afford the luxury of hiring someone to construct a single bed.

In fact, throughout the Renaissance period and a few hundred years after, the bedroom was a great place to put your wealth on display. In the bedchamber, it was perfectly normal to entertain visitors or even conduct business meetings. Who knew that a single bed could be used as such as status of wealth!

Yet, around the 16th century, more of society was able to climb the socioeconomic ladder and become financially independent. In Europe, this was the first time that any civilisation could really enjoy a middle class - people with enough money to live in their own homes with more than a single bedroom.

Then came the Victorian Era of the 19th century. During this time period, privacy was taken to extremes. While poor folks still often lived in more communal arrangements, Victorian style homes were designed with frivolous amounts of separation, from individual chimneys to dumbwaiters, to an excess of doors. This is even a time when hallways were incorporated so that occupants never had to walk through one room to access another.

The Victorian Age made sleep and rest such an integral part of life that it might eventually have prompted sun tanning as a hobby. While Victorians abhorred tanned skin themselves, the next generation popularised the sunbed, with doctors prescribing fresh air and sun tanning to ward off common diseases. Again, this wasn’t a communal experience. Everyone had their own bed, just like you might see around the pool or aboard a cruise ship today.

It makes sense that by the 20th and 21st century, our society became comfortable with individual beds. With modern technological improvements and much cheaper construction, everyone in the family is expected to have their own bed. 

So, what can we learn from this fascinating walk through the timeline of bed history? How much should we really care about our beds?

What do our beds say about us today?

Whether we think about it or not, our bed styles continue to say a lot about where we come from and what we want out of our living space. 

Countries in Northern Europe, for example, may take on sleek, minimalist bed designs that encourage openness and outward thinking. Other societies who have always opted for firm mattresses proudly carry on the sleeping trends of their ancestors and swear by the health benefits. Here in Australia, we have a range of options to choose from, depending on the theme we want for our bedrooms.

Why you might want to rekindle your relationship with your bed

Lately, scientists have been diving deeper into the importance of sleep. As it turns out, the Victorians had it right. Quiet, dark, peaceful sleep is great for our overall health and wellbeing. 

And if you’ve been looking for a way to make your sleeping habits more intentional or mindful, your bed is an obvious place to start. A quality mattress can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and chronic pain. Swapping out your linens and bed sheets can make you feel refreshed and clean. And under bed storage can help you feel more organised and neat. 

Here are a few more tips for transforming your sleeping habits:

  • Spend good money on a mattress that will last. Even if you’re going to be moving around, it’s better to pay for a removalist to move your mattress than buy cheaper mattresses with the intention of buying a new one in your new location. If you’re worried about the price of transporting your bed around with you, backloading is a great way to save money so that you don’t have to compromise on mattress quality.

  • Play around with some different bed frame options. Over the history of the bed, we’ve seen civilisations come up with hundreds of different bed frames. Luckily, that means we have a variety of options today. There are mechanical reclining bed frames, bed frames close to the ground, tall bed frames, whatever you can think of. So think about what you would want out of a bed frame. Some people sleep better on a higher frame that places them right in line with the breeze from the open window. Others love the feeling of being low to the ground. Go to your local furniture store and test out some different models so that you can bring home a bed that is best for you. 

  • Keep your room clutter free. A room that is disorganised and messy can leave you feeling unsettled and anxious. Clear out whatever you don’t need and don’t make your room into a spare furniture storage space. Take a look at Spacer for affordable, convenient storage options anywhere from Brisbane to Perth and everywhere in between. You can also take a look at creative under bed storage options or a bed with storage built in to make your room even cleaner.

  • Invest in some blackout curtains. A dark room is best for your circadian rhythm. This will ensure that you can more quickly fall into deep, restful sleep. If you can’t eliminate all of the light in your room, you might instead get a good sleeping mask.

  • Disconnect from your tech. About two hours before bed, power off all of your electronics. This will help trigger your brain that it’s time for sleep. During this time, you can focus on winding down your day, perhaps with some light cleaning, reading, meditation, stretching, or taking a bath.

  • Exercise. Exercise is a wonderful way to manage your energy levels and promote restful sleep. Maybe that means a walk in your neighbourhood after dinner or maybe you can finally build that at-home gym in your garage you’ve always wanted. Either way, you’ll get better sleep.

Getting good sleep is one of the best things that we can do for our bodies. So take the time to learn what works for you, and consult with a health professional if you need more help.

Final thoughts on the bed, furniture storage, and your sleeping patterns 

After learning so much about the history of beds, you might feel like it’s time for a nap. And we wouldn’t blame you! Here at Spacer, we certainly have a newfound appreciation for all of the bed frames and mattresses across the world, whether they’re shared with pets, upgraded with silk sheets, or waiting in furniture storage for their time to shine.

If you have any astounding tidbits about the wonderful world of beds, sleep and furniture storage, be sure to let us know!

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