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What is the History of Bedding and Mattresses?

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Sleep is one of the most vital processes your body goes through every day. It’s necessary for energy production, digestion, cognition, and mood regulation. Humans have been sleeping for as long as we’ve been on this planet. However, where we’ve slept has changed tremendously over the years.

A bed is such a place of comfort and rest that it’s estimated people spend a third of their lives in it. Yet, despite this statistic, people rarely consider where the concept of a bed came from? It seems like such a simple idea, but the history of bedding is long and slightly complex. Read on to learn more about how modern bedding came about.

Ancient History

Sometime between 23 million and 5 million years ago, during the Miocene period, primitive primates moved from sleeping in trees to sleeping on platforms made of woven hardwood. These platforms created the basis of what we now know as a bed, and the increased quality of sleep gained from them gave our ancestors the edge they needed to push evolution forward. But what about mattresses?

The earliest known example of a mattress was fabricated 77,000 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It consisted of several layers of reeds, rushes, and sedge grass beneath a pile of compacted leafy plants. The sedge grass had aromatic properties that acted as a natural insecticide to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. This early mattress was roughly 22 square feet, making it wide enough to fit an entire family.

Eventually, around 3200 BCE, the people of both Egypt and what is modern-day Scotland developed beds that were raised off the floor to elevate the sleeper away from snakes and rodents during the night. The Scots slept on large stone blocks covered with straw, leaves, grass, and animal hides to act as a cushion. The Egyptians, however, used beds as a status symbol, with commoners sleeping on wooden platforms and wealthier people sleeping on beds of ebony covered in gold and jewels. A wool mattress and linen sheets completed both types of bed.

Around 1600 BCE, ancient Persians invented the waterbed. They would fill a large goatskin with water and warm it in the sun before moving it into their homes at night. These beds were theorized to have been used primarily for comforting the sick or the elderly to allow them more hours of sleep.

With the Roman Empire came the advent of raised metal beds with mattresses stuffed with straw or feathers. However, these beds were still reserved for the wealthy. Less affluent people slept on wooden bed frames with mattresses held up by woolen threads. Everyone commonly used wool blankets in their sleep habits during all sleep cycles.

The Middle Ages

Beds and mattresses wouldn’t see much change from the standard of the Romans throughout the middle ages. However, elaborate bed frames became the norm for those who could afford them. The Normans made a practice of hanging curtains around the bed in the fifth century. By the 14th century and into the 16th century, four-poster beds with embellished draperies and decorations were common among the wealthy.

Lower-class individuals slept on sacks stuffed with hay. Unfortunately, these sacks would attract insects during the day, so it became necessary to beat them with sticks to drive the insects out of the hay. Thus, the phrase “hitting the hay” when it was sleep time entered the lexicon.

By the 18th century, the elaborate four-poster beds fell out of popularity in exchange for more simple affairs. Head and footboards shrank in size, and metal bed frames saw more use. The modern incarnation of mattresses began to take shape, as the bedding was composed of a roughly rectangular linen sack stuffed with coconut fiber, cotton, wool, or horse hair. The most significant change to the bed was replacing ropes and wool straps with metal springs to support a mattress for greater comfort during all sleep stages.

The Advent of the Modern Mattress

For thousands of years, mattresses were composed of a soft material that had been stuffed for comfort. However, in December 1869, Timothy Rose and Platt S. Buell patented the first bedspring in the U.S. Two years later, Heinrich Westphal invented the first innerspring mattress. Though it took almost another 100 years for the concept to become popular, these were the first steps toward the innerspring mattress as we know it today.

Up until the 1950s, mattresses would continue to be stuffed with cotton. However, as time passed, people realized that cotton would become compressed until it eventually stopped being as soft. Bedsprings, on the other hand, would soften over time. This realization led to the increased use of innerspring mattresses.

Beyond Innerspring Mattresses

Though the innerspring mattress proved to be more popular than stuffed mattresses, there were still more innovations to be had in the field of bedding. In 1937, Otto Bayer invented and worked on a form of polyurethane polymer. This work continued into the 1960s when a hospital used an inert polyurethane porous foam to cushion patients’ beds. Then, when NASA contracted an aerospace engineering firm for a material that would help relieve some of the pressure of G forces on the human body, the hospital’s use of polyurethane foam helped inspire the invention of memory foam, called temper foam at the time.

Throughout the 1980s, many companies attempted to refine and patent temper foam for commercial use. Finally, in 1991, the first mattress made from temper foam was unveiled. The new material was branded as memory foam, and was a huge success, becoming the most popular alternative to metal spring mattresses no matter your body position or body mass.

Beds have come a very long way from the stone slabs covered in grass and leaves that served as the sleeping places of our ancestors. Today, mattresses are no longer made only of memory foam. Instead, these beds incorporate composite materials, gels, and advanced fabrics for temperature control and increased breathability. In addition, mattresses come in various shapes and sizes, all designed to fit your needs. There are even hybrid designs that utilize metal springs and memory foam to give you the best of both worlds.

If you want to learn more about bedding or how sleep affects the immune system, how to get better deep sleep on your bed or if you want to find the best mattress for you, please get in touch with us for additional information.

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