The mechanics of a good night’s sleep have come a long way since the days when a hard floor or cold ground was about all there was to choose from. The concept of a special room and furniture for sleeping was not considered very important in antiquity. Even for wealthy Greeks and Romans arrangements were spartan and involved none of the cushiness we are familiar with in our modern homes. But there’s no question that conditions were much better before the fall of the Roman Empire and arrival of the Dark Ages.
From about 500 AD and continuing over the next few centuries bed and bedroom went into a decline and most people were happy enough with a hard bench above the damp and the foraging rats. For the austere conditions describing life for people in Britain, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, a ‘bed’ was nothing more than a location on the floor. Sleeping indoors was considered luxury enough and on cold nights better to be huddled together in the company of others. It was a lawless time when there was some measure of safety in numbers. If available, straw could easily be stuffed into coarse cloth sacks and spread on a table or bench, emptied in the morning and then remade at bedtime. In this way hardship was subtly incorporated into custom and the absence of comfortable beds was viewed as a way of strengthening character and body. Soft beds made soft soldiers and soft surfaces led to effeminacy and weak character. Undressing for sleep was viewed as a coddling affectation.
It was this absence of a true bed that saw the term ‘make the bed’ come into use, a literal statement throughout the Dark Ages. No smoothing of sheets and blankets or the fluffing of pillows, but more a case of gathering straw or leaves to stuff inside a coarse sack and then locating a dry spot to lay your head. It was from the routine making and remaking of these sack-beds that people began to speak of making beds.
Long before the arrival of spring mattresses in late eighteenth century England, people had begun sleeping on mattresses stuffed with straw, leaves, pine needles and reeds. Of course, over time all of these organic stuffings mildewed, rotted and nurtured bedbugs. Medieval writings tell of mice and rats nesting in mattresses and physicians recommending garlic in the stuffing to repel nesting animals. It was for this reason that making a bed anew each day became the custom of many.
A Frenchman in the 1500s devised something he called a ‘wind bed’ made of heavy waxed canvas with air valves for inflation by mouth or pump. His invention turned out to be short-lived because it wore out so quickly. When spring mattresses appeared, the strength and design of the springs made them very uncomfortable and often dangerous with broken springs poking up through the mattress cover. Spring technology was difficult at first considering that a spring sturdy enough to support the hips was unyielding to the head and one yielding to the head could not support the hips.
The early innerspring mattresses were all handcrafted and expensive, making them more common in luxury hotels and ocean liners—a great number of innerspring mattresses went down on the Titanic in 1912. Along about 1925 Zalmon Simmons came up with a “Beautyrest” innerspring mattress, but its price tag of $39.50 was still too high for the average American. Undaunted, Simmons had an idea that rather than a mattress, he should sell the idea of sleep, or what he called ‘scientific sleep.’ To that end he designed an advertising scheme pairing his Beautyrest mattress with a cast of creative geniuses that included Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. His advertisements informed the public that sleep research had proven that people do not sleep like logs, but move and turn as many as forty times a night to rest first one set of muscles, then another. The public bought it and on the endorsement of such great scientific minds made the Simmons Beautyrest mattress a top seller. By 1929 the old-fashioned hair-stuffed mattresses were being discarded in such numbers trash collectors couldn’t keep up.