The history of the bed: from humble beginnings to the space age

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Believe it or not, in the beginning the bed simply did not exist.

In 10,000BC, primitive men and women would lie down on the cold, hard ground, with little more than leaves, straw or possibly an animal hide. The alternative was to dig a pit, and pack it with grass and moss.

It wasn’t until a few thousand years later that the first ‘standard bed’ (bed base, mattress and blanket) was discovered. In 1850, a Neolithic village was discovered in Scotland,  inhabited sometime between 3200BC and 2200BC. In each dwelling sat a large stone slab bed, which would have been topped with soft fern and animal skins.

However, whilst European beds were basic, elsewhere was an entirely different story. Between 3,000 and 1,000BC the Egyptian Pharaohs had ornately carved wooden beds topped with woven mats and a wooden slat mattress. Added on top were wool cushions and linen sheets.

These beds were only for higher society, if you were poor it would be a long time before you would sleep on an actual bed.

The medieval times

During the medieval times, most people’s beds consisted of wooden boards covered with animal fur. It is where the phrase ‘bed and board‘ comes from.

For servants, typically you had no bed. If you were lucky you slept underneath your master’s bed.

The bed frame

The 14th century brought new standards to the bed. To stay away from insects and draughts basic bed frames were built to keep people above the ground. Often these were just wood and rope straps topped with bags of hay or straw. This is where we get the term ‘hitting the hay’ from.

Soon enough, bed strings replaced rope straps. These strings were an intricate criss crossing of ropes across the frame. Every so often these required tightening, hence the phrase ‘night night sleep tight’.

The four-poster bed

The grandest of beds, the four-poster bed was first introduced into the UK by the Tudors. Adorned by fine velvet drapes. intricately engraved pillars and a lavish canopy, noblemen would compete to make to most elaborate bed.

Of all The Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I had the best bed. A receipt dating from 1581 details her requirements as ‘walnut, richly carved, painted, and gild… valance of silver cloth, figured with velvet, lined with a changeable taffeta, and deeply fringed with Venice gold, silver, and silk.’ And that was just the bedstead.

There were also curtains cut from extravagant tapestry with each seam bordered with gold and silver lace, a headboard of scarlet satin, edged with silk, and plumes of ostrich feathers garnished with gold leaf. The decoration on the bed was lavish, however the mattress was still of a fairly basic standard. But over the next few years, this would start to change dramatically.

The mattress

At the start of the 19th century, Britain was in the midst of the industrial revolution. Technology was improving  everyday lives in many different ways, the bed included.

During this time, tuberculosis was rife and wooden bed frame harboured lice. Many tradesmen began constructing sterile iron or steel bed frames, providing durability, and protection from disease.

In 1865, a man named Samuel Kettle patented what is now recognised as being the first ever open spring mattress. It was a huge success, the coil-springs spread the weight of the sleeping person more evenly, ensuring a more comfortable sleep.

In 1900 however, engineer James Marshall patented the first ever pocket-sprung mattress. What made his so special was due to the individual springs which were sealed into fabric pockets. This was revolutionary, the springs provided unparalleled support no matter the individuals size, shape or weight.

Memory foam

Memory foam was developed by NASA in the 1960s to make the seats on aircraft more comfortable for the pilots. The foam was heat sensitive, so it would soften in contact with body heat and mould to the individuals body shape. This personalised support wasn’t released to the public until the 1980s, and was very expensive. However by the 1900s memory foam was the mattress of choice.

Today, we have more choices of beds and mattresses than ever before. Which Espoke bed is your favourite?

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