The History of Mattresses and How They Changed Over Time

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A Brief History

In 1966, Charles Yost invented memory foam for NASA. At the time, NASA wanted a material to provide better cushioning to absorb the stress astronauts had to endure during takeoff due to high G-force. Through the 1990s memory foam was mostly used in hospital beds, particularly for motionless patients because the material reduces pressure points. It is in the 21st century that memory foam became widely used in mattresses.

Today, the modern mattress is one of the most important things in your life for everyday comfort and health; however, the mattresses that you know and love today were not always as efficient as they are now. Although mattresses might seem to be a pretty recent invention, like vaping or television, the truth is that human beings have been using some form of it for thousands of years.

In fact, the earliest example of something resembling a common mattress appeared more than 77,000 years ago. According to historians, the ancient bedding was found in a shelter in South Africa and measured about three by six feet. Unlike the hybrid and memory foam mattresses that we have today, those original mattresses were only about an inch thick, and they were made with reeds and other brush; however, they are a useful insight into how far we have come with our bedding.

Digging Deeper

The History of the Mattress: Starting from Day One

Although there are not many remaining examples of early mattresses, experts believe that the Homo Erectus species that came before homo sapiens were the first to sleep on the ground.

As human beings evolved, the way that we chose to sleep changed with us. People gradually began to raise their bedding away from the ground to protect against snakes and pests. Adornments were also added. Some ancient Egyptians even made beds with jewels and ebony to show their wealth. There were also early beds with pillows that offered head support in the form of a wooden slab.

The ancient Romans followed the idea of the Egyptians that came before them when it came to raising their beds off the ground. They often used a ladder or stairs to reach their bedding. In some instances, mattresses were even held away from the floor using ropes. What’s more, to create a thicker kind of bedding, a lot of Romans stuffed their mattresses with reeds or hay, with some wealthier citizens using feathers, wool, and layers of blankets.

Back in the days of classical history, specifically in ancient Greece, beds were used for more than just sleeping – people socialized and dined from their mattresses too. A kline, similar to the modern sofa with a raised headboard, was used for both eating and sleeping. Elsewhere, on the eastern side of the world, China, Japan, and Korea continued to sleep on the ground for quite some time as natives weren’t chased away from the floor by the cold.

The Evolution of the Modern Bed

During the early Medieval period, most beds were relatively simple and made from wood. Like in the times of Ancient Greece, mattresses were still usually stuffed with straw and other less comfy sounding materials. Conversely, the poor simply slept on piles of hay on the ground. By the time the 12th century arrived, beds started to become more fashionable and ornate, having unique carved bed frames and embroidered beddings. Towards the close of the medieval period, mattresses were stuffed with feathers and down. This more comfortable option became a lot more in demand.

As mattresses soared in popularity, people started to hang curtains around their beds to keep pests and drafts at bay. Although using curtains was common among lords and ladies at first, it quickly became the practice of commoners too. It even allowed for multiple people to sleep in the same room with some degree of privacy.

As time progressed, beds and their mattresses became even more impressive and ornate. By the end of the 15th century, beds across the Western side of the world often had headboards and canopies. Often, these beds were very large so that several people were able to sleep in them at one time. Additionally, many beds came with curtains enclosing all four sides. You can see an example of a bed like this in the Great Bed of Ware, measuring 10 feet and 11 inches squared.

The start of the 17th and 18th centuries saw the arrival of ornate beds for the wealthy which were draped in luxurious curtains and elaborate materials. Most people used their beds as a kind of status symbol, with King Louis XIV boasting hundreds of beds throughout his home. In the 19th century, beds started to become much simpler again. Four-poster beds started to lose their appeal as people searched for options that were more affordable and convenient. Mattresses started to change in style too.

The modern mattress was transformed when coil springs appeared in the 1870s and metal frames started to seem more common. At the start of the 20th century, companies around the world were easily mass producing thousands of mattresses at a time. This meant that almost anyone could afford to purchase their own mattress. As more businesses invested in the mattress industry, buying one of these bedding options became about preference and comfort – rather than what you could afford. 

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite mattress brand or style?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Wright, Lawrence.  Warm & Snug: The History of the Bed (Sutton History Classics).  The History Press, 2004.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Johan of memory foam, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland