We spend two-thirds of our lives in our beds, and we often take for granted our modern conveniences. Temperature and pressure-adjustable mattresses that create the ideal mix of softness and support are very recent inventions. As early humans were sleeping in similar ways to animals, we've come a long way.
Sleeping in Trees
Around 20 million years ago, ancestors of humans and apes began sleeping on the ground, as opposed to in trees, because they became too big for the branches to safely hold them. Today, no primates over 60 pounds sleep in trees. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and their cousins build sleeping platforms every night. By 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus (who preceded Homo sapiens) had left sleeping in trees completely, most likely sleeping in large groups and near a fire for warmth and to scare off predators.
The First Mattress
The earliest mattress discovered was made of plants, and is from 77,000 years ago in South Africa at a site called Sibudu. Researchers found that around 73,000 years ago, humans started burning their mattresses, most likely to get rid of bugs and garbage.
Also from Sibudu from 58,000 years ago, the bed was found to have at least 15 layers of compacted stems and leaves of sedges (grass-like plants), and also contained burnt layers. Some of these plants probably protected against mosquitoes and other pests, such as the Cryptocarya woodii. This genus of plants suggests that early inhabitants had a working knowledge of the medicinal use of local plants. The mattress was about 22 square feet, which could accommodate several people, and was a foot high.
This is the last part of the stone age, which lasted from 10,000 to 9,000 BCE. In this period humans laid down grass, leaves, and animal skins to sleep on.
Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, Egyptians started constructing wooden platforms to get them off of the ground, which helped prevent snakes and bugs from biting them. The rich had beds that were carved into elaborate designs, with the legs made to look like animal legs. Headrests, as opposed to pillows, were used, which could have been padded for comfort. The headrests may have been cooler since air could circulate under them compared to a pillow, which can retain heat. The beds were also slanted, so a footboard was included so the sleeper didn't slide off of the bed.
The mattress was held up by woven reeds, and the mattress was made of soft materials such as wool. Egyptians used linen sheets.
As far back as 5000 BC, Chinese and Mongolians slept in kangs, which are heated stone platforms used for living and sleeping. It's made of brick, adobe or stone, and has a fireplace, kang, and chimney. Beneath the bang are flues which pass hot air from the fireplace to the rest of the room. Before going to sleep, bedding was placed on top of the kang, and after sleep, the bedding was removed to be able to do other activities.
A kang took up one-third to one-half of a room, but the entire room could be constructed with this setup, which would heat the floor.
Kangs are still used today in 85% of rural homes in Northern China, although it's being replaced by the bed and coal-burning radiators.
The charpai looks to have originated 5,000 years ago. It has 4 short legs, a wooden frame, and cotton or some other material that wraps around the wooden frame to create an elastic area to sleep on. Besides getting people off of the ground to avoid snakes and other pests, it allowed air to flow under it, keeping the sleeper cooler. These beds are still used today and are known for being very light. Even today people will carry their charpai to a gathering for them to sit or lay on. These beds have become popular in other areas where Indians have migrated to, such as Malaysia.
Ancient Rome existed between 753 BCE and 476 AD. Their beds were off of the ground, similar to the Egyptians, though they didn't slant their beds. Their mattresses were reeds, hay, or wool, and if you were rich, feathers. They also used cushions and decorated their bed with colorful fabrics. Wealthy Romans had metal beds, poorer ones had wood.
Poor Romans slept on hay with animal skins. Wool blankets were common in this time.
Medieval Europe & Renaissance
This time period lasted from 400 AD to 1400 AD. The rich used wooden beds with ropes to support the mattress which was made of straw, and sometimes feathers. Medieval Europeans would hang curtains around the bed for warmth and privacy; this was when four-poster beds were created. It was also when servants would sleep in the same room. Wealthy people would often show off their wealth with beds encrusted with jewels and/or gold, and were ornately carved.
Some of these beds were so high off of the ground that you needed a step stool to get into them. They were considered family heirlooms and were passed down through generations.
Unlike today, wealthy people remained in their beds to receive visitors, and business was often conducted in bed.
In this period beds became less ornate, though still surrounded by heavy curtains. Metal bed frames started to become more popular, and mattresses began to be made out of cotton as opposed to hay. The mattresses were still suspended by wool straps or ropes.
The bedroom also became more of a private place. The Victorian age emphasized being chaste, devout, and pious, and Evangelical Christianity became popular by the 1830s. Sleeping with non-family members in the same room, or in the same bed, was no longer looked up favorably. Husbands and wives sometimes even had separate bedrooms. In 1875 Architect magazine published an essay stating that using a bed for anything other than sleeping was unwholesome. Wealthy people no longer received visitors in bed or did business there. Servants also began sleeping in separate areas.
During this century curtains became less popular, although four-poster beds were still popular. The posts became smaller, as well as the headboard and footboard.
Most importantly, in 1857 the steel coil spring was invented and is first patented to be used in chair seats. In 1865 the first coil spring for mattresses was patented. Then in 1871 metal innerspring mattresses were created by a German named Heinrich Westphal, who died in poverty, never profiting from his creation, as innerspring mattresses didn't become popular until the 20th century. These gave support and stability to the mattress, but were squeaky.
The Murphy Bed was created by William Lawrence Murphy in the late 19th century. He was living in a one-room apartment in San Francisco and was courting an opera singer. As unwed ladies weren't allowed to enter a gentleman's bedroom, he figured out a way to stow his mattress and frame in his closet. Murphy beds became useful for people living in tight spaces as Murphy beds are stored in the wall during the day, freeing up space, and pulled down to be slept on at night.
In 1889 the first air mattress was invented by the Pneumatic Mattress & Cushion Company in Reading, Massachusetts. In 1896 the "Perfection" air mattress was sold by the Mechanical Manufacturing Company. It was available in several sizes and came in a one-piece or two-piece. The two-piece was divided length-wise so each side could be inflated to different firmness levels.
A lot of innovations to mattresses and beds happened in the 20th century.
The waterbed has a long history, with the first water-filled beds (goatskins filled with water) being used in Persia over 3,600 years ago. In 1873 Neil Arnott created a waterbed to prevent and treat bed sores and was presented to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, England. In 1883 Dr. William Hooper patented his waterbed to help arthritis patients but wasn't utilized because the temperature of the water couldn't be regulated.
The waterbed was finally made popular after the creation of vinyl. Charles Hall presented the waterbed as his master's thesis at San Francisco State University in 1968. For the next 20 years the waterbeds were really popular, capturing 20% of the market by 1986. They were the bed of the sexual revolution; Hall referred to the bed as "the Pleasure Pit." They lost market share when other mattresses became popular because waterbeds were heavy, occasionally leaked, required maintenance, and transferred motion.
By the 1950s the innerspring mattress became the most popular mattress, along with box springs to support the mattress.
Probably the most important mattress innovation was the creation of memory foam. In the 1960s, NASA contracted engineers to create a foam that forms to astronauts as they experience high gravitational pressure during a takeoff and landing. NASA released their memory foam technology to the public domain in the early 1980s, which led to the creation of the company Tempur World creating the "Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress."
Latex foam was invented by John Boyd Dunlop in the 1920s, leading to the first latex mattress developed by Dunlop and E.A. Murphy in 1931. This method of creating the bubbles in the latex, known as the Dunlop and Talalay process, is still used today.
In the early 19th century, most beds were twin or full mattresses. King and queen mattresses were introduced in the 1940s, though they only became popular after a lot of effort by the National Association of Bedding Manufacturers (NABM). In 1961 the NABM brought back "Better Sleep Month" to help promote larger mattresses. In 1962 they marketed their month as "Measure Your Mattress Month" with the tagline, "Buy Bigger, Sleep Better!" In combination with Jones and Laughlin Steel Co., Bethleham Steel, and the National Retail Furniture Association, here was a large media assault with newspaper, magazine, tv, and radio ads. The campaign was a success. In 1953, only 1% of all mattress sales were king-sized mattresses. By the end of 1961, the number raised to 10%.
By 1999 the queen-size mattress became the most popular size mattress, dethroning the twin. The king is the second most popular.
Not surprisingly, the 20th century has ushered in more options and more technology in mattresses. Now there are many options and combinations available: latex, memory foam, gel, many types of innerspring, hybrid, and air. There are other marvels such as temperature-controlled mattresses, mattress pads, as well as variable levels of firmness controlled by a remote.
The Future of Mattresses
It's difficult to guess where the mattress industry will be in the future, but you can expect a lot of technological innovations. As modern foam still tends to heat up, we're looking forward to more innovations to help keep the sleeper cool. Perhaps your mattress may be able to monitor your body temperature and adjust to keep you at the optimum cooler temperature. Your bed may track your vital signs and that information can be viewed on an app and/or shared with your doctor. It could also be really helpful if your bed tracked the position of your spine and monitored any areas where you need more or less support, and adjusted accordingly.