Making the Modern Mattress: How Bedding Has Changed Through Time

While we continue to suffer from sleep disorders that make drifting to dreamland an incredibly difficult affair for some, it can be easy to forget how far bedding technology has come in even the last couple decades. The plush-top mattresses and neck-support pillows we rely so heavily on for a good night’s sleep are recent developments in a long line of uncomfortable and (in many cases) exceedingly harmful places that people have slept.

Learn to appreciate the wealth of healthful and soporific options available for modern sleepers as you journey through the incredible and preposterous history of bedding.

Before the Common Era

As long as people have fallen asleep, there have been beds; however, early beds looked vastly different from the pillow-tops and bed springs we see today. The very first beds anthropologists have found date from the Neolithic Age, which extended between about 10,000 B.C. and 4,500 B.C. For the first time in history, people raised their sleeping places off the ground on beds to avoid dirt and pests. Still, their mattresses were primarily leaves, grass, and straw covered with animal skins.

As civilization blossomed, richer and more innovative people toyed around with different bedding materials. The world’s first waterbed appeared in Persia in 3,600 BCE, as people slept on goat skins filled with water. There is evidence of common Egyptians in 3,400 BCE sleeping on palm boughs, which were typically springier than other plant materials; meanwhile, pharaohs slumbered on beds of ebony and gold. 

The Roman Empire

The Romans experimented heavily with different methods of achieving a good night’s sleep. Merchants sold the first “luxury beds” which were decorated with expensive metals like gold, silver, or bronze, and featured mattresses stuffed with feathers for ultimate comfort. Romans also had their own version of a water bed, where a sleeper would lounge in a bath of warm water until drowsy, at which time he or she would be removed to a cradle and rocked to sleep much like a modern baby. Less wealthy Romans continued to sleep on rudimentary mattresses stuffed with hay or wool, likely dreaming of the luxury bed owned by their betters.

The Renaissance

While people began leaping forward in science and the arts, they certainly lagged behind in bedding development. Not much changed between the 15th and 18th centuries, as people continued to sleep on rough mattresses stuffed with rough materials. Feathers and down began to be more commonplace outside rich royal homes, but it was by no means ubiquitous. Likewise, some families covered their beds in fine fabrics such as velvet, brocade, or even silk, but this was far from the norm. 

18th and 19th Centuries

It wasn’t until late in the 1700s that humanity developed the cast iron bed and cotton mattress. Together, these materials deterred typical pests like vermin and bugs, which had before been accepted as regular sleeping companions, even by royalty. With the advent of a more habitable environment for human slumber, bed makers began incorporating higher quality materials into all of their beds to make sleep ideal for everyone. 

Less than a century later, a brilliant inventor proposed using a coil spring as a cushion in chairs and beds. Though he died before profiting from his creation, the inner-spring mattress took the world by storm and remains the most popular mattress.

 The Digital Age

Orange BedWhile many of our modern mattresses continue to have their roots in the coil springs that appeared in the 19th century, we now have dozens of options when it comes to bedding. Box springs don’t necessarily provide the most comfort or healthiest sleep possible (in fact, it is crucial to find the perfect mattress or you risk real health problems), which is why many people opt for foam, water, or adjustable beds, which provide enhanced technology for the best night’s sleep. Mattress companies are more numerous than ever, which gives buyers the opportunity to shop around for the best deal; for example, the Personal Comfort Bed is a value alternative to the adjustable Sleep Number beds.

As technology continues to progress, it is likely that more research and better engineering will produce more and more comfortable mattresses. Sleep continues to be the final frontier in the human body, and legions of sleepers eagerly look forward to the next big bedding breakthrough.