New Worlds: Sleeping Arrangements

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

If you listen to advertisements, sleeping on the wrong kind of mattress and pillow dooms you to a lifetime of back pain and under-slept misery.

To be fair, there is some truth to that. I know, for example, that my lower back felt a lot better after I got an hourglass-shaped pillow to stick between my knees at night, because I tend to sleep on my side. But at the same time, humans have spent thousands of year sleeping in all kinds of conditions that don’t resemble modern Western beds, and they haven’t turned into non-functional wrecks as a result.

Let’s start with the mattress itself. Springs and memory foam are new innovations; before that, you lay down atop any soft or springy substance available. A featherbed had literal feathers in it, but less luxurious models featured wool or cotton batting, leaves, reeds, straw, horsehair, moss, piled animal skins — anything that might put a little padding between you and the ground. These often required airing (to get rid of accumulated smells and dampness) and fluffing or even removal and restuffing (to restore them to something like their original shape, and also get rid of the verminous insects they harbored). You were liable to replace your mattress, or at least its stuffing, a lot more often than every five or ten years . . . which was another reason to use a cheap material.

An actual bed, in the sense of a surface to lay the mattress on, can be an expensive thing. Historical wills sometimes listed beds as specific bequests, even when they weren’t sumptuously decorated with precious metals or exotic woods. Watch out for more vermin in the wood: in the nineteenth century, iron and brass bedsteads gained in popularity because they were more hygienic. The precursor to the modern bed-spring or box-spring was a lattice of ropes or flexible wood slats, providing a little more give than a solid surface.

But a bed in that sense isn’t always necessary. Sailors and people in tropical areas might sleep in hammocks, which are nicely cool, keep you away from wildlife, and can be rolled up for easy storage or transport. Heading in a different direction, although what gets sold as a “futon” in the United States is usually a thick mattress atop a folding wooden frame, in Japan a futon is a much thinner mattress made to be laid directly atop a tatami mat. It can be very comfortable, and as with a hammock, one advantage is that bedding can be cleared away during the daytime and stored in a closet, leaving the room open for other uses. A similar idea shows up in the Chinese kang or “bed-stove,” a raised platform whose base channels heat from a nearby fire. The heavy masonry retains heat well, so people can sit atop it while carrying out various activities throughout the day, then lay out bedding and enjoy a warm night.

Heat is often a necessary consideration for beds, because at higher latitudes or elevations, the nights can get extremely cold. One solution is not to sleep alone — and if you look through history, what you find is that the modern, Western, affluent setup which assumes everyone who isn’t married should have their own bed and even bedroom is weird. Most people in most places and times have slept with other people — not just spouses but family members, friends, and servants — in the non-euphemistic sense of being asleep together. They’ve shared rooms and even beds, for warmth, for companionship, and for the economy of not needing extra furniture and space to put that furniture in.

Other arrangements can also help with the heat issue. A bed warmer isn’t just a way of referring to a man’s mistress; it’s a pan filled with embers or hot sand, or later on a rubber bottle filled with hot water, slid beneath the covers to chase away some of the dampness and chill. But of course those carry risks: you could burn yourself by touching them, or inhale toxic fumes, or light your bedding on fire. A box bed addresses the problem by instead putting the sleeper(s) in a literal box, where their body heat only has to warm a small space. Four-poster beds were another option, with curtains you could draw for privacy and to keep warmth in on a cold night. Mind you, that becomes another place for vermin to hang out — watch out for spiders dropping down from the canopy above! In a hot climate, you might instead be draping gauze around your bed, not for warmth, but to keep mosquitoes away.

What about pillows? Here it becomes truly difficult to imagine how people in the past managed. Archaeological digs the world over have turned up many rigid “pillows” — or rather head-rests, made out of wood, pottery, clay, and so forth. These have the merit of keeping your head up where bugs won’t get to it as easily, and if you’re of an elite class that expects you to maintain a complex hairstyle, sleeping on a head-rest will help keep that intact overnight. I suppose people just learned not to turn over in their sleep? Soft pillows mostly came later, sometimes in quantities we would consider absurd. If you’ve ever seen a bed in a showroom or a magazine with a giant mountain of decorative pillows on it, you know how the wealthy of medieval and Renaissance Europe liked to sleep: half sitting up rather than lying flat.

Finally, what do people wear to bed? The answer can be anything from “special sleepwear” to “the clothes they wear during the day” to “nothing at all.” The first category is usually a long and loose-fitting garment — something comfortable and easy to sew — which is how it bleeds over into the second category; in European women’s clothing, at least, a long and loose-fitting chemise was often the foundational garment over which everything else was laid. But sleeping in the nude makes a lot of sense when you think about all the surrounding factors in the days before industrial production. Cloth is expensive; laundry is difficult; vermin are common; it might just be easier to strip, leaving your day clothes cleaner than they would have been otherwise, and rely on the other person or people in the bed to keep you warm. But I’m not surprised in the least to find that modern polls show men more frequently sleeping naked than women do, since their bodies often run hotter.

So our characters are in a bed (of some kind) and have laid their heads down on a pillow (of sorts). They drift off to sleep . . . and next week we’ll talk about dreams!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Sleeping Arrangements — 9 Comments

  1. I’ve slept on the ground, on cots, on old and thin mattresses and expensive orthopedic ones. I like modern beds. On less luxurious ones I notice my skinny hips grind into the hardness, leaving me stiff and sore in the morning.

    Could that be one reason that in previous generations fashionable women had generous proportions? Not only is your own body fat a form of insulation, but it’s padding as well.

    • I think it had a lot more to do with food scarcity and fat being a sign of wealth — since after all, fashionable women also probably had featherbeds as well.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Sleeping Arrangements - Swan Tower

  3. And then there’s Procrustes’s bed.

    Also as an aside, material scarcity (and hence price increases) for wooden beds was an issue in the early 19th century in England and France, as a lot of the 7′ and longer seasoned lumber was going to Portsmouth and Le Havre and other shipbuilding centers. At least, I imagine it also made the wooden bed more expensive, especially with the steadily lowering cost of iron due to new, higher-volume smelting and rolling machinery and methods; it certainly increased the cost of building construction!

    • Heh, Procrustes is . . . an edge case, let’s say.

      Makes sense that the decline in wooden bedframes was linked to shipbuilding as well as the industrial improvements in metalworking. It’s gobsmacking to realize how huge of an impact sailing had on forestry (though it was certainly not the only domain to do so — pottery more or less de-forested the Near East in the early Neolithic period).

  4. The ground’s more dangerous than the air for cold. There’s a camping rule that you want two blankets under you for every one on top.

    • Yep, though how serious of a problem the air is will depend on the weather. Windy’s going to be a lot worse than still (and then there’s the question of wet . . .)