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Beds through the ages

Updated on February 20, 2014

Roman bed frames were quite simple, and were made from wood or iron. Rich Romans liked to cover them with exotic fabrics. The Roman poet Martial tells of one man who pretended to be ill so that people would visit him in bed and admire his covers. Only poor couples slept together Rich people preferred separate bedrooms.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the age of elegant bedrooms was over. Most Saxon and Viking families lived in single-roomed, smoky homes which they shared with their animals. The benches they sat on by day served as their beds at night.Larger Saxon houses had sleeping platforms raised at one end, perhaps reserved for women or important guests. When Saxon people "made a bed", they did exactly that. They took a sack or animal skin and filled it with leaves, straw or other material. Pea pods were sometimes used, which must have been rather lumpy. We can get an idea of how the Saons made their beds from the words they used for bed and mattress: Baence(bench) and streow (straw). A bed that was more luxurious than just straw on a bench was called a "cot" or "crib".

Roman Bed
Roman Bed
Viking Bed
Viking Bed
Medieval Bed
Medieval Bed

The medieval people, "bed" meant "mattress" or "bedding".Poor people laid their straw "bed" on the floor, or on a simple board. Only the rich had proper bedsteads. A well-dressed bedstead had cords supporting a feather mattress, and was curtained off to keep out draughts and prying eyes. Red bed-curtains were popular, but many kings and queens preferred green.

Medieval beds were made to be portable. When a lord and lady travelled to their various castles and houses, they often took their own beds with them. Visiting guests also sometimes arrived with their own bed, which were set up in any convenient room. While the servants bedded down on the floor of the great chamber, the lord and lady retired to smaller (and more private) room called the privy chamber.

If you were to peep under a large medieval bedstead, the chances are that you would find a smaller bed hidden beneath. This low bed, called a "trundle" or "truckle" bed, often had casters or wheels. It was kept out of the way during the day and "trundled out" at night for a servant or child to sleep on.

Medieval Monks slept in long dormitories called dorters. The monks followed monastery rules which had been written by St Benedict of Nursia in 515. These said that monks should have separate beds. They were to sleep fully clothed, and not take off their belts. However, monks were not to take knives to bed with them, in case they cut themselves while asleep.

Tudor bed
Tudor bed

By Tudor times, many ordinary people could afford to buy proper framed bedsteads. Sleeping on chests, boards or rough straw sacks on the hall floor gradually became a thing of the past. Some beds were magnificent structures with the head, roof and posts beautifully carved from wood. Others were quite simple, more like the trundle bed mentioned above.

When William Shakespeare died in 1616, he left his "second-best bed and the furniture" to his wife, Anne Hathaway. The "furniture" meant the bedding and curtains. Anne was no doubt delighted. Beds were often a man's most valuable possessions. and the great playwright's bed was probably richly carved and curtained with costly fabrics. But she might have preferred his first-best bed!

A Tudor bed required regular attention. The base of the bed was held together by stretched cords, which were tightened with a special lever called a "twitch". "Bed staffs" were another essential tool. These were stuck in holes down the sides of the bed. They prevented the thick feather mattresses flopping over the edge and the occupants rolling out.

When people in Tudor times stayed at inns or hostels, they were expected to share their beds with complete strangers. If a richer person turned up, a poor traveller was thrown out of bed to make space. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest:"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Georgian Bed
Georgian Bed

Stuart times Bed Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary that he hated sleeping in beds without curtains. He called them "naked beds". But in living rooms, "day beds" without curtains were fashionable. These were couches where people could rest during the day. When travelling, Pepys sometimes had to spend the night on a "naked " daybed while his wife and her maid shared the proper bed.

Georgians Bed In the time of James I (1603-25), rich families copied the French fashion for "covered beds", which were completely surrounded by drapes. The curtains, roof and quilt were often all covered in the same fabric. King Louis XIV of France had 413 beds, some of them embroidered with pearls and gold.

In the 1750s, elaborately carved woodwork replaced the old covered bed. Designers like Thomas Chippendale published books of exotic patterns for furniture-makers to copy. But in the 1780s, designs became simpler and Chippendale's beds started to look old-fashioned.

Victorian Bed
Victorian Bed

Victorians beds were sometimes so high off the ground that special bed steps were needed to climb into them Queen Victoria's bed at the Brighton Pavilion had seven mattress! In bed, ladies wore bonnets and long nightdresses. Men wore nightshirts until pyjamas were invented in the 1890s.

The Victorians could sleep in comfort after the 1820s, when mattresses were first fitted with coiled springs. Metal bedsteads became popular, and the best beds were made from brass. Servants had to spend hours polishing them, but they looked beautiful. Metal beds were also healthier than wooden ones, as they attracted fewer bedbugs.

Many sorts of portable beds were now available. Travellers carried hammocks or camp beds. The Duke of Wellington slept in his camp bed even when he was at home. The first sleeping carriages were introduced on overnight trains from London to Scotland in 1873, forty years after they became available in The USA.


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    • msorensson profile image

      msorensson 7 years ago

      I like the hub, and the pictures. Thanks!!

    • profile image

      Carmen 8 years ago

      I would like to know where you got the picture for the Tudor bed as I am trying to find one for purchase