Cradles of Civilization : Evolution of the Bed Has Given Dreamers Something to Sleep On Besides the Floor


Today a bedroom is usually thought of as a private sanctuary from stress, a comfortable place for sleeping, relaxing or reading.


But it was not always so.

“Throughout most of history the bed and the bedroom were the symbols of power and wealth, with the poor usually sleeping on the bare ground or a cot,” said Patricia Carranza Platt, an art historian who has made a study of beds and other material things depicted in artwork.

When Platt studies historical paintings and other artwork, she’s paying attention to how the everyday details--from the furniture to the silverware--are depicted.

“Usually you don’t learn the reasons behind the decorative arts when studying art history,” explained Platt, an Irvine resident who has a master’s in the arts from UCLA and was a research assistant at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. “But I like to learn why things looked the way they did. I once did a 30-page paper on the development of the iron.”

Platt has made it a point to pay particular attention to the history of beds: how they looked, how they were used, how they changed. She recently lectured on the topic at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano.


Platt has studied how beds looked in ancient Greek and Roman times, in the opulent bed chambers of European royalty and in the modern American home.

“In the last 100 years the image of the bed and the bedroom has changed, even if the actual form hasn’t,” Platt said.


The written history of the bed in Western culture began with Homer’s description of Odysseus, in the 5th Century BC, making from an olive tree a bed inlaid with ivory, silver and gold.

By then the Greeks had a couch/bed called a “kline” that was used for lounging and sleeping (hence our word “recline”). “Only men and courtesans could lounge on the kline,” Platt said. “Women served food and drink to those resting, although they were allowed to sleep on them at night.

“It was really the Romans, though, who perfected the art of lounging. They had beds for lounging, sleeping, eating. They had single beds, double beds--although they were rare--and even beds for three called ‘triclinia.’ These were for eating on and were often set in a U shape to allow for the serving of food and drink,” Platt said. “That is probably what the Last Supper of Christ looked like--men reclining on triclinia--rather than like the famous painting by Da Vinci that shows them sitting at a table.”

The beds usually had a mattress and cushion, although no sheets; the Romans slept with their clothes on or used their togas as blankets.

After the fall of Rome, most furniture was destroyed by the Goths, so from the 5th Century to the year 1000, beds almost ceased to exist. Most people slept on the floor on straw in their clothes, the way the poor had been sleeping all along.

“Communal sleeping was the norm until around the 11th Century,” Platt said. “The idea of privacy had its beginnings then.”

In fact, Platt points out that in the current film “Queen Margot,” when two men must sleep together at an inn in the 16th Century, they are upset because one is a Catholic and one is a Protestant, not because they’re sharing a bed. The famous Bed of Ware in England, mentioned in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” slept 12 people.


The development of the chimney gave rise to the concept of a separate bedroom in the 11th Century because it allowed for second floors that could be heated. Before that, everyone slept together in one large room, because that is where the fire was.

Also during the Middle Ages there was very little furniture. When the rich traveled from property to property, they took their bed linen, mattresses and tent-like canopies for sleeping with them. Where there was less traveling, a “bed box” developed with wooden paneling or drapes on all sides, like a little room within a larger room.

As the wealthy became wealthier, the bed evolved further. Some of the first beds were built atop storage chests that also served as platforms for trays of food and for people to sit on. Some even had trundle beds under them for a guard or servant to sleep in at night.

“In the 1300s the ‘tester’ developed. It was a framework attached to the ceiling or jutting out from the wall or headboard that curtains were hung on,” Platt said. “Before the 16th Century, curtains were never attached to the bed like the four-poster beds we think of. It took centuries to come up with that idea.” And, while draperies around the bed kept the sleeper warm in drafty castles, the poor peasant was still sleeping on the floor or a cot by the fire.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, beds became more elaborate, with woodcarving, gilding and paint.

Louis XIV’s bedroom at Versailles was used for state occasions with a balustrade like an altar railing separating the bed from the visitors. “The ‘couche’ ceremony took place here, where people watched the king wake up or go to sleep. He actually received them while he was in bed, an event that was considered an honor to attend,” Platt said.

In the 18th Century, beds became less heavily carved and baroque and became lighter and more graceful. Mattresses improved for the first time. The shapeless bundle of straw, cotton or wool was replaced by a hair-filled mattress with a shape similar to today’s mattresses.


In the 19th Century many kinds of beds were available: four-posters, Greek and Egyptian-inspired beds, sensuous art nouveau beds, simple pine beds such as those made by the Shakers, and brass beds that were considered very modern and sanitary.

Bed designers with a sense of humor masquerading as efficiency even built beds that folded into objects as unexpected as pianos, bathtubs, fireplaces and bookcases.

The big news, though, was that, with the coming of the machine age and mass-produced beds, it was finally possible for the non-rich to also have comfortable places to sleep.

The big improvements in the 20th Century were the invention of the innerspring mattress in the 1920s and the box spring in the late 1930s.

“Today our beds and bedrooms are an expression of our personalities,” Platt said. Some, as in days of old, serve multiple purposes--such as office and exercise room--in addition to being a place for rest. Designs range from cutting-edge modern to period antique, from utilitarian to lushly romantic.

And although today’s designs reflect the long history of beds and bedrooms, they are so familiar to us that it is easy to forget that they are the result of centuries of evolution.