By Patrick F. Cannon
I admit to being abashed when, as a well-known eminent authority, I was caught off balance when recently asked to provide a brief history of the bed by a curious fellow traveler in this journey of life. I had to mutter an apology and beg for time to make my ignorance right.
I put in abeyance my quest for the meaning of the cosmos, and attempted to redeem this gap in my considerable knowledge of just about everything. We take our beds for granted. They beckon us at the end of a tiring day. Their soft comfort rejuvenates us, making us ready for another day in the struggle for enlightenment. But where did they come from?
I began my journey at the Serta Institute for Sleep, Dreaming and Somnambulism. In its storied stacks, I hoped to go back in time to the very dawn of bedey-bye. I discovered that our earliest ancestors couldn’t go to bed. They wandered the landscape, hunting and gathering until they got tired, then tried to find a piece of ground sans rocks. They would lay down and hope a toothy animal didn’t happen by. The more woke would climb a nearby tree and find a likely branch to support them, hoping the bow didn’t break. As they were naked anyway, whether it rained or not was of little concern. Indeed, after a hot and dusty day, they were inclined to welcome a cooling shower.
When people ventured out of Africa to more frigid climes, they sought to get out of the weather in the caves that are such a feature of the Northern Hemisphere. Increasing sophistication found them gathering grasses to spread on the floors of their dry domiciles, thus making for a more comfortable night’s sleep. If they had been lucky during the hunt, they might even have a bear’s skin as a warming blanket. The pillow not having been invented yet, they rested their heads on a likely log. The word “Logarhythm’s” comes from the sound of the family group rolling their logs into comfortable positions.
It is to the early residents of Ireland that we owe the first identifiable mattresses. It seems that the Emerald Isle was covered in hay fields. Even after the native cattle had eaten their fill, enough was left over to stuff a rough linen sack. Before lying upon it, the Hibernians would “hit the hay” to dislodge any vermin that had set up housekeeping during the day.
Apparently, the Egyptians were the first to raise the bed off the ground. It seems the great Ramses III got weary of having rats and asps crawling over his royal visage, and had the Chamberlain of the Royal Bedchamber add some legs to his bejeweled sleeping pallet. Mattresses were made with woven reeds harvested along the Nile, the very same reeds where young Moses was found by Cecil B. DeMille napping in a basket.
The Romans filched the idea of the raised bed, but improved upon it by having a woven rope base instead of a wooden platform. This permitted the mattress to have a bit of give in it, improving their comfort and hanky-panky endurance. The Romans were also the first to eat in bed, which may explain why the empire eventually crumbled.
Not much happened sleep-wise until the Renaissance, when the four poster was invented. These always had canopies that provided a kind of roof. This was needed – try to follow me here – because window screens had yet to be invented. Leaving the windows open during warm weather permitted birds to fly in at will. These often perched in the rafters and beams. Birds being birds, they would often poop, but the canopy would prevent their dreadful defecations from plopping onto the sleeping heads below.
I should mention that mattresses for the wealthy were now filled with cotton, feathers and occasionally horse hair, providing a more luxurious and cushy experience. Of course, the poor still made do with hay. Simple cotton mattresses are still very much in use in primitive areas of the world, and in the United States Army. I recall fondly sleeping on bunk beds that the Emperor Nero might well have recognized, although tired horizontal springs had replaced the ropes. I shall never forget the first time I saw one of these simple metal beds with its mattress rolled up in a cylinder, ready to unroll and provide discomfort to the budding warrior. But enough of this personal reminiscence.
The next great advance in beds was undoubtably the inner-spring mattress. One day, Cadwalader Simmons was bouncing down the road on his pogo stick when it occurred to him that the coil spring that gave his conveyance its thrust might well provide a bit of comforting bounce to his bed. It must be said that early versions were inclined to squeak. Many a child was awakened by the rhythmic squeaking sounds coming from the parent’s bedroom, creating unimaginable visions in the little tot’s developing brain. Eventually, Simmons found a way to encase the springs and separate them sufficiently to calm the little tike’s slumbers.
While memory foam now plays its part, sometimes in combination with inner-springs, I should say something about that most nautical of sleep aids, the water bed. How it came about is one of those accidents of fate that often changes the course of history. In the 1960s, the French undersea explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, built an underwater habitat. He and his crew lived and worked there for some time. To save weight, they slept on air mattresses.
One day, the air delivery was late, so they decided to fill the mattresses with water, of which there was an abundant supply. An old salt, Cousteau took to its swimmy comforts immediately, but it must be said that some of his fellow frog men got a bit seasick. That eventually became its greatest drawback; that, and the fact that sometimes naughty kids were tempted to poke it with an ice pick. In any event, we now have a bewildering number of beds to choose from. So much so that an increasing number of hearty folk are going back to nature and sleeping rough upon the forest leaves. What goes around comes around!
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon