The history of beds and primitive mattresses are intertwined.
For thousands of years, humans have been trying to find a comfortable place to sleep. These ancient beds gave way to stuffed mattresses, and eventually led to the memory foam that is more common today.
Ancient Sleeping Habits
While mattresses in ancient times were barely more than a pile of flora meant to cushion against a hard surface, it was the first attempt at providing comfort while sleeping.
The earliest known “bed” was constructed sometime in the Miocene period, between 23 and 5 million years ago. During this time, ancient apes changed their sleep locations from branches in trees to woven, hardwood platforms. This, in turn, provided them with a better night’s rest. Higher quality sleep eventually led to longer periods of rapid eye movement, improved cognition and memory, and an evolutionary edge to our ancestors.
The oldest known mattress dates back to 77,000 years ago, and was found in the Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in Africa. The mattress was composed of layers of reeds and rushes, discovered at the bottom of a pile of compacted grasses and leafy plants used as bedding. This bedding was periodically burned, which researchers believe was meant to limit pests and garbage.
A fine covering of leaves from river wild-quince formed an insect-repelling “top sheet,” to protect against mosquitos and flies. It may also represent the earliest known use of medicinal plants by humans, as the plant produces insect-killing chemicals.
The mattress itself was about 22 square feet, large enough to hold an entire family, and was about a foot high.
3200 BCE to 2200 BCE
The Neolithic-era inhabitants of the village of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands in Scotland had “beds” flanking a central hearth in each house. The bed on the right side was always bigger, with the theory being that the male had the bigger bed in the household. The bed itself was a stone-built box.
3000 BCE to 1000 BCE
Approximately contemporarily with Scotland, the ancient Egyptians had raised beds made of wood. Made of plain wood for commoners, or made of ebony and covered with gold and jewels for those of high social status, these raised beds kept insects, snakes, and rodents on the floor and away from sleeping individuals. A wool cushion mattress and linen sheets with a stone or wooden head support completed the bed.
Around 3,600 years ago, or about 1600 BCE, the Persians pioneered waterbeds. The beds were goatskins filled with water. They were warmed in the sun. The actual original or functional purpose of waterbeds is unknown, though the leading theories are that they were used to comfort the sick or elderly.
Around 1000 BCE, wealthy Romans began using raised metal beds that held feather or straw-stuffed mattresses. For those less fortunate, wooden bed frames with wool strings held up a mattress. The truly poor simply used a mat on the floor. For all levels of wealth, however, woolen blankets were common.
Medieval Times and Beyond
From the 5th century onward, mattresses did not change much. Beds, however, became more elaborate, and were often carved from wood. The Saxons had rough straw mattresses covered with decorative fabric, while the Normans used iron railings to hang curtains around beds.
By the 14th century, feather beds were introduced and became prized possessions. Four-poster beds were common, with rich hanging materials becoming more important than the woodwork. In the mid-18th century, mattresses were covered by linen or cotton, and filled with coconut fibers, cotton, wool, or horse hair, replacing the common down or hay. Beds were simpler, after a luxurious 17th century, with metal frames gaining popularity.
The four-poster bed lost popularity in the 19th century, with standard head- and footboard sizes shrinking. The biggest advance was metal bed springs supporting a mattress instead of ropes or wool straps, lending more stability and support to the sleeper.
The Modern Mattress
As history shows, most mattresses were stuffed. Modern mattresses, however, began with the revelation that springs could be used instead.
Timothy Rose and Platt S. Buell patented a bed spring in the US in December of 1869. Their work forms the foundation of the modern mattress that many people sleep on today, despite taking about 60 years to catch on. As late as the 1950s, mattresses were still stuffed with cotton instead of springs. Cotton became compact and harder, while springs tended to soften over time.
Space Age Beds
Springs proved an important step in improving the quality of mattress. After a surge in popularity of the water bed, springs were replaced with memory foam.
While the Persians had their version of the waterbed, the modern waterbed was invented in 1833 by Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott. Known as “Dr. Arnott’s Hydrostatic Bed for Invalids,” it was meant to reduce bedsores. It was essentially a warm bath filled with water, and sealed with a layer of rubber on top to prevent leaks. In 1968, Charles Hall introduced his design, a vinyl mattress filled with heated water to his class at San Francisco State University as his master’s thesis. Students couldn’t get enough of it, forgoing other projects to try out the waterbed. By 1986, waterbeds had a 20 percent market share.
Memory Foam Mattresses
In 1966, NASA created memory foam, then called temper foam, for use in airplane seats. Through the 1980s, companies tried to use this material to make a mattress, with the first success unveiled in 1991. Memory foam mattresses are now the lead alternative to the traditional innerspring mattress.
Beds in Space
Meanwhile, NASA has had to develop ways for astronauts to sleep in space. There is no gravity in space, thus a spring or memory foam mattress would be impractical. The solution has been velcroing sleeping bags to surfaces so that astronauts don’t float around while they sleep. The lack of gravity also means pockets of exhaled carbon dioxide can build up above the astronaut’s head. If the the area is not well-ventilated, the astronaut could wake up out of breath and gasping for air.
The Future of Beds
The future of beds is, unsurprisingly, heavily tied to technology. Future smart beds might be surround sound capable for watching TV in bed, as well as able to allow your doctor can monitor vital signs through an eHealth app. Temperature controlled beds are also on the horizon, meaning you can experience sleep at the perfect temperature. Need lumbar support? Adjust the mattress through Bluetooth and an app. Other beds might be WiFi-enabled, as well. Finally, massage beds wake you up with a head and foot massage, leaving you feeling more alert. The future of beds will combine all the best sleep practices into one package, leaving you feeling well-rested every morning, gently massaging you awake.
While NASA has figured out sleep for astronauts, these scientists don’t tailor the experience for comfort. It will take anywhere from 128 to 333 days to reach Mars from Earth, depending on where Mars is its orbit in relation to our planet, and scientists need to figure out how to help future astronauts sleep comfortably for those journeys.
Unlike current astronauts, who run experiments and travel for a limited time, astronauts going to Mars will be in transit for months. Perhaps a combination of the velcro sleeping bag, holding the astronaut in place, combined with integrated massage functions to keep muscle toned up, could be a solution. For now, actual beds with mattresses will be confined to Earth — at least until artificial gravity becomes a reality, and sleep in space becomes highly relaxing.