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The History of Mattresses

The History of Mattresses
Welcome to "the History of Mattresses" in which we will be taking a journey into the past to explore this often complex object's humble beginnings.

The word mattress is derived from two Arabic words, tahara, which means to throw and matrah, which means a place where something is thrown. The word materas came into the English language when Crusaders adopted the Arabic custom of sleeping on cushions on the floor.

Mattresses can be dated back to a time when humans lived in caves. The oldest known bedding was discovered in a cave, and it consists of sleeping mats made from a type of evergreen foliage that repels mosquitos. Experts believe that the mats are about 77,000 years old.

The earliest written account of a bed can be found in the epic poem by Homer called Odyssey when he describes how Odysseus constructed his bed around an olive tree. He also goes on to describe beds, with their wooden framework inlaid with gold, silver, and ivory.

In ancient Greece beds had a wooden frame with a board at the head and bands of hide laced across it, upon which skins were placed. Later, the Greeks used more expensive wood, solid ivory, and tortoiseshell to veneer the bedstead. Silver or bronze was used for the feet. As pillows and coverings became more important, they also became more desirable and expensive. Folding beds were also used at that time as they were easily stored or transported. They are frequently depicted in Ancient Greek vase paintings. The most famous cities for the manufacture of beds in ancient times were Corinth in Greece, Miletus in Turkey and Carthage in Tunisia.

Like other advanced cultures of their time such as the Assyrians, Medes and Persians, the Egyptians also constructed elaborate beds. They climbed into bed with steps; they used pillows; and they hung curtains around the bed. The elite of Egyptian society also enjoyed elaborate wooden beds, decorating them with metal, mother-of-pearl and ivory. Frequently, they used a headrest, which was semi-cylindrical and made of stone, wood, or metal. King Tutankhamen had a bed made of ivory and gold.

The Romans initially stuffed their mattresses with reeds, hay or wool, but towards the end of the Republic they advanced the concept of luxury in bedding: for example, with the use of feathers. Like those of the Egyptians, Roman bedsteads were high and were climbed into with the aid of steps. The Romans indulged themselves with luxurious bedsteads of bronze inlaid with silver or, if very wealthy, of pure silver. Beds were such an everyday part of life for the Ancient Romans that they had many different types of bed for different purposes.
These included:

  • lectus cubicularis. This was the normal bed used for sleeping.
  • lectus genialis. This was the marriage bed, a miniature bed placed in the atrium opposite the door where the husband's "Genius" and the wife's "Juno" (the couple's spirits) would reside.
  • lectus discubitorius. Rather than sitting on chairs at table as we do today, the Romans had a table bed, on which they ate—reclining on their left sides.
  • lectus lucubratorius. This bed was used for reading and studying.
  • lectus funebris, or emortualis. Having used a bed for all their important functions in life, it was natural that the Romans used a bed for their last journey. This was used to carry the dead to the funeral pyre.

The mattresses of ancient times differ greatly from the modern comfortable mattresses we use today.

Mattresses of the 15th century were filled with straw, pea-pods or feathers stuffed into a coarse "tick" (a sack made with a tough coarse material). For the wealthy, mattress covers were made from softer materials such as silk, brocade or velvet.

King Louis XIV is reputed to have had 413 beds. He enjoyed the luxury of his bed so much that not only did he spend a lot of time in it; he would also often hold court in his bedroom.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a typical bed was constructed with a wooden frame, with supports made of rope or leather. The mattresses were typically filled with straw or down, held together by cheap fabric. The ropes needed to be tightened on a regular basis due to the sagging of the mattress. The mattresses were magnets for all types of bugs and vermin. The phrase 'sleep tight, mind the bugs don't bite" originated from this era.

In the 18th century there was a significant improvement in the materials used for filling mattresses, and they came more to resemble what we use today. Coconut fibre, cotton, wool and horse hair were used as fillings in a bid to avoid attracting bugs and vermin. Mattress covers were made from linen or cotton, and buttons or tufting would be used to keep the cover together. Iron and steel were used for the bedframes instead of wood.

The mid-19th Century saw the appearance of the coil spring which was patented in 1865. The German inventor Heinrich Westphal invented the first innerspring mattress in 1871. The British firm Harrods sold the first modern concept of the waterbed in 1895 which resembled large hot water bottles. (Waterbeds date as far back as the Roman Empire, they used goat skins to hold the water).

1900 was the most significant year ever for the design of modern day mattresses. In Canada, British-born engineer James Marshall (founder of Vi-Spring) invented the "inner-spring mattress". Coil-springs even now still bear his name, "Marshall Coils".

Twenty-six years later, Dunlop invented a technology to produce vulcanized rubber latex foam for mattresses. Initially this was only sold to the British Royal Family. This helped to raise the profile of the process when it was released more widely.

The 1930's saw innerspring mattresses become more prevalent, along with the use of artificial fillings. Encased coil spring mattresses, which consisted of individual springs sewn into linked fabric bags, were introduced. The advantage of this system was that a spring depressed in one area of the mattress would not cause the entire mattress or another area of it to be depressed.

Air mattresses were introduced in the 1940's, they were constructed of vulcanized rubber coated fabric, and the modern version of waterbeds arrived in the 1960s.

From humble pads in caves, the centuries have seen a huge number of innovative ideas in mattresses and bedding evolve into the modern products we use today. Today's modern mattresses offer a level of comfort that would have been the envy of the elite and aristocracy of former times. And the story continues, with new processes, technology and designs pouring onto the market. But for us traditionalists at British Beds Worldwide, nothing compares to the comfort and support provided by a traditional pocket-sprung mattress with natural fillings.

Scientists and the medical profession have discovered that a good night's sleep is not only a matter of comfort, but it also is directly related to our health and well-being. Moreover, our psychological health is also affected. If you wake up feeling tired and still sleepy every day, your ability to concentrate will almost certainly be affected which in turn may impair your ability to work, study or function properly.

Here in the stress-filled and busy present day there are so many choices of mattresses, consumers can easily be bemused by the choices they are confronted when trying to select the best mattress for taking care of their comfort and well-being. Our friendly, expert, consultants at British Beds Worldwide will be happy to answer your questions. We look forward to hearing from you.