Take a journey through history and discover how the mattress came to be what it is today.
Where did it all begin?
The first mattresses can be traced back to the Neolithic period (or the Stone Age), from 10,200BC to 2,000BC. This is the time when farming, pottery manufacturing and tool making began. Beds in this time would be made up of piles of leaves and grass, covered with animal skins to make a cushioned ‘mattress’. Not the most hygienic, or I suspect comfortable, these mattresses would almost definitely be shared with insects and pests.
The Ancient Egyptian Bronze Age (where bronze was first used in metal work) was around 3,100BC and 1,200BC. During this time, the bed was completely upgraded- for the rich at least.
Elaborate designs were carved in to wood, allowing the mattress to be lifted off of the floor, thus making it more difficult for the bugs to join you.
Ancient Egyptians also carved headrests which were wrapped in cloth and padded. These headrests allowed the air to circulate around the head to keep cool - a climate controlled version of a pillow?
In addition to the headrests, many of the beds in these times included a footboard, not because it was aesthetically pleasing, but for practicality. Egyptians made many beds on a slant, to keep their heads raised. The footboards were simply to stop the occupant from falling out during the night.
As for the mattress, there would be some woven reeds to create a nest for it to sit on. The mattress itself was usually made from a combination of wooden slats and cushions made from wool. Linen bedsheets were favoured by Egyptians, probably in a further attempt to keep cool during the night.
The pharaohs went a step further. Tutankahmun reportedly had a bed made entirely of gold and ebony. Bronze, silver, ebony and ivory were typical materials used to decorate pharaohs’ furniture, a stark contrast to the poor whose beds were typically a simple mattress stuffed with wool or straw. The poorest would often have no mattress at all and were forced to sleep on the floor with one palm leaves for comfort.
From 753BC through to 476AD, the Italian civilisation in the city of Rome favoured beds somewhat similar to the Ancient Egyptians. The wealthy Romans would have beds made from wood, decorated with ivory, gold, silver or bronze and raised off the ground. They also often featured headboards and footboards as the Egyptian beds did, but they weren’t slanted.
Mattresses were usually stuffed with reeds, hay or wool. The wealthiest sometimes used feathers inside their mattress as a symbol of their riches.
Much like we do today, the Ancient Romans used cushions on their beds for added comfort and used colourful fabrics for decoration.
Again, similar to the Egyptians, the poor Ancient Romans had only a simple mattress, probably stuffed with hay. Instead of a duvet, an animal skin blanket would be used.
The Romans didn't only use their beds for sleeping. They were also used for eating and socialising, making the bed a central element to the wealthy Romans’ lives.
With the end of the Roman Empire came the Medieval period (around 400AD - 1,400AD). The rich folk would typically have a wooden bed frame with the addition of ropes for the mattress to sit on top of. In early Medieval Europe, the mattresses would be covered with a decorative fabric and stuffed with straw, but towards the end of the period it was possible they would be stuffed with feathers or down.
The poor would again sleep on leaves, straw or hay covered with animal skins. The poorest servants would often have only their cloaks for warmth.
In Medieval times, it was common for curtains to be hung around the bed in an attempt to stay warm, but also for privacy as it was common for servants to sleep in the same room as the masters. The bed frames were highly sought after and so became sort of family heirlooms that would be passed down through generations. Medieval Europe saw the invention of the Four Poster bed like we have today.
Box beds were also first introduced at this time. A cupboard or box built into a corner or wall for privacy and warmth. Sometimes, these would be placed on top of each other, similar to the bunk beds we know now.
Renaissance to Early Modern
The cultural movement of the Renaissance took place from around 1,300AD - 1,600AD, a time of renewed interest in literature, architecture, art and science. Similar to Medieval times, people continued to have either an elaborately carved bed frame, or a lighter frame with decorative hangings. The poor still slept on simple straw mattresses with their cloaks and animal skins for warmth, sometimes with linen sheets also. During the Renaissance it became more and more common for the wealthier folk to sleep on mattresses stuffed with feathers, with hemp or linen sheets and blankets and fur for warmth.
Mattresses were again placed on top of ropes. The phrase ‘sleep tight’ allegedly came from having to tighten the ropes to stop the mattress from sagging.
Around the 16th and 17th Centuries, French King Louis XIV ruled for 72 years, from the age of 4. He reportedly owned 413 beds of the French style, decorated with silver, gold and pearls.
In the 1700’s, wooden bed bases were replaced by iron and steel. This was due to the wood being an invitation for insects and bugs to make their home, and disease was common. Wooden beds were commonly infested with lice and bed bugs, which bite the occupant of the bed. This is where the second part of the “sleep tight” phrase originated- “don’t let the bed bugs bite”.
Mattresses in the 18th Century would have been covered with linen or cotton, with buttons to attach the cover to the stuffing.
Up until after World War One, iron beds were handmade, taking days to build. Bed frames switched to mass production after applying methods used during the war to the iron industry. This made production more cost efficient and increased the accessibility of the iron frames.
The 19th Century saw more advances in the manufacturing of mattresses, most importantly, the invention of the box spring. This was patented in 1865 with the purpose of distributing weight more evenly and absorbing shock.
‘Innerspring’ mattresses were invented in 1871 with the initial use being for the seats of chairs, but in the 1930’s they became more popular as a mattress for beds.
The first version of water beds came about in the 19th century with the aim of reducing bedsores in hospital patients by distributing pressure evenly across the body. Water beds are still popular options today allowing the occupant to sink into comfort, but there’s also the risk that they don't provide enough support.
The pocket-spring was patented in 1900 by engineer James Marshall. This consists of a series of springs that are padded and then encased in fabric. The responsiveness of pocket springs helps to prevent sleep disturbance when a partner is tossing and turning during the night. The pocket spring is still popular today.
In the late 1920’s, the first latex foam was invented. The first mattresses to be made using this foam came about in 1931. This is around the same time that the previously mentioned innerspring mattresses became popular.
The 1940’s saw the invention and rise of air beds. Air beds are commonly used today both for prevention of bed sores and for convenience of storage and travel. A popular use of an airbed is for camping, or when having guests stay the night when there’s no spare beds.
The re-invention of the water bed came about in the 60’s. From then until the 90’s the water bed was a fad that many people got involved with but, although people do still use them today, the craze has somewhat died down now.
A pivotal moment in the mattress journey came about in the 70’s when NASA created memory foam. Originally, the ‘slow spring back foam’ as it was referred to then, was intended for aircraft seats for pilots to absorb some impact of G-Force, thus reducing the strain on astronauts bodies.
The material used was a heat sensitive, solid foam, which would soften and mould to the body when it was warm, and return to its’ original state when cool.
With memory foam being made available to the public in the 80’s, mattress manufacturers spent some time developing a product they could sell to their customers. The Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress from Gagerdala World Foams was released in 1991 with an extremely high price tag.
One issue with memory foam is that it can be extremely warm to sleep on, due to the close structure which doesn't allow the foam to ‘breathe’.
The new millennium brought about further advancements in the mattress industry. The no-flip mattress was designed to eliminate the need for turning over the mattress in order to reduce wear and prolong the lifespan. Other than the fact the mattress doesn't need to be flipped, they offer nothing extra to the occupant, however they are sometimes a cheaper alternative so have become fairly popular.
With bed bugs much less of an issue now, it is perfectly safe to own a wooden bed, but it is also common to have beds with leather or metal frames. As for mattresses, there’s a huge range out there, all with their own benefits. Many people choose to purchase a pocket-sprung mattress and add a memory foam topper for added comfort but the type of mattress completely depends upon a persons needs. Some prefer a firmer mattress to give them support whereas others want a softer one that they can sink in to.
At N:rem, we know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, and how difficult that can be, especially if you suffer from chronic pain. That’s why we developed the N:rem sleep system. Using a combination of 2000 pocket springs and interchangeable reflex foam tablets in 3 different densities, the mattress is totally customisable to your unique needs so you can get support where you need it and softer comfort where you need that. Reflex foam has an open pore structure making it more breathable than traditional memory foam, allowing for a cooler night’s sleep. What’s more, the added Viscoool comfort layer in the N:rem further helps to regulate body temperature whilst giving you extra comfort. To find out more about the N:rem sleep system please click here.