The History of Mattresses

The History of Mattresses

The History of Mattresses

The history of mattresses is a much longer and more interesting story than you might think. With a past dating back to the Stone Age, rooted in humble beginnings, the history of mattresses is a story of travel around the world. It involves experiencing different cultures and witnessing the unfolding evolution of one piece of furniture as it becomes an integral part of society in every country on the planet.

The mattress is a piece of furniture that almost no humans live without. The very first mattresses were nothing like the comfortable beds with know of today. Although comfortable innersprings and memory foam might be what you've always been used to in a mattress, it wasn't always that way. Mattresses were even used for more than just sleeping. You'll find out what ancient mattresses were used for and more as we start our journey through the past.

Before we look at the history of humans and mattresses, let's take a look at the history of the word mattress. Where does the word mattress come from?

The origin story of the word mattress is a blend of cultural influences from all around the globe.  It starts from the Arabic word, matrah. This stems from the Arabic word taraha, which means to throw down. Historical etymology shows these Arabic origins of the word mattress influencing the word for mattress in other countries with other languages.

The German word for mattress is matratze. The Italian word for mattress is materasso. The French word for mattress is matelas. It's amazing how the word for mattress is similar in so many different languages, but it isn't the same in all languages. The Spanish word for mattress is colchón, which looks more like couch, which makes sense its own way.

What were prehistoric mattresses like?

Our trip around the world to follow the path of mattress evolution begins at The Border Cave archeological site in South Africa. This is where the oldest known archeological evidence of humans starting to use beds and mattresses was recently discovered in 2020. The very first bedding resembling a mattress was made of grass and ashes. It dates back 200,000 years, so humans have been using mattresses for an extremely long time. Researchers believe the ashes were used as a way to repel bugs like ticks. Repelling insects while you sleep would be smart for survival, and there are other prehistoric findings that support this theory.

Our next stop on the journey of mattress history takes us to Isreal. It is here, in the Misliya Cave, where more evidence of people creating mattresses using tree leaves was discovered. The remains of the bedding dated back as far as 185,000 years ago.

Another historical bed and mattress site previously discovered in a different part of South Africa showed similar techniques in mattress making as far as 77,000 years ago. This is where archeologists found several prehistoric indicators of early mattress-making patterns. Keep in mind, everything we've been talking about so far was during the Stone Age, so when we say humble beginnings are where the modern mattress got its start, we mean it.

What were mattresses like during the Stone Ages?

Archeologists report that mattresses were constructed out of rocks and carved rock structures. Plant leaves and branches were used for bedding. The fossilized bed remains discovered included the identification of a mattress that measured three feet by six feet. The bedding wasn't very plush, being less than an inch thick. It was made of compacted layers of grass and other plant materials.

This bedding was presumably used to make sleeping more comfortable but served another purpose. It was noted that aromatic leaves and stems from plants known to repel or kill insects like mosquitos and their larvae, were often used. This suggests early bedding was a form of protection from mosquitos and other insects. Archeologists also suggest that the first mattress was probably used for a work surface in addition to being used for sleeping.

Moving further up the historical timeline, we find ourselves in Cantabria, Spain. In another cave site, researchers combed the Esquilleu Cave. They uncovered proof that mattresses were being made out of grasses by Neanderthals, roughly 40,000 years ago.

Where did the idea for mattresses come from?

All of this is interesting, but even more so is that humans didn't start sleeping on mattresses or beds until after discovering fire. At least that's what biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, with Harvard University, tells us in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. Before fire, the first hominid, homo erectus, was believed to have slept in trees for protection, since they couldn't ward off predators at night. Without fire, there would have been no sleeping on the ground and no making mattresses. You could say that the idea for mattresses was sparked by fire.

What were mattresses like in Ancient Egypt?

Our next jump forward in the timeline of mattresses takes us to Egypt. This is where, in 3000 BC, experts say mattresses were starting to be placed on raised frames. These early wooden bed frames were usually rectangular, with legs, and sometimes featured a leather or fabric sleeping platform. Frames were usually made of cedarwood, and they included a small footboard instead of a headboard. It was this time when grass and hay were starting to be stuffed into cloth sacks, which would go on to serve as a basic mattress for centuries.

What were mattresses like in Ancient Rome?

Buckle up! Our next stop is in Rome, Italy. The Romans were also known to use mattresses with raised bed frames. These were often made of wood, metal, or even ivory, and many were raised high enough that they had ladders or stairs. Bed platforms were made out of tightly-woven ropes or string. Although the stuffed straw mattress method was still in use, wealthy Romans would stuff their mattresses with wool or feathers, and their beddings included several sheets and blankets for additional comfort.

What were mattresses like in Ancient Greece?

The Romans weren't the only historic civilization to focus on having a comfortable sleeping space. Traveling over to Greece we find that the Greeks were sleeping in what they called klines. A luxurious piece of furniture at the time, they looked like comfy couches with raised headboards. In addition to sleeping, they were also used for general reclining, as well as a place to eat. Same as the wealthy Romans, the wealthy Greeks used rich materials and ornamental decorations when designing their beds.

When is the first account of mattresses in written history?

As beds and mattresses became more elaborate during this time period, they started to make their way into written history. The famous, Homer's Odyssey describes an account of the  character Odysseus building his own bed and mattress to sleep on. It says it was made using the wood of an olive tree, that was cut and shaped to smooth. The mattress was made of oxhide thongs that were woven into a web, and the wooden frame was decorated with gold, silver, and ivory. Although just a story, it shows the prevalence of mattresses and beds being such an important part of our society, that they deserved their own mentions in the form of literary art. 

What were mattresses like in Ancient Asia?

Meanwhile, further away in the Eastern Hemisphere, in places like China, Japan, and Korea, beds were still being made on the ground. The ground stayed warm in the winter, and cool in the summer, making it ideal for regulating temperature during the seasons. During cold winter months, people in China would sleep in beds called kangs. They were made of brick or clay and could be heated for extra warmth. Maybe the kang could be considered the first temperature control mattress!

What were mattresses like in Medieval Times? - 12th Century Mattresses

The journey continues into Medieval Times. Noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, this is a time  when beds were "considered the most important piece of furniture in the house and a prized status symbol". It wasn't until the 12th century until beds really started to become more intricate. Serving as a status symbol for the wealthy, bed frames began to see detailed carvings, inlays of other rich materials, as well as paintings. This is also when it started to become popular for mattresses to be stuffed with down for additional comfort.

It was around this same time that curtains were starting to be used to hang around the bed. Starting first with royalty, the practice of using bed curtains was quickly adopted as the norm of the time. This was to keep out pests and drafts, but also to give sleepers privacy from other people in the room. Back then, several people would sleep in the same room, so having some extra privacy was a welcomed addition to bedrooms everywhere.

What were mattresses like in Ancient China?

From here, we go back to China, during the Ming Dynasty. This is also the time in China when beds start to become enclosed with hanging curtains. These were usually made of gauze or netting, most likely for the same reasons of keeping out insects and providing privacy. This style of surrounding beds in cloth would evolve in China into beds with a complete anteroom. This made beds their own private room, placed in the middle of the bedroom. 

What were mattresses like in Ancient Japan?

Although the canopy-style bed still exists, it isn't as common as it used to be, and it wasn't popular among all cultures throughout history. In fact, in Japan, traditional Japanese bedding was made of quilted padding and coverlets called futons. The bedding was laid directly on the floor and covered by tatami, which are mats of woven fiber that served as a mattress. These beds were put away in the morning and stored in a cupboard during the day to make space in the room for eating and socializing.

What were mattresses like in Europe during the Renaissance? - 15 Century Mattresses

As we continue to move through the timeline of mattress history, we find ourselves back in Europe during the Renaissance. It was during this time period where beds and mattresses started to become even more elaborate. In the 15th century many Europeans had beds with paneled backs and carved wooden columns, often made of oak or walnut. Columns supported a canopy, with hanging curtains that surrounded the bed. These western European beds were built for several people to use at once, so they were quite large. Some of them were up to 8 by 7 feet.

What's one of the most famous mattresses in history? - 16th Century Mattresses

One famous historical bed is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. This is where they house the Great Bed of Ware. A late 16th-century English Elizabethan bed, this carved and inlaid masterpiece with painted wood is a sizable 10 foot 11 inches squared.

What were mattresses like in the Middle East?

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, in places like India, mattresses and sleeping areas were made by piling rugs on the floor. There is also evidence of low beds frames, made with carved legs. Some of these beds were also found to have had carved headboards.

What were mattresses like in France? - 17th Century Mattresses

As time marched on into the 17th century, people of Europe were seeing two types of beds being made. One style consisted of a heavily carved frame. The other was a lighter frame with elaborate hanging curtains made of different fabrics.

It's said that one of France's kings, King Louis XIV, was famous during his time for having 413 different beds. Experts at the Getty Museum tell us it was common for King Louis to take meetings in his bedroom where a rail separated his bed from guests. It was a great honor to be in the presence of the King's bed and to watch the King wake up or fall asleep. The Getty houses a beautifully ornate bed of history called, Lit à la Polonaise. It was made by an unknown French artist between 1775 and 1780.

What were mattresses like in the 19th century?

It wasn't until the 19th century when mattresses started to look more like the ones we're familiar with today. This is when sleeping in beds with multiple people who weren't family and having meetings or other social gatherings in bed was phased out by most cultures.

Modern mattresses are usually made of innerspring coils, foam, or a hybrid blend of both. The first steel coil spring was invented in 1857, shortly after steel was starting to be produced. Steel coils were used to make chairs more comfortable to sit on. A man by the name of Heinrich Westphal decided to put the steel coil springs into mattresses and invented the first innerspring mattress in 1871.

Another steel coil design beginning to be used in mattresses around that time was called Marshall Coils, named after their inventor, James Marshall, in 1899. These are most commonly referred to as pocketed springs in North America.

Although these different types of innerspring mattresses wouldn't be as comfy as what you're used to sleeping on now, they were the start of the innerspring mattresses we know of today. In fact, even though they were invented in the late 1800s, innerspring mattresses wouldn't start becoming popular until the 1930s.

We're almost at the end of our journey through history, and strap in, because one of our next stops is out of this world!

What is a Latex Foam Mattress?

Latex foam was invented in the 1920s and is still used today. It was made by turning latex into a foam that adds bubbles of air, making it very cushiony. The first latex mattress was available to the public in 1931. Adding foam to mattresses made them more comfortable. It helped cushion the springs and provided extra support.

Who Invented Memory Foam?

Memory foam was invented by NASA! That's right, NASA designed the original memory foam during the 1970s. It was actually created to improve cushioning and crash protection on airplanes and shuttles. NASA released its technology to the public in the 1980s. After that, the first memory foam mattress was available to purchase in 1991. Since their inception, mattresses with memory foam have become very popular.

Memory foam's unique and comfortable material reduces pressure points, making it great for people with back pain or other joint pain. This is also why mattresses with memory foam are common in hospitals and other health and wellness centers where people may need to rest comfortably for long periods of time.

Shop Memory Foam Mattresses

What are Mattresses Like Now?

With innovations like newly designed innerspring technology, indulgently comforting foam materials, and even smart bed bases that can come integrated with sleep apps to monitor your sleep habits, we've come a long way since 200,000 years ago. Innerspring mattresses, memory foam mattresses, and hybrid mattresses are the most common mattresses today.

In today's world of mattresses, including our extensive mattress inventory, you can get anything from the most basic mattress to an ultra-luxurious mattress fit for royalty. Kudos to you if you decide to go all Renaissance and set yourself up with the four-post style we talked about where the bed is made of ornate carvings, encased in fine fabrics. Nice sheets make great bed curtains by the way.

The Future of Mattresses

Both the present and the future of mattresses look luxuriously comfortable compared to the ancient rock beds and grass mattresses of our ancestors. Even basic mattress sets are going to be more comfortable than that but the most futuristic mattress feature seems to be the integration of new sleep technology.

New Smart Bases have advanced sleep technology built in to monitor your sleep by pairing it with a sleep app on your phone. It can even automatically adjust your sleeping position if it hears snoring. Once it studies your sleeping habits, most sleep apps will give you details about your sleeping patterns, and provide suggestions for improving your sleep quality. This definitely sounds like the future, and judging from how fast new sleep tech is advancing, we can expect to see more of in the future of mattresses.

Other Fun Facts About Mattress History:

What is the world's largest mattress?

The world's largest mattress was a roadside attraction that, believe it or not, used to be right here in Georgia. Although it is no longer there, the world's largest mattress on record was located in the town of Jefferson, Georgia. It was as big as 72 king-size mattresses put together. At 38 feet wide and 80 feet long, it had to use roof trusses to support its weight of over two tons. Can you imagine trying to get that thing moved into your house!?

We may not have the world's largest mattress, but if you're looking for a big mattress with plenty of room to relax and sleep on, then check out our great selection of California King Sized Mattresses.

If you aren't sure what size mattress you want, use our mattress sizing guide to find the best size mattress for you.

What is the world's largest bed?

According to the Guinness World Records, the world's largest bed was created in the Netherlands. It measured in at an incredible 86ft 11in long and 53ft 11in wide! Now that's a whole lot of bed! We're sure if a bed this big had been around when business meetings and socializing was done in the bedroom, it would have made for some historic parties.

When was the air mattress invented?

Whether it's your air mattress for camping, your air mattress for guests, or even if you just sleep on one now, experts say the air mattress was invented in Reading, Massachusetts in 1889. It was a creation of the Pneumatic Mattress & Cushion Company. The air mattress we know of today shares an almost identical design to the original.

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