The History of Mattresses and Beds

By Megan Griffith

Humans have always needed to sleep, which means we have been creating comfortable inventions to rest on since the beginning of our species. Researchers have discovered early versions of the mattress dating back to the caveman period. 

Over the last 10,000 years, we have innovated and improved our beds to create the comfortable, supportive creations that they are today. This article will guide you through some of the most important changes in mattress design over the centuries, from the beds of the ancient Egyptians to the modern, adaptable futon mattress. 

Curious to know the history of mattresses? Read on.

Ancient History (Neolithic Period-1000 BCE)

The very first bed was likely created all the way back in the Miocene period, approximately 23 to 5 million years ago. Ancient apes used plant material to create padding to help them sleep. This better sleep quality likely led to improved cognitive function, which led to the evolution of the human species (sleep quality really is that important!).

The first real mattress researchers have found was created 77,000 years ago, and it was found in Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in Africa. The base was made of layered plant material while grasses and leaves were used as bedding. It was thinner than most mattresses we buy today, but not by much. It measured about 12 inches tall. It was definitely much larger, however. The first mattress was 22 square feet, plenty big for a whole family to sleep in together.

A little later on, around 3000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians and the people of modern-day Scotland simultaneously started creating their own types of mattresses. Those in Scotland had beds made from stone with mattresses likely made from wool, while the Egyptians made their beds from wood and had them raised off of the ground. This was likely a huge advantage when it came to avoiding the creepy crawly things on the ground.

It’s unclear whether Persia developed the first waterbed around 3600 BCE or 1600 BCE, but either way, it was a genius invention. The Persians filled goatskins with water, warmed them in the sun, then moved them back into the home. It seems that the waterbed was not used for most people in Persian society, but rather mostly for the sick or elderly.

Classical History (1000 BCE- 4th Century)

Classical history refers to the time period when ancient Greece and Rome ruled the Western world. As was the case in most areas of Classical life, what kind of bed you had depended on your wealth. The wealthier Greeks and Romans had metal beds with mattresses made from cloth stuffed with straw, feather, or wool. 

Less fortunate citizens had wooden beds, and the poorest citizens simply had a mattress on the floor. Regardless of wealth, however, a wool blanket was the most common type of bedding.

Medieval History (5th Century – 14th Century)

In Medieval Europe, wealth made an even bigger difference in what kind of bed you slept in. For the wealthy, beds became ornate and impressive. In many cases, they were a chance to show off your wealth. This is when the four-poster bed was invented, and many headboards had intricately carved designs on them. 

The mattress itself was stuffed full of soft, downy feathers. If you were not wealthy, however, then your mattress was likely stuffed with hay and it rested upon a simple wooden platform. Much like the first mattress discovered in Sibidu Cave, medieval peasants often shared one bed for the whole family.

Renaissance (15th Century – 18th Century)

Beds didn’t change much for peasants from Medieval Europe to Renaissance Europe. For the wealthy, however, bed frames became more and more ornate, and now they had a whole room dedicated to them: the bedroom. Many had trundle beds as well, a bed stored underneath the main mattress, typically used for other family members or servants.

Modern History (19th Century – Today)

In modern times, beds and mattresses are still largely based on the same structure people have been using since the beginning: a soft mattress on a raised bed frame.

In the 1800s, springs were introduced to the mattress component for better support, then in the 1940s the futon made its way from Japan to North America, and today we have many different mattress options made from different materials. Find out more about your modern mattress options below.


Origin of the word “mattress”

The English word “mattress” comes from a combination of the Arabic word “matrah” and the French word “materas.” It likely came into existence sometime in the 11th century during the Crusades, when English- and French-speakers were traveling to lands where the people spoke Arabic, and the word “mattress” was created.

Related: Etymology of sleep

What were the first mattresses like?

The very first mattress was created millions of years ago, by humanity’s ancestors: the ancient apes. This very first mattress was made of piles of plant material to make sleeping more comfortable for the apes, and we have been improving upon this basic design ever since. 

When it comes to modern mattresses, the first innerspring mattress was made in 1871 by a man named Heinrich Westphal, but it wasn’t very popular. It actually wasn’t until the 1930s that people started sleeping on what we would consider a modern mattress with an innerspring system.

Before the innerspring mattress was invented, people slept on mattresses, they were just very different from what we know as a “mattress” today. They were essentially extra-large pillows big enough for your whole body, a fabric case filled with down, cotton, or hay, depending on your wealth. 

The invention of the modern mattress improved our sleep quality tremendously, and the strides we continue to make in this field are absolutely vital to our sleep health and overall wellbeing.

History of different types of mattresses

Inside coils of an innerspring mattress

Innerspring mattresses

The innerspring mattress was invented in 1871 by Heinrich Westphal, but unfortunately, his invention was not appreciated in his lifetime. It wasn’t until 60 years later in the 1930s that the innerspring mattress finally gained popularity, changing mattresses as we know them forever. 

In the beginning, innerspring mattresses were made with steel coil springs covered in a layer of wool, down, or even horsehair. Over time, more and more padding was added around the coils to make for a more comfortable mattress, and we continue to improve on this padded area today, with hybrid mattresses made from both springs and memory foam.

Memory foam mattresses

Memory foam was originally invented by NASA in the 1970s to create seats that could conform to the astronauts’ bodies for every flight, even as their body shapes changed over time. It wasn’t until the very early 1990s that it became popular in consumer products like mattresses. 

In 1991, the company that would soon become Tempur-Pedic released the first memory foam mattress, and it was an instant hit. In the 30 years that have passed since the first memory foam mattress, a lot of improvements have been made. It is now more durable, more breathable, and safer than ever.

latex up close

Latex mattresses

Unlike memory foam, which was originally developed for other things and later came around to the world of mattresses, latex was actually first used as a mattress. In the 1920s, a Scotsman named John Boyd Dunlop created the first latex mattress, which was created from the sap-like substance drained from rubber trees. 

Later, the Talalay family changed the latex mattress production process to make them even more durable and breathable. They were a huge hit in the 1950s and 1960s, but when memory foam came on the market, it was cheaper and latex fell out of popularity. 

It’s on the rebound now, however, because despite being more expensive, it lasts much longer.

Inside Leesa hybrid mattress

Hybrid mattresses

Hybrid mattresses are a relatively new type of mattress that has only been around for the last decade or two. 

After Tempur-Pedic popularized all-memory-foam mattresses, people missed certain things about their old innerspring mattresses, like the breathability, the freedom of movement, and the springiness. So mattress makers started combining mattress materials to create hybrids. These hybrids combine foam and latex, latex and springs, and more.

Waterbeds

As we mentioned earlier, some of the first mattresses ever created were actually waterbeds made from goatskins in Persia. However, they didn’t last. 

The waterbed disappeared for centuries before being invented once again as the “hydrostatic bed” for invalids in the 1800s by Dr. Neil Arnot. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, after the invention of vinyl, which was decidedly leak-proof, that design student Charlie Hall made the waterbed popular among the general public

Waterbed design didn’t change much for several decades as they rose to peak popularity in the 1980s, but then they started to fade from favor. Today, traditional waterbeds are relatively uncommon, but there are new “waveless” waterbeds coming on the market now that house water in separate compartments to reduce the wave-like motion while still providing gentle support.

Airbeds

Airbeds (which are very different from air mattresses) are beds with several different compartments for air which give the mattress structure and support. Each compartment has an adjustable air level, to make the mattress perfectly customizable night after night. 

Although these beds are less popular today than foam or latex mattresses, they have been around just as long. The first airbed was sold in 1896, although the version we recognize today was released nearly a century later, in 1981.

History of mattress sizes

As we mentioned before, the first known human bed discovered in Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in Africa was 22 square feet, meaning it was absolutely huge in comparison to modern beds, even a California King. 

But it was likely meant to sleep many people rather than one couple. Throughout time, mattress sizes have differed significantly. Until the 1870s, bed size actually wasn’t regulated at all, at least not in America. 

Each bed was made separately, resulting in unique bed sizing. Once bed size was regulated, there were only two categories: “single” and “double,” which correlate with a Twin and Full-size mattress today. 

Even though we have these same bed sizes today, beds still used to be much shorter because they didn’t come with a box spring. Box springs make beds much taller, as well as giving the mattress a sturdy surface to prevent sagging. Queen and King-size beds came around in the 1950s, and the California King was invented in the 1980s.

Conclusion

Your mattress affects your comfort, your sleep quality, and your overall health, making it one of the most important items you will ever purchase. A lot of history has gone into creating the mattress you sleep on today. Humans have been using mattresses to get better sleep for centuries, and mattress technology is sure to continue to improve in the centuries to come.


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