Why Married Couples Used to Sleep in Separate Twin Beds

Couples sleeping separately has been part of our history, at least for a while; let’s see what’s changed and where we are now.

By Sheryl Grassie

Over time, how people have slept has been dictated by both need and economics: people needed to stay warm, and economics limited the ability to acquire more than one bed. These circumstances forced extended family and even strangers to sleep together in a variety of different circumstances, but primarily because there just weren’t that many beds. For much of recorded history, couples and their offspring have slept together in one bed. The concept of the “family bed” was a norm in most cultures: babies were nursed in bed and children slept with their parents even as they aged.

An exception to this was the upper class, where couples frequently had separate rooms. It was understood that most marriages of the gentry’s class were arranged and not based on love or attraction. A woman was given her own room as a gesture of respect for the role she was playing as breeder. Wealthy women did, however, regularly sleep with one or more of their maids for warmth.

In the early 1830’s things began to change. Central heating was developed and installed in churches and larger buildings. By the 1850’s, radiators and hot water heat was being put into residential homes. This changed the need to sleep together for warmth, and allowed family members to spread out and sleep in different rooms and separate beds. Beds were still smaller, twin or double, with queen and king sizes still yet to come.

Couple stretching in bed

First Health, Then Hollywood

In the 1850’s, we see a medically driven trend away from sleeping in the same bed. Doctors began telling couples to sleep in separate beds and to put their children in separate beds also. This became the norm for the time period, and the trend lasted for nearly 100 years until the 1950’s. The notion was this: when people slept in the same bed they exchanged germs, and they exchanged energies. Germs could be passed from one person to another when in close proximity making then sick, and doctors began advising patients not to sleep together, especially when people were sick.

Things developed further when the widespread belief took hold that the stronger, healthier person in a couple could somehow drain the life-force of the weaker one when they slept in the same bed. For both people in a couple to stay healthy, twin beds were advised and literature developed warning of the dangers of sleeping in the same bed. In her book, The Cultural History of Twin Beds, Hilary Hinds reports a whole trend that demonized the double bed for couples.

Sleeping separately in twin beds became the standard way to sleep for most couples through the turn of the century and peaked in the 1930’s. Sleeping separately in twin beds was supported by the country’s values and reflected in media and pop culture. Hollywood influenced separate beds with images in movies and television, and the Hays Code (rules of censorship for television 1930’s through the 1960’s) dictated couples could only be shown sleeping in separate beds. They were the fashion with shows like I Love Lucy (1951-1957) that staged iconic bedrooms scenes of fully pajama clad husband and wife in individual twin beds with the large night stand between them.

The Death of Twin Beds

In the 1950’s things began changing behind the scenes in society and, consequently, in Hollywood. First, people were growing taller and manufacturers were responding to the need for bigger beds. They began introducing larger sizes form 1941-1965, when both the queen and king sized beds entered the market. Their origins were slightly earlier, and in particular, an extra-large version of the king (that slept up to 15 people) was developed as far back as 1890. But, consumers really saw widespread availability of these larger sizes in the 1950’s.

The next factor that influenced a change in sleep habits was the end of the Hays Code in 1952. After censorship ended in Hollywood, couples were soon portrayed sleeping in one bed with far more amorous attentions lavished on each other. This change was taken up by the public as well. They saw couples in bed together happily cuddling and sleeping and they followed suit.

Around 1950, we also saw a cultural shift towards a more psycho-social view of the marriage bed. Sleeping separately became seen as a sign of a cold marriage, perhaps even one with some sexual dysfunction. A happy couple was now expected to sleep in the same bed.

And last but not least, the fear of health risk that precipitated the separate twin bed movement in the 1850’s gave way to advances in medicine and hygiene that made it far less of a risk to sleep close to your partner. Additionally most homes, no matter the socioeconomic level, had multiple beds or sofas that allowed one partner to easily sleep in another location when someone was sick.

Present Day Sleeping Arrangements

You might say that at present, when it comes to sleeping arrangements, anything goes. You can find all kinds of sleeping situations in current marriages. Although the trend for the last half of the 1900’s was to sleep together, since the turn of the millennium, there has been a trend towards more and more couples sleeping apart. A 2015 study by the National Sleep Institute found 25% of couples slept apart.

An article in Today, June 2019 looked at sleep trends like “sleep divorce,” where a couple makes a conscious decision for separate beds/bedrooms to improve sleep. Couples that are engaging in sleep divorce were surveyed and many noted added benefits of sleeping separately: missing each other, having less interrupted sleep, and feeling better rested which increased libido were some of the benefits. From a completely modern perspective, separate beds may help with a multitude of sleep concerns and improve sleep quality.


Summary

Sleeping arrangements for couples has evolved over time. From the 1850’s until the 1950’s, there was a strong movement for couples to sleep in separate twin beds to maintain their health. From the 1950’s forward, this trend reversed with the availability of bigger beds and better health practices. The reasons we once slept separately are no longer necessary, but a whole new movement of couples sleeping apart to improve their sleep quality is on the rise.


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