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Charting the history of the modern bedroom

Times have changed. Today, our own bed in our own room is something we take for granted. But a few centuries ago, it was reserved for nobles and royalty.

Composition

In the Middle Ages, the bedchamber was a place for conducting important affairs, and being allowed inside to talk business was seen as an enormous privilege. The servants chosen to work there enjoyed great status: originally used to designate the head servant in charge of this crucial room, the title of Lord Chamberlain eventually began to refer to the person in charge of royal affairs.

 

The four-poster beds that well-to-do people slept in were incredibly expensive to craft and outfit. Skilled craftsmen were required to create the beds themselves, along with the multiple layers of hay and down feathers that acted as mattresses and the rich textiles that adorned them. By the Tudor period – when a new middle class had begun to emulate the lifestyle of the nobility – a bed might represent as much as one third of a family’s wealth. They were extremely valuable objects, passed down from generation to generation as treasured family heirlooms.

 

This situation continued – with minor cosmetic changes – through to the great upheaval of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. Armed with a new affluence, the expanded middle classes began to hanker after the privacy that had previously been reserved for their masters. Their houses were now made up of separate spaces: spaces for cooking, spaces for eating, spaces for relaxing, spaces for servants. And, most importantly, spaces for sleeping. For the first time in history, significant numbers of adults and children found themselves with their own personal bedrooms.

 

The beds that equipped these new private spaces marked a similar break with tradition. One Victorian household manual recommends sleeping in an elaborate set-up comprising an iron bedstead, a thick brown sheet to cover its metal springs, a horsehair mattress, feather mattress, under blanket, under sheet, bottom sheet, top sheet, three or four blankets, eiderdown and pillow covers. It also recommends turning the mattress every morning and changing the pillowcases twice a day!

 

Not many of us today would have the time (or the servants) to maintain sleeping arrangements of such exquisite complexity. Yet mattresses and divans like Vispring’s still enable us to enjoy the unprecedented levels of comfort that so changed the lives of our Victorian ancestors. Given the choice between a comfortable bed in a quiet room and a four-poster surrounded by servants and retainers, which would you choose?