(Credit: Getty Images)

The evolution of the modern bedroom

A typical sleeping arrangement today isn’t too distant from those 77,000 years ago. In a series looking at the evolution of the home, Jonathan Glancey explores the history of the bedroom.

The world’s oldest bed is 77,000 years old. It was found in South Africa six years ago by a team of archaeologists led by Lyn Wadley, Professor of Archaeology at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University.

Measuring two sq m and 30 cm deep, it was made of woven reeds and rushes covered in a sheet of insect repelling leaves. Big enough for a family, it would have been quite comfortable.

Our sleeping arrangements have evolved remarkably slowly

Since then, our sleeping arrangements have evolved remarkably slowly. Bed frames may have raised bodies from damp and draughty floors inhabited by wide-awake insects, rats and other nocturnal biters, but many humans have been possibly less comfortable at night than the people dozing on that first bed, all those millennia ago.

Perhaps there has only ever been one real revolution and that is when, from the 17th Century onwards, dedicated rooms for beds started to emerge.

The bedroom evolved as the design of European houses changed and privacy became both prized and possible. This shift occurred when houses began to revolve around staircases giving on to landings, corridors and nests of private rooms no longer connected to one another in all-too-public sequences. Before then, even kings and queens could only ever hope for truly private moments in beds enclosed by curtains.

Even in those societies – ancient Rome, for example – where wealth and luxury abounded in the upper echelons, bedrooms leading off an atrium were little more than small cells. Life was largely public, as it has been for Buddhist and Christian monks sleeping in communal dormitories over the centuries, for generations of children sent away to boarding schools, for hospital patients and as it still is for communes and tribal people whether in Nagaland, the Amazon or Papua New Guinea.

In Europe the era of great houses and their enfilades of interconnecting rooms was also that of spectacular four-poster beds, a phenomenon reflected in well-to-do farmhouses and contemporary coaching inns.

The Great Bed of Ware, since 1931 one of the most popular exhibits in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is so big that it could sleep eight people. Made in 1580 by Jonas Fosbrooke, a Hertfordshire carpenter, this extravagant bed was a way of attracting passing custom to the White Hart Inn in Ware, a staging post on long distance coach rides north of London.

It is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night(1602), Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or The Silent Woman (1609) and, more recently, in Andrew Motion’s poem The British Galleries (2001). Has bedroom furniture ever been more famous?

  The bedroom evolved as privacy became both prized and possible

Before the advent of plumbing and the modern bathroom, bedrooms doubled up as spaces in which people would wash and groom, while in traditional Japanese houses and with the use of sliding screens and roll-up futons, a bedroom could be transformed in a matter of moments into a living room, dining room or study. Not a far cry, then, from some of the customisable ‘tiny living’ spaces that can be found in today’s most populous cities.

In his spartan though sculptural Paris studio apartment, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier slept on an improbably tall bed. While seemingly eccentric, the view from the pillow of his bed is one over the parapet of the apartment building and across the Bois de Boulogne. The luxury here is that of light, privacy and perfectly framed views rather than drapes, damasks, curtains and Scarlett O’Hara plush.

If the Modern Movement, personified by Le Corbusier, offered pure white spaces and chaste functional rooms, the modern world provided the bedroom with an industrial cornucopia of gadgetry, from the Goblin Teasmade – sold from 1936 – to the waterbed.

Invented in 1968 by Charles Prior Hall, a post-graduate student at San Francisco State University and patented in 1971, the latter was as much a part of the 70s bedroom as shag pile carpets and brown and orange décor. At the peak of their popularity in 1987, waterbeds represented 22 per cent of the US domestic bed market. In Britain, the supposedly sexy waterbed was lampooned deliciously in And So to Bed, a 1974 episode of the long-running BBC TV comedy series, Steptoe and Sonwhen, at what is meant to be a highly-charged moment, the bed bursts into a pool of tepid water.

  At the peak of their popularity in 1987, waterbeds represented 22 per cent of the US domestic bed market

In the Western world, the private bedroom has evolved into a key hob of the typical home: a playroom for children, a hideaway for teenagers, an office for the gig-economy worker and, in many 21st Century cases, into a haven resembling a hotel suite, complete with en-suite bathroom, luxurious duvets, flat screen televisions, subdued lighting and digital gizmos.

Imagined concepts for the bedroom of the future include self-cleaning mattresses, biometric sensors and holographic entertainment systems. Technology, however, represents a double-edged sword for our sleep patterns.

While technological advances have helped us find more comfortable sleeping materials and create near-perfect environments for a restful slumber, technology has also brought about the modern epidemic of inefficient sleep.

The blue light that many of our gadgets give off can throw our body clocks out of sync, by altering the release of sleep-regulating hormones. The intrusion of smartphones, tablets and reading gadgets into our bedrooms is such an issue that the practice of good ‘sleep hygiene’ is fast become a millennial buzz theme.

Ultimately, most people still crave a simple and serene bedroom, while dreaming perhaps of warm nights under stars cradled in a bed much like the one found in South Africa first made 77,000 years ago.

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