The history of mattresses is an intriguing and expansive story, with a past that dates back to the Stone Age. Rooted in humble beginnings, the development of mattresses involved traveling around the world, experiencing various cultures, and witnessing the evolution of an indispensable piece of furniture across nations.
In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the history of mattresses, explore the origins of the word 'mattress,' and discover how mattresses have evolved over time to become the comfortable and supportive creations that they are today.
The Origin of the Word 'Mattress'
The origin of the word 'mattress' is a blend of cultural influences from around the globe. It starts with the Arabic word 'matrah,' which stems from the Arabic word 'taraha,' meaning to throw down. Historical etymology shows that the Arabic origins of the word 'mattress' influenced the word for mattress in other countries with different languages.
The German word for mattress is 'matratze,' the Italian word is 'materasso,' and the French word is 'matelas.' While the word for mattress is similar in many different languages, it isn't identical in all languages. For example, the Spanish word for mattress is 'colchon,' which resembles the word 'couch,' making sense in its own way.
Our journey through the history of mattresses begins at The Border Cave archaeological site in South Africa. Here, the oldest known archaeological 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 and dates back 200,000 years. Researchers believe the ashes were used to repel insects like ticks, suggesting that early bedding was a form of protection from insects and other pests.
The Stone Age Mattresses
As we move forward to the Stone Age, archaeologists report that mattresses were constructed out of rocks and carved rock structures, with plant leaves and branches used as bedding. The fossilized bed remains discovered included a mattress measuring three feet by six feet. The bedding wasn't very plush, being less than an inch thick and made of compacted layers of grass and other plant materials.
This bedding was presumably used to make sleeping more comfortable but also served another purpose. It was noted that aromatic leaves and stems from plants known to repel or kill insects, such as mosquitoes and their larvae, were often used. This suggests that early bedding was a form of protection from insects and other pests. Archaeologists also suggest that the first mattress was probably used as a work surface in addition to being used for sleeping.
Ancient History: Neolithic Period to 1000 BCE
During this period, the first real mattress researchers found was created 77,000 years ago in the Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal, Africa. The base was made of layered plant material, while grasses and leaves were used as bedding. This mattress was thinner than most modern mattresses, measuring about 12 inches tall. It was significantly larger, however, covering 22 square feet, making it big enough for an entire family to sleep together.
Around 3000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians and the people of modern-day Scotland simultaneously started creating their own types of mattresses. The Scottish beds were made from stone with mattresses likely made from wool, while the Egyptians made their beds from wood and raised them off the ground. This elevation was a significant advantage for avoiding insects and other creepy crawlies.
Ancient Greece and Rome
During the Classical period, ancient Greece and Rome dominated the Western world. The type of bed you had during this time depended on your wealth. Wealthier Greeks and Romans had metal beds with mattresses made from cloth stuffed with straw, feather, or wool. The 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 to 14th Century
In Medieval Europe, wealth made an even bigger difference in the type of bed you slept in. For the wealthy, beds became ornate and impressive, with intricately carved designs on headboards and four-poster beds. The mattress itself was stuffed full of soft, downy feathers. However, if you were not wealthy, your mattress was likely stuffed with hay and 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 to 18th Century
Beds didn't change much for peasants from Medieval Europe to Renaissance Europe. For the wealthy, bed frames became more and more ornate, and now they had a whole room dedicated to them: the bedroom. Many beds also had trundle beds, a bed stored underneath the main mattress, typically used for other family members or servants.
Modern History: 19th Century to 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. In the 1940s, the futon made its way from Japan to North America, and today we have many different mattress options made from various materials.
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.
Memory Foam Mattresses
Memory foam was originally invented by NASA in the 1970s to create seats that could conform to astronauts' bodies for every flight, even as their body shapes changed over time. It wasn't until the very early 1990s that memory foam became popular in consumer products like mattresses.
Unlike memory foam, which was originally developed for other purposes and later applied to mattresses, latex was first used as a mattress. In the 1920s, a Scotsman named John Boyd Dunlop created the first latex mattress, derived from the sap-like substance drained from rubber trees.
The Natural Latex Fawcett utilizes in it's mattresses is the best found anywhere in the world. It's highly resilient, long lasting and comes in 5 firmnesses, so that Fawcett can
Hybrid mattresses are a relatively new type of mattress that has only been around for the last decade or two. These hybrids combine foam and latex, latex and springs, and more.
As 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 reinvented as the "hydrostatic bed" for invalids in the 1800s by Dr. Neil Arnot. In the 1960s, after the invention of vinyl, which was decidedly leak-proof, design student Charlie Hall made the waterbed popular among the general public.
Airbeds, which are very different from air mattresses, are beds with several different compartments for air, giving the mattress structure and support. Each compartment has an adjustable air level, to make the mattress perfectly customizable night after night.
The Future of Mattresses
As mattress technology continues to advance, we can expect to see more gimmicks based on companies trying to gain a marketing edge. However, mattresses do not have to be complicated in order for people to be comfortable. Fawcett uses high quality, long lasting materials, and engages with customers in a deep consultative process. This leads to better comfort, and better sleep!
The history of mattresses has taught us that humans have always sought better sleep, and this quest for comfort and support will undoubtedly continue for centuries to come.