By Eilene Lyon
I’m not a large person (5’ 4”, medium build), but my husband is 6’ 2” and prefers an extra-long bed to feel comfortable. Hence our California king-size bed, the largest standard sized bed on the market at 72 x 84 inches (183 x 213 cm).
I confess that I like having lots of space in bed.
But what about how our ancestors slept? Every time I visit a historic home, I note how small the beds are. Could my husband and I sleep comfortably in one of them?
One reason for short beds was because people believed it was healthier to sleep in a reclining position, rather than fully horizontal (maybe they were right).
Of course, some of our ancestors didn’t sleep in beds at all. They just threw a fresh pile of leaves on the ground, indoors or out, and nodded off. Considering the physical demands of a day’s work, they could probably sleep about anywhere out of sheer exhaustion.
You’ve probably heard tales about the pioneers growing up in one- or two-room cabins and all the little children were laid crosswise across a single bed, sardine style. Older children might sleep two or three to a single, narrow bed on a straw-filled ticking, supported by ropes. Adults slept in something we would call a full, or double, bed today. At the largest: 54 x 75 inches (137 x 191 cm). Pretty tight.
Travelers routinely shared beds in taverns, sometimes with total strangers. Eek! And let’s not discuss the hygiene going on in such places. My skin crawls just thinking about it!
Then there was the practice of bundling. In early America, it was a way for young couples to gain some intimacy without “going all the way.” Sometimes it was just a way of sharing beds when someone had traveled a long distance to visit.
It reminds me of a time when I shared a bed with a friend when we were in our 20s – sort of like an adult slumber party. We chatted intimately, the darkness somehow helping us to reveal things we wouldn’t say face-to-face, until we fell asleep.
In the 1940s and 1950s, queen and king beds were becoming popular. Also, twin beds for married couples were a thing for a while, especially when one partner was a restless sleeper or kicker.
I wonder…can it be that as our beds (and the houses that hold them) have gotten bigger, that our egos have followed suit? Is the distance between us as we sleep translating into greater distances between us (literally and metaphorically) while we are awake?
Now that we rarely share beds with strangers or even siblings, are we losing a sense of intimacy with our fellow humans? Maybe we should resurrect bundling. I wonder…
Recreation of a typical homesteader cabin at the Charles Ingalls homestead near DeSmet, South Dakota.