Supersize…My Bed

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…

15DAT5 007

Re-creation of a typical homesteader cabin at the Charles Ingalls homestead near DeSmet, South Dakota.

13 thoughts on “Supersize…My Bed

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  1. Interesting observation about the size of beds and how that affects our relationships as a society. I have an old 3/4 bed in which a couple would sleep, but the bed is slightly wider than a twin bed and a few inches shorter. I like having space, so maybe I belong in this era!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It seems we are larger than our ancestors. Looking at 500 year old armor brought it home to me how much smaller people were. I have a dry sink from the 1890s/1900s and its height is perfect for me (I’m 5’1″) while counters in most houses are high enough that it’s awkward for me to lift a pan or bowl and pour something.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Have shared a picture this week on my HistorianRuby Facebook page of a royal bed and today went to a medical museum and saw a mock-up of a lodging house complete with very thin pillow-type mattress 4 lined up one against the other. Beds are on topic for me this week!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I associate bed-sharing that’s not between couples with Victorian poverty – children sharing a bed because the parent/s couldn’t afford them to have one each. Actually – we’re all pretty spoilt these days aren’t we? I’ve been bed hunting the last few days and we have to have a kingsize bed as otherwise one or other of us ‘steals’ the covers and shifts to the wrong side… there’s also the problem of nearly falling out of a bed that’s not wide enough!!

    I’ve not seen any of the beds in which people slept sitting up… maybe I’ve just not been observant enough. Certainly been to enough stately homes, et al, over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, most people were shorter in earlier centuries. I really need the king with hubby being 6’ 1” and sometimes very reactive when he has a nightmare. Good luck with the bed shopping. We had a very hard time finding a decent mattress and still not entirely satisfied. Part of me thinks less expensive mattresses end up being more comfortable and durable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, you could be right about the less expensive ones (also, cheaper to replace more often – though a bit of a palaver, too). ‘Very reactive’ – what a nice, diplomatic way to put it!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. You got me thinking that maybe I’ve just heard enough docents telling me that people slept in a reclining position that I assumed it was correct. Wikipedia tells me that people slept sitting up in the Middle Ages, because lying down was the position of corpses.


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