Have you ever wondered where the delightful expressions “hit the hay” and “hit the sack” came from?

While their origins are really just a bit of mattress and bedding trivia, it’s quite interesting to discover that these sayings go right back to beginnings of the bed as we know it today.

History of the Bed

In the days of the Anglo-Saxons in what is now Great Britain, people would make their beds just before they wanted to sleep. There wasn’t a frame or base, and the bed was simply a sack stuffed with straw or hay. In those days the houses had a central “great hall” which was where everyone – the family, servants and livestock – lived, ate and slept. So when it was time to go to bed, everyone would quite literally “hit the hay” or “hit the sack”!

By the mid-11th century, beds had become a lot more comfortable, and those used by the gentry were rather grand, often with canopies hanging from the ceiling to keep in the warmth.

Grand designs continued to be made by craftsmen for several centuries, probably the best known internationally being the Great Bed of Ware, now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is an enormous creation, measuring some 11 feet or 3.25 meters square.

By the 17th century, beds in Europe had become lighter and more elegant in design. The cords or rope used to make mattresses were stretched using a tool known as a bed twitch. The base was still often stuffed with straw, but the top layer was commonly stuffed with soft feathers, just as duvets and some quilts are today. The feathered-filled part of the mattress could be opened and aired, and feathers added when it was necessary to add more bulk.

Early pioneers in North America slept on jack beds that were made with slats of wood supported by cabin walls on two sides and one wooden leg at the corner where there was no other form of support. The earliest mattresses were, not surprisingly, also sacks of straw.

Gorgeous canopied “tent beds” made an appearance in America during the 18th century, while beautifully designed wooden beds became popular in Europe. Mahogany was a favorite with famous furniture designers and manufacturers like Chippendale and the Adam brothers appealing to the upper classes.

It is said that bed bugs and fleas lead to the return of metal (which is believed to have been used in Roman and Byzantine times) being used as a material for beds in the 19th century. Plain designs were common in servants’ rooms as well as in prisons and hospitals for maintenance and hygienic reasons. But decorative iron and brass beds soon became sought after items of furniture, and today are copied by some bed manufacturers.

As far as the mattress is concerned, hair and woven cane were used during the 18th century, and by the early 19th century coil springs had taken the place of metal laths. At first vertical coil springs were used, until someone came up with the idea of packing each spring into a separate fabric cylinder.

Today, of course, there is lots of choice, both in terms of bed design and mattress design. These range from mattresses bases made with plain wooden slats topped with a solid foam mattress, to manufactured bases topped with gloriously spring mattresses.

Unusual Bed and Mattress Designs

Other less usual types of mattresses use air and water instead of straw and other fillings.

The water bed that became so popular during the 1970s, in fact dates back to the 19th century when it was used in hospitals to support patients with bed sores, bone fractures and even those who were paralyzed. The reason for this is that the water totally eliminates pressure points.

“Modern” 20th century water beds were generally made from heavy-duty vinyl, with sealed seams and a safety liner. Some incorporated an electric pad that warmed the water, and therefore the bed.

Air beds go even further back in time to the 2nd century when Roman emperor Helioabalus had one made for himself. Centuries later (in the 1470s) the French King Louis XI copied the Roman emperor’s bed design, calling it his lit de vent.

Air beds haven’t enjoyed any lasting popularity, largely because they aren’t particularly comfortable. But inflatable mattresses are a great idea for additional guests who cannot be accommodated elsewhere. When not in use they can simply be folded and packed away in a cupboard. When needed all you do is use a hand or foot pump to fill them with air.

Another unusual type of bed is one that hangs. While certainly never the norm, they have a novelty value, and can even be designed so that the bed is hoisted to the ceiling when not in use, making it an option in smaller spaces. Unlike a hammock which is slung between two supports, this type of bed is generally made by attaching chains to both the specially designed bed and the rafters or joists in the roof. Of course it is essential that the hanging mechanism is attached securely and is strong enough to take the weight of whoever will be sleeping in the bed.

Folding beds have been popular over time, and are ideal for small homes with multifunctional rooms. Also not a particularly new concept, centuries ago North American pioneers sometimes had beds that were positioned in a recess with doors that were closed during the day, and hinged folding beds that were hidden behind curtains.

If you ever get the chance to watch a silent movie starring Charlie Chaplin, chances are you’ll see him folding himself away along with the bed he was sleeping on. There’s other mattress and bedding trivia relating to folding beds and movie stars too. For instance in one of the popular James Bond movies, Bond and a friend used Charlie Chaplin’s trick to escape a hail of bullets.

Folding beds may fold horizontally or vertically and, like those devised by early American settlers, may be curtained off or stowed away into a wall or recess.


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