Sleeping for many people is not an easy task whatsoever: there is who wakes up with the minimum noise or with the first ray of sunshine coming from the window. All of this despite the more modern mattress, a scary variety of pillows and any sort of commercial solution you could think of.
It is licit wondering how sleeping was like for our ancestors. Maybe always with the ear paying attention about possible perils. Usually in the caverns were they were resting, the “bed” was nothing but a layer of leaves to divide the body from the bare soil. It is possible to imagine them tight one in the arms of the other during their sleep, warmed up and protected while the air became dense from the heavy breathing, stinging smells and familiar noises.
The evolution of the bed in a pic from the 1898
Above: Public domain
Not much has changed throughout the millenniums, sharing bed with many people was a common habit until not so many years ago. Entire families were used to sleeping all in one mattress, sometimes even with potential guests. The richest ones would rest with their servants and in the taverns they would sleep with strangers.
For many years the term bed is not the most accurate one: The man creates the wheel, life turned from nomadic to non-migratory thanks to the agriculture, cities and social structures started to appear yet the mankind still slept on the floor, with just a blanket between themselves and the cold floor. Still in the Middle Ages the family were sleeping all in one room on top of mattress-like made out of bags of straw.
In reality many people coming from noble hierarchies such as in Egypt and Greece were used to sleeping on soft woolen mattresses and the ancient Romans anticipated the times with their Triclinia, used for many different purposes.
Above: Public domain
However most of the population kept on sleeping on straw or simple carpets for many years afterwards. Only in the 15th century the bed became the piece of furniture that we know today, with a wooden frame, sometimes highly decorated, and then pillows, bed sheets, blankets and (sometimes) mattress on top. These big beds were shared by many people; sleeping on your own was out of the question for the huge cost of the object and anyway only the well-off families could afford more than one.
Diane de Poitiers, bedroom at the castle of Chenonceaux in 16th century
Above: picture by Wellcome Images shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY 4.0
The families then were used to gathering during sleeping time and would enjoy that proximity mainly in cold seasons, when the human heat was the only form of heating. The same happened in more wealthy cohabitations: the female mistresses were sleeping with their maids even in order to prevent promiscuity with the males. In equal measure the male servants would sleep at the foot of the bed of their masters, silent witnesses of what would happen under the bed sheets.
The habit of sleeping together wasn’t devoid of rules; in numerous family each member had a allocated seating. The american historian Roger Ekirch in his book “A Day’s Close: a history of nighttime” talks about an Irish family from the 19th century. According to his words the parents would stay in the centre with their sons by the father’s side and the daughters by their mother’s side, all while keeping a strict order of age.
Same thing happened while sleeping with strangers: the bed partners had to keep still and do not pull the blankets. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, forced not only to share a room but also the bed in an inn in New Jersey, they spent an entire night arguing with each other: Franklin wanted to keep the window open as he felt like suffocating whilst Adam, prone to cold wanted it shut. Adam himself wrote in his diary of how Franklin gave him a lecture on “Air and Cold, Breathing and Sweating” as well as the speed with which air would spoil and get dirty, source of diseases.
Family sitting on the bed ready to sleep
Above: Public domain
Intimacy for obvious reason was an unknown concept both in the US and in Europe in the preindustrial epoch: every activity, more or less private, would take place under everyone’s noses, from relatives to servants to even their pets. When the bed was not shared with the entire family, with the collusion of the darkness, it would also become place where to share secrets.
When the bed was hosting different people instead, it would eventually turn into a place of possible transgression where often love children were conceived, or where less formal bonds would form between servants and masters.
When did the custom of sleeping together end?
The change occurred during the Victorian era, when houses became bigger and the need of privacy did too. The idea that sleeping together is a wrong and immoral concept very soon affected even the poorest classes. In the houses of rich people there was a clear separation between masters and servants areas and the spouses would sleep separately. In 1880 a doctor suggested to not let a child sleep with an adult or they would have absorbed the “vital heat” of the youngster. Let alone waking up with someone with a bad breath (…).
Bedroom with twin beds
Above: Public domain
The separate bed spread across the world and became fashionable in the US at least until the end of WW2, even though in some countries such as Italy the habit never really took root. They were a way to affirm some sort of autonomy for women inside the marriage and require an “aware decision to go from one to the other”(Hilary Hinds).
In the 70’s the twin bed were already out of fashion and were seen as “old style, unhealthy and cautious”.
However, recent research demonstrates that even for those who live in a couple, sleeping by themselves is a healthy habit as the quality of sleep improves. Maybe it will take lot of time to get back to this custom. So while couples still don’t accept the idea of giving up on sharing bed with their beloved ones, the single ones (maybe?) enjoy their deep sleep.