The Ancient World
Early beds (8000 BC) were little more than piles of straw or some other natural material (e.g. a heap of palm leaves). An important change was raising them off the ground, to avoid draughts, dirt, and pests. Such furniture was introduced in 3400 BC.The Egyptians had high bedsteads which were ascended by steps, with bolsters or pillows, and curtains to hang round. The Egyptian pharaohs and queens even had beds made of wood, sometimes gilded. Ancient Assyrians, Medes and Persians had beds of a similar kind, and frequently decorated their furniture with inlays or appliqués of metal, mother-of-pearl and ivory.
The oldest account of a bed is probably that of Odysseus: a charpoy woven of rope, plays a role in the Odyssey. A similar bed can be seen at the St Fagans National History Museum in Wales. Odysseus also gives an account of how he crafted the nuptial bed for himself and Penelope, out of an ancient, huge olive tree trunk that used to grow on the spot before the bridal chamber was built. His detailed description finally persuades the doubting Penelope that the shipwrecked, aged man is indeed her long-lost husband. Homer also mentions the inlaying of the woodwork of beds with gold, silver and ivory. The Greek bed had a wooden frame, with a board at the head and bands of hide laced across, upon which skins were placed. At a later period the bedstead was often veneered with expensive woods; sometimes it was of solid ivory veneered with tortoise-shell and with silver feet; often it was of bronze. The pillows and coverings also became more costly and beautiful; the most celebrated places for their manufacture were Miletus, Corinth and Carthage. Folding beds, too, appear in the vase paintings.
The Roman mattresses were stuffed with reeds, hay, wool or feathers; the last was used towards the end of the Republic, when custom demanded luxury. Small cushions were placed at the head and sometimes at the back. The bedsteads were high and could only be ascended by the help of steps. They were often arranged for two persons, and had a board or railing at the back as well as the raised portion at the head. The counterpanes were sometimes very costly, generally purple embroidered with figures in gold; and rich hangings fell to the ground masking the front. The bedsteads themselves were often of bronze inlaid with silver, and Elagabalus had one of solid silver. In the walls of some of the houses at Pompeii bed niches are found which were probably closed by curtains or sliding partitions.