A brief history of the Mattress.


We probably take the word mattress for granted although few realise that it owes its origins to Arabic culture.

Indeed, during the earlier part of the Middle Ages, Arabic culture was more advanced than that of Europe. One of the amenities of life enjoyed by the Arabs was sleeping on cushions thrown onto the floor.

Derived from the word matrah, which meant “place where something is thrown”, and “mat, cushion”, this kind of sleeping style was adopted by the Europeans during the Crusades and the Arabic word was taken into Old Italian and subsequently into French (materas) from which is derived the Middle English word of the same spelling, first recorded in a work written about 1300. Our modern day word, like so many, is a corruption of those original interpretations and owes its origin to the Medieval Latin translation matracium.

Whilst arguably not the most emotive piece of domestic necessity, the mattress and its derivatives have been with us in one form or another since the dawn of mankind. Indeed from the available evidence, it seems pretty likely that the concept of the mattress originated during prehistoric times when piles of leaves, straw and animal skins would have provided a more comfortable sleeping solution to early humans than a simple hard surface. As the greater numbers of ancestors left behind a nomadic hunting existence in return for a more settled agrarian lifestyle, primitive furnishings, including the bed, began to develop.

Largely the development of the mattress is closely linked to that of the bed. In many ancient societies, the bed was considered as the most important piece of furniture in the household and a focal gathering point for entertaining, dining and relaxing, as well, of course sleeping.

With the passing of the centuries, bed frames in all their varied incarnations, became more and more elaborate and opulent for the lucky minority who could afford such luxury. However, the humble mattress remained unsophisticated and uncomfortable and until the dawn of the 20th century, they continued to be filled with lumpy pads consisting of horsehair, cotton or rags.

Poorer folk relied on ticks (the origin of our modern day description of mattress outer material) – effectively fabric sacks filled with straw, corncobs or other crop debris, which had been the staple mattress filling for centuries. In addition to providing a lumpy uncomfortable sleeping surface, such primitive solutions were dirty and unhygienic although hardly unsurprisingly considering the nature of the stuffing, although they were at least cheap and easy to assemble.

Even until as late as the end of the nineteenth century when small local manufacturers began to produce mattresses commercially, these items remained inexpensive as they relied on fabric remnants and rags discarded by tailors as the chief filling material.

Probably the most significant advances in mattress design came about in the mid 1800s when stabilising interior springs were incorporated for the first time. By including a layer of uniform springs inside layers of upholstery, manufacturers could at last imbue their product with a firm resilient structure. However, because innerspring mattresses were initially expensive to manufacture, it was only the wealthy and luxury cruise ships and hotels that could afford to purchase them.

It was not until after the end of the First World War that the concept became mass-produced although even then, this innovation was an expensive purchase and not without teething problems as the new technology found its footing.

The open coil and pocket-sprung mattress of our modern age owe their success and ancestry to these imperfect but groundbreaking advances in mattress construction after so many centuries of primitive discomfort and very basic sleeping solutions. The wealth of mattress technology and sophistication available today is unquestionable and in value for money and comfort terms, we have never had such great choice.

As a topic in its own right, it would form the basis of a separate article, although there can be little doubt that the prospect of a good nights sleep that had eluded humankind over the centuries is today within the grasp of all.

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