A history of the bed may appear to carry a lot of promise, but Lawrence Wright’s Warm and Snug: The History of the Bed (Thrupp: Sutton Publishing, 2004) confines itself to literally chronicling historical innovations in the article alone. It is a history of means rather than ends; like a history of the cocktail stick instead of the birthday party, and one is perhaps justified in wishing for a little more, especially since the historian Roger Ekirch has recently identified significant differences in historical attitudes to sleep. On one rare foray into anthropology, however, Wright sees fit to tell us that, “Russian peasants do not sleep continuously for months on end in winter” (195).
There were beds in which royalty was exhibited. There were truckle beds, or drawers in which servants were stored in case they were needed during the night. There were bed with testers and beds with posters. As the centuries progressed, there emerged uncertainty over whether the specialist bed-maker was merely a craftsman, or some sort of architect. The beds of the aristocracy came to resemble gazebos and pagodas. There were beds with cornices, pillars, and alcoves. There were Chinese and Gothic-styled beds. There were beds with domes and decorations which vaguely resembled modern garden ornaments. The Victorian bed, however, became the battleground for wars against “diseases arising from over-heavy bed clothes, shock from cold beds, enervation from warm ones, malformation due to high pillows…“delirious fancies” induced from patterned papers, poisoning from green wallpaper or from flowers… “the evil that may spring from imperfectly dried feathers” ” (278-9).
An interesting sub-plot on “public beds” runs through the book; we are shown the beds in medieval dorters, eighteenth century inns, the “spikes” of George Orwell’s down-and-out years, and modern public schools. All, it transpires, were very unpleasant. In the nineteenth century Drury Lane lodging house, “it was a matter of routine to collect a handful of bugs from the bed-clothes and crush them under the candlestick” (289). There is continuous titillated wonder at the lack of privacy endured by our ancestors in public bedding: “this pretty she-rider at that time held it no nicety, nor point of incivility, to disrobe and bed her little, tender, weary’d corps in our presence,” pants a traveller to Canterbury in 1650 (125). The most striking example of a public bed is the “Twopenny Leanover”: “The sleepers sit in a row on a bench, leaning on a rope stretched in front of them. At 5 in the morning a character humorously known as the “valet” cuts the rope” (322). By the twentieth century, beds were more comfortable than ever before, but mass-produced and architecturally unremarkable. The sufferings of the poor were less disagreeable, the eccentricities of the rich were generally more constrained.
To go to bed is to dip temporarily into oblivion, and that this act – or none-act, rather – should be performed on a creation of unparalleled extravagance, is rather like providing a elaborately-carved gold frame for a blank canvas. The world record for intentional sleep deprivation – (if there was such a thing, for Guinness refuse to honour such a “dangerous” undertaking) – was recently claimed by a Cornish man, Tony Wright, who spent eleven days without sleeping. After about a week with no sleep, Wright was experiencing occasional hallucinations, but if a man can go for eleven whole days without sleep, we surely have a right to ask why we spend an average of seven hours a night absorbed in this pointless task. Some students or workers in certain professions subsist with only four or five hours sleep a night. A promising wing of medical research aims to defeat sleep altogether, by artificially replenishing the hormones and neurotransmitters which are so time-consumingly topped up through sleep.
The History of the Bed suggests that the conceptual infrastructure of sleep – the cultural value and meaning accorded to the bed – was pioneered by those rich enough to have nothing better to do with their time than sleep. The suffering in George Orwell’s “spikes” is not really suffering, however much it is compared to the opulence upon which the rich sprawled. It is surreal to term incomprehension “delicious” and “sweet”, and sleep only resembles a friend because it is an absence – not only of suffering, but of everything. There is something profoundly cynical to loving sleep, which should ideally be seen as a brief annoyance; something boorish and tiresome, which should be repeatedly driven away with coffee and aerobics, and only occasionally allowed to have its way.