The home of inspiration

What’s Keeping You Up? Part 2 - A Brief History, and Future Look at Sleep.

In the second part of our series ‘What’s keeping you up?’ we examine the history of sleep. We look at how our ancestors slept, and how we might be sleeping in the future. Electric light, 24-hour convenience stores and Netflix – you’d be forgiven for thinking that, nowadays, people are getting less sleep than ever. However, peering back into the past – it looks as though our predecessors might not have been clocking off for a solid eight-hours every night, either. In fact, with advances in science leading to a better overall understanding of the rest our bodies need – we might be sleeping better than ever. And when you look at the details of our ancestors’ sleeping habits, you might be wondering how they ever got any kip at all…
Sleeping man

Home is where you lay your head

A dark, quiet room, enough space and a comfortable mattress – that’s all many of us need to make sure we get a good night’s rest. But beyond the lack of light imposed by the setting of the sun, for most of human history that kind of comfort was unheard of.

You might have the impression that our ancient ancestors huddled in caves creating nesting out of grass and leaves. But mattresses, in one form or another, date back to before the ancient Egyptians. Of course, the quality of these mattresses varied wildly. Whilst a rich Roman may have reclined on one made of feathers, many people of lower social status endured a rough mattress stuffed with reeds or hay.

During the 18th century, however, things began to change. People began to favour raised beds, which kept the sleeper away from vermin, and the first mattress stuffed with cotton was introduced. In the coming centuries, more and more people would be able to achieve a comfortable night’s sleep.

It was only with the advances of the industrial revolution, that the comfort offered by a superior mattress became available to the masses. The first coil spring mattress was invented in 1865, and in 1881 in Sealy, Texas, Daniel Hayes patented the first method for compressing cotton into mattresses. Finally, instead of lumps, bumps and scratchy materials, the Sealy mattress created a new benchmark in smoothness and support.

Nowadays, a new level of intelligent design goes into our all-important sleeping environments. Solidly constructed bed bases support mattresses fabricated to aid the body, back and posture. And new materials, such as memory foam (first created by NASA) and durable, cooling latex are taking sleep to whole new levels of support and comfort.

Sarafina bed

Wakey wakey: finding your sleep routine

With the prospect of straw stalks poking into them every time they rolled over, you might expect that up until the 19th century most people had their sleep disrupted. While we can’t say for sure that sleeping on a hay mattress would interrupt your sleep, there are indications that people did not sleep in one solid block during the night.

There’s a wealth of historical evidence which suggests that throughout history, humans have slept in two distinct phases during the night – waking up in the middle. During this waking period, there are records of people doing everything from household chores, to praying and chatting to the neighbours.

This bi-modal sleeping pattern was first referenced in Homer’s Odyssey,’1 and continued well until the 20th century. So, if you’re in the habit of waking up the middle of the night and tossing and turning until morning – this might not be down to discomfort, anxiety or a restless sleeping partner. It could be an evolutionary hangover, with its roots in segmented sleep.2

As our waking hours have extended, thanks to electric light and the many distractions of modern life, we’re now working later and staying up longer – reading, browsing online, watching TV or enjoying a night out with friends. How could we possibly wake for an hour or two in the middle of the night now? Overall, the time which we can devote to rest and relaxation has reduced, although we still need it.

Unique interpretations: why we need sleep

Why our bodies need sleep is a question humans have been grappling with for centuries. The answers have ranged from far-fetched, to strangely prescient.

The ancient Egyptians believed that sleep brought them close to death and offered them an opportunity to commune with the gods. They closely examined the deeper meanings of dreams.3 Aristotle, on the other hand, felt that sleep was purely physical. He speculated that we fall asleep as result of vapours rising from the stomach, gathering in the head, cooling and flowing down towards to heart.

The Greek physician, Galen, came closer to our modern understanding of sleep, observing that the loss of consciousness occurred in the brain and not the heart. Nowadays we understand much more about the processes that trigger sleep and wakefulness, and the critical functions we rely on sleep to perform. However, the vital role of sleep is still something of a mystery.

Looking forward to bed…

We still might not understand why our bodies need sleep, or exactly what happens to our brains when we get it – but we do have a better idea of how to best set ourselves up for it.

Comfort, stability and temperature control are all vital elements of a good night’s sleep. And your mattress is an essential component in this. With the development of new technologies, such as latex, memory foam and roll-up mattresses there’s something to suit every sleeper.

But is this the end of the line, or could the future hold even sweeter dreams? Sealy – still at the forefront of sleep technology – recently teamed up with a renowned futurologist, taking a closer look at the future of sleep. And – taking a leaf out of the NASA inspired memory-foam innovation – Sealy beds of the future look positively space age.

With levitating mattresses, fabric which contracts like muscles in the body and beds designed to monitor the body’s biological signs as possibilities – the future of sleep is a far cry from a hay-stuffed mattress on a hard floor. While the current range of Sealy mattresses might not take your blood pressure as you sleep – the innovation behind Sealy memory-foam mattresses, patented spring systems, and smart fibres points to even greater innovations to come. The world has had a taste of the future of sleep, and it wants more.

So, whether you’re tucking in at night on a soft, pocket sprung mattress, a cosy memory-foam double or a cool latex king-size, take a moment to count your lucky stars. There’s never been a better time to get a good night’s rest.

1 2 3

Rebecca Maloy, Beds Buyer
Rebecca Maloy Beds Buyer


Design Inspiration Hints & Tips Lifestyle
This season’s beds are grand in style with fabulous upholstery and gorgeous details. Our bed buyer Tom St Quintin takes a look at Furniture Village’s new bed frames and picks his favourites.
Design Inspiration Hints & Tips
Love the colour teal but not sure how to use it? Our teal bedroom ideas include fabulous colour pairings plus suggestions for stylish bedroom furniture and accessories. Read the Furniture Village article.
Design Inspiration
Looking for a fresh new look for your bedroom? The Furniture Village interior designers offer their pick of the best green bedroom ideas. Read the article.