Today, our bedrooms are an oasis, a sanctuary at the end of a long day. They are private spaces, off limits to all but our most loved. But that hasn’t always been the case. As Brian Fagan shows in his book, What We Did in Bed, it wasn’t always this way. For most of human history, people thought nothing of crowding family members or friends into the same bed.
Travelers often slept with strangers. In China and Mongolia, kangs—heated stone platforms—were used in inns as early as 5000 B.C. Guests supplied the bedding and slept with fellow tourists.
Then there was the Great Bed of Ware—a massive bed kept in an inn in a small town in central England. Built with richly decorated oak around 1590, the four-post bed is about the size of two modern double beds. Twenty-six butchers and their wives—a total of 52 people—are said to have spent a night in the Great Bed in 1689.
While regular people crammed into beds, royalty often slept alone or with their spouse. But their bedrooms were hardly bastions of privacy. Louis XIV of France would sit in his bed, bolstered by pillows, and preside over elaborate gatherings. Surrounded by courtiers, he composed decrees and consulted with high officials.
During the 19th century, beds and bedrooms gradually became private spheres. A major impetus was rapid urbanization during the Industrial Revolution. In cities, compact row houses were constructed with small rooms, each with a specific purpose, one of which was sleeping.
Another reason was religion. The Victorian era was a devout age, and evangelical Christianity was pervasive by the 1830s. Such beliefs placed great emphasis on marriage, chastity, the family, and the bond between parent and child; allowing strangers or friends under the covers was no longer kosher. By 1875, Architect magazine had published an essay declaring that a bedroom used for anything other than sleeping was unwholesome and immoral.