Privacy – A History of Western Bedrooms

Sleep in a bed in a sealed-off, noise-free space. Do it alone, or with, at most, one other consenting partner … these features are taken as natural or normal ways to sleep, not one of them seems to have been in force any time anywhere before around 1800 in Europe and North America.

Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights
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The bedroom of Louis Pasteur, 1888-1895

How did the idea of the bedroom develop?

In modern Britain today people expect to sleep in their own bed in their own room. The Housing Act of 1985 defines “overcrowding” as a house where children of the opposite sex, over the age of 10, are sharing a room.

Our ancestors did not have these expectations. While middle and upper-class people took pride in their decorated beds and private rooms, many families couldn’t afford separate bedrooms. They lived in a one-roomed cottage or a single room in a crowded tenament.

‘Civilized’ Sleep?

The idea that sleep should be private is less than five hundred years old. In 1939 the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about the history of bedrooms in The History of Manners. This was first volume of The Civilizing Process, in which Elias tells the story of how Western ideas about proper behaviour and good government developed.

In medieval times it was common for many people to sleep in one room, with only a curtain around the bed to provide privacy. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries being naked in front of other people in the bedroom began to be seen as indecent – like spitting or eating with your hands.

Illustration of a medieval interior with bed. The curtains offer some privacy. Public domain.

Over the next two hundred years, a private space within the household for the purposes of sleeping, washing and dressing became the ideal in middle and upper-class households.

How natural is ‘normal’ sleep?

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Illustration of sleeping in the forest during an expedition to the West coast of South Africa, 1813.

For many people around the world sleeping in a bed in a private room is a foreign concept, or it is simply not affordable.

Benjam Reiss, author of Wild Nights, thinks that our Western ideas about what ‘normal’ sleep should look like are misleading, and to some extent based on class and race stereotypes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ideas about ‘civilized’ sleeping arrangements were a way for wealthy people living in the West to distinguish themselves from those who were less well off.

Scenes of naked ‘savages’ lying on communal sleeping mats … African slaves bundled in the holds of slave ships, or poor urban whites sleeping ten or twelve to a room in rickety tenements came to represent all that an ideal white European or American should not be.

Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights

Reiss argues (controversially) that the rules around sleep in the West are unnatural. Far from promoting better sleep, they are actually the cause of many of our sleep problems today.

A Room of One’s Own

Is a private bedrom really nothing more than a status symbol? A bedroom, or even simply a bed of your own, can offer the comfort of a familiar and personalised space. James Mollison’s photographs of children from around the world show how they collect their possessions in the place where they sleep.

In England in the 1500s many beds were still located in multi-functional rooms, such as hallways, parlours and kitchens. In the 1600s and 1700s, many more houses were built with separate rooms for sleeping upstairs.

At this time, sleeping became not just a more private, but a more personalised experience, as people took pride in their beds and bedding. Beds were hung with heavily embroidered curtains, women decorated pillowcases and night clothes with the owner’s initials in delicate whitework stitching, and made intricate patchwork quilts to celebrate a marriage or the birth of a child.

Coverlet, Ann West, Wiltshire, 1820. The embroidered panels show scenes from the Bible and from life, with the Garden of Eden at the centre.
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Bedrooms were also a place for spiritual reflection. Images of the cross were hung over the bed, verses or scenes from scripture decorated the walls or curtains, and framed religious prints or icons were placed around the room. Bedrooms might also contain a Bible or other religious books for edifying bed-time reading.

How The ‘Other Half’ Slept

Beds and private bedrooms were a luxury few people could afford before modern times. Until the twentieth century, the poor still lived much as they had in medieval times, when people slept on straw mattresses in the same room where they cooked and worked during the day.

Reconstruction of the interior of a medieval fisherman’s cottage, c. 1465, Belgium. CC BY-SA 3.0

In Scotland and Ireland in the 1600s whole families slept on earthen floors strewn with straw and rushes, with only a single blanket or their clothes to cover them. Even better-off households could only afford one mattress stuffed with rags, which was used by the husband and wife. In the 1840s, at the time of the Great Faminine, many Irish families were still living in one-room cottages.

At night the small living space became very full. Visitors would bed down with the family when darkness and bad weather made travelling home impossible. Farm animals, such as cows and pigs, were often brought indoors at night too. This kept them safe from thieves, and also generated extra warmth on cold nights.

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A mother with seven young children in a one-room dwelling in a London slum. The ironic caption reads ‘Home Sweet Home’. Illustrated London News, 1883.

In cities in Europe and America overcrowded living conditions meant families slept, cooked, worked and ate in one room. This continued well into the twentieth century.

Sleeping Away From Home

Away from home, private rooms are expensive. When people have to leave home for work, education, travel or because of wars and emergencies, it is common for people to share a room together.

This can be a chance to form new friendships. It also has its hazards. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was partly spread by large numbers of troops serving in World War I travelling and sleeping together.

In 2020/21, following government guidance, all youth hostels in England and Wales closed when lockdown measures were put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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People of all walks of life sleep away from home for many reasons: work, travel, education, homelessness and war. These images show: Men at a homeless shelter in London, c. 1868; British troops sleeping in trenches during World War I; school girls evacuated during World War II; the dormitory at Benenden School, attended by Princess Anne in 1963; young people sharing a room at a youth hostel.



Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (2017)

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (2016). Written under the working title “Bedroom Stories”, Sasha Handley tells the story of the transformation of sleeping areas in houses in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the beds photographed can be seen in museums or heritage sites around England.


The Ulster Folk Museum, Holywood, Northern Ireland

Here you can see inside the houses where farmers, labourers, and fishermen lived with their families in Ulster over a hundred years ago. Buildings include a one-roomed cottage of the kind that many Irish families lived in at the time of the Great Famine (1840s).

Victoria and Albert Musuem, quilting and patchwork collection, London (or online).

The quilt pictured above can be seen at the Victoria and Albert museum, online or at their site in London.

The Pasteur Museum, Paris

The bedroom pictured at the top of this page can be seen at the Pasteur Museum in Paris, in the apartment where Pasteur spent the last seven years of his life.

Sleepwalkers: Witches, Troubled Souls and Killers

Maximilian Pirner, Sleepwalker, 1878

Sleepwalking is when somebody gets up out of bed and starts walking around even though they are still asleep.  Some people talk, shout, eat, start moving furniture around, undress, or even get into a car and drive away.  Others bolt from the bed and run from some imagined danger, and some people become violent, attacking bed partners or people who try to wake them.

Sleepwalking raises a number of medical, moral and spiritual questions.  What causes sleepwalking?  Is it an entirely natural disease?  Are people responsible for the things they do while fast asleep?

Uncanny Sleepers

John Everett Millais, The Somnambuilst, 1871. The Delaware Art Museum

There is something otherworldly about a person walking in their sleep. The eyes stare straight ahead with a ‘glassy’ look.

It is difficult to wake the sleeper, and when they do wake up they have no memory of what happened.

You can read about sleepwalking at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website,

Despite its uncanny nature, sleepwalking has generally been seen as a strange, but entirely natural illness.

The Greek physician Galen (129-200 CE.) records an experience of sleepwalking in his work on muscular motion.  He walked about all night and woke up when he tripped over a stone.

Galen drew the conclusion from sleepwalking that the animal spirits within the body remain active during sleep.

Witches and Ghosts

Sleepwalkers have been mistaken for ghosts or people afflicted by demons.

An example of this is the infamous witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of Witches’). This fifteenth-century disquisition warned that a dangerous cult of devil worshippers was active in Europe, who flew at night to attend black sabbath rituals and possessed diabolical powers to cause harm to their neighbours.

The Malleus also claimed that the same demonic powers that enabled witches to fly were the cause of sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers were led by demons to walk over high rooftops in the dead of night.

If the sleepwalker was called by his or her Christian name the power of the demon would be broken and the sleepwalker would suddenly fall down.

Walter Snackenberg, The Sleepwalker, 1956

The famous English doctor Thoms Willis, who live in the 1600s, believed that sleepwalking was an entirely natural disease. But a sleepwalker could be mistaken for a ghost.

I knew a certain man who was wont after this manner to walk a-Nights like a Spectre.

Thomas Willis

In the 1600s a large house in England was thought to be haunted. Nobody dared sleep in the ‘haunted’ room. One night a guest stayed in the room and discovered that the ‘ghost’ was the family’s daughter, who walked in her sleep.

Marvellous Tales and a Romantic Experiment

There have been many amazing stories told about sleepwalkers.

The Wonders of the Little World, a popular book of marvels published in the seventeenth century by a clergyman called Nathaniel Wanley, included a number of astonishing accounts of sleepwalkers.

A sleepwalker falls to her death. Illustration from a nineteenth-century London newspaper.

There was a man who could write poetry in his sleep. There was a man who, dreaming that he was riding a horse, would get up in the night, put on his spurs and straddle the windowsill with one foot hanging out, smiting the walls.

One story told of a man who climbed down a well in his sleep. Another popular story involved a student who climbed up to the top of the high turret of a castle and robbed a magpie’s nest, all while asleep.

The poet Percy Shelley, an habitual sleepwalker, could supposedly recite poems in Italian while asleep.

To enhance his creative output he encouraged his wife to use the technique of magnetism (a type of hypnotism) in order to prompt him to walk in his sleep.

She had to stop when he tried to jump out of a window!

Troubled Souls

Sleepwalking has featured in a number of famous plays and novels over the centuries, which explore the relationship between distubed sleep and spiritual troubles.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth unconsciously betrays her guilty collusion in the murder of King Duncan and Lady MacDuff while walking and talking in her sleep.

Henry Fuseli, The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, 1781-1784 (public domain)

In the Swiss children’s novel Heidi (1881), the orphaned Heidi is sent away from her home on the Alp mountains to live in the city of Frankfurt.

Suffering from homesickness, she becomes troubled and begins walking in her sleep. She is sent back to the mountains to recover.

Her sleepwalking is portrayed in the story as a symptom of the soul trouble that results from exchanging the simple and healthy environment of the mountains for the sophistocated life of the city.

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess’ estranged husband Angel Clare appears in her room during a sleepwalking episode. While still fast asleep, he lifts her from the bed and carries her across a narrow foot-bridge over a fast flowing river.

She saw the door of her bedroom open, and the figure of her husband crossed the stream of moonlight with a curiously careful tread. He was in his shirt and trousers only, and her first flush of joy died when she perceived that his eyes were fixed in an unnatural stare of vacancy.

Thoms Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891

Clare’s actions show the power of the unconscious mind and body, which is able to perform amazing feats during sleep. It also shows his love for his wife, unacknowledged during waking hours.

Sleep Murders

Some people become violent during episodes of sleepwalking. In rare cases sleepwalkers have carried out murders. Can sleepwalkers be legally regarded as responsible for their crimes?

The murder of Maria Bickford, National Police Gazette, 1846

In 1312 the Church Canon Si Furiosis (the case of madness) stated that ‘if a madman, a child, or a sleeper mutilates or kills a man, he incurs no penalty for this.’

The first surviving documented case of sleep murder in England was the trial of Colonel Cheyney Culpepper in 1686. An habitual sleepwalker, Culpepper shot an officer of the guard and his horse in his sleep. He was pardoned by King James II.

The sleepwalking defence was first used successfully in America at the trial of Albert Jackson Tirrell in 1846.

In a crime that shocked Boston society, Tirrell brutally murdered his mistress Maria Bickford, cutting her throat so violently that her head was almost severed from her body.

His attorney managed to convince the jury to acquit Tirrell on the grounds that he was an habitual sleepwalker and had no motive to murder Maria.

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Kenneth Parks leaving court, Toronto, May 1988.

The most infamous case of sleep murder in the twentieth century took place in Canada in 1987. Kenneth Parks drove 14 miles in the middle of the night to his parent-in-laws’ home where he bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death with a tyre iron and attempted to strangle his father-in-law.

Parks’ explanation – that he didn’t remember the incident because he was asleep the whole time – seemed highly unlikely. But when EEG readings (which measure electrical activity in the brain), corroborated his story, the jury acquitted him.

Sleep Violence in Film

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Conrad Veidt as ‘Cesare’, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1921

Sleep violence has been the subject of a number of films. The 1920’s German silent horror film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) features a sleepwalker named Cesare.  Dr. Caligari, an asylum director, is able to control Cesare through hypnotism.  He uses him to commit a series of murders while asleep.

In the 2013 psychological thriller, Side Effects, a wife kills her husband during an episode of sleepwalking while under the effects of an anti-depressant drug. She escapes prison by pleading insanity and is confined to a psychiatric unit, while the psychiatrist who prescribed the drug fights to regain his reputation. 

The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and stared Rooney Mara and Jude Law.



Nathaniel Wanley, The Wonders of the Little World, Or, A General History of Man (1673) is available as a free ebook. The chapter on sleepwalking begins on p. 386 (chapter 23).

Johanna Spyri, Heidi (1881). Heidi was translated into English in 1919 by Elisabeth P. Stork. You can buy it in kindle or paperback version from Amazon. Or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1881) is available to buy in kindle or paperback. Or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.


There have been many versions of Macbeth. You can watch interpretations of the sleepwalking scene with Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood and Marion Cottilard. A film was released in 2015, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottilard.

A restored version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in 2014. You can watch the trailer at the IMDb web page. You can buy the whole film on DVD (German with optional English subtitles) from Eureka! The DVD also includes a booklet and documentary about the early history of horror film.

The film Side Effects is available on DVD from Amazon.