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.

EXPLORE FURTHER

Read

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.

Visit

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.

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