“What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History” by Brian Fagen and Nadia Durani, Yale University Press, 2019, 232 pages, $26
You get in bed each night and drop off to sleep. You probably never wonder about where your bed came from or how it evolved. Beds have history? Who knew?
“What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History” by Brian Fagen and Nadia Durani show beds do indeed have a history and explores it thoroughly.
It turns out humans haven’t always slept in beds. This book reveals the bed — a dedicated place on the ground or floor for sleeping — emerged only after the introduction of fire. Before that, humans dossed down aloft, in trees. Doing otherwise made them meals for nighttime predators.
Fire kept these animals away. The practice of sleeping near the fire for warmth and safety soon developed. Dedicated beds followed almost immediately. These initial beds were similar to flower beds, shallow areas of worked-over soil, topped with a grass layer. The ancient bed was also where people ate; perhaps illustrating people haven’t changed in two million years.
Beds have since come up in the world, and Fagen and Durani follow their history. They show the evolution of the bed and the evolution of how we use the bed. Today, the bed is a private place, tucked into a back room of the house, rarely visited by any others than those that sleep in it.
Through most of history, until the middle of the 19th century, beds were a communal place. It was often in the main room of the house, and shared by the entire family. There was often a special best bed for honored guests. At inns, travelers shared beds, up to three or four to the bed.
The authors also show the various purposes beds have served. They were used for rest, but also as gathering places to exchange stories and gossip and a location to eat. Childbirth in bed is a recent phenomenon. Until the 19th century, most mothers gave birth in chairs or stools.
“What We Did in Bed” is lighthearted, but it’s also serious and well-researched history. It explains the whys behind beds in a way that informs while entertaining.