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Antique Beds don’t Really Fit the Modern Mold

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

We all love a good antique furniture find. And we’ve probably noticed, a time or two, a defunct antique bedframe lain against the wall in an antique shop, probably never to be slept on again. Why? Antique bed mattresses don’t conform to modern standard sizes like full, queen, king, etc.

The most common size for antique mattresses is something called a ¾ bed, because the mattress is ¾ the width of today’s queen size beds. Those are about 48x75”, give or take a couple inches here and there. But that “give or take a couple inches…” is kind of an issue when looking for a mattress for your antique bed, isn’t it?

Plus, that’s not the only size; antique “twin” mattresses are 31x75”, and antique “double” mattresses were 51x75”. We’d call this size about similar to a short queen mattress, but it’s still not bang on. That ¾ bed frame is going to need a custom antique-style mattress made for it, especially if it’s a sleigh-style or has puzzle piece rails, because you can’t convert those to a standard size even if you wanted to.

Considering that today’s standard fulls and queens are 80” long, and all these antique sizes are more like 72-75” long, you need a custom solution for an antique bed mattress. But how did we get here? Why weren’t beds just… always the same? And why is it that we can’t take a bedframe from just 100 years ago and easily fit a modern mattress to it?

Let’s go way back…

When did People Start Sleeping on Beds?

Sleeping on our custom memory foam mattresses in 2021, it’s hard to imagine how far back the idea of a bed, let alone a mattress, goes. Many people will tell you that Old Kingdom Egyptians are responsible for the first beds: raised stone or wood platforms with ancient “mattresses” of reeds and fronds.

But those people haven’t looked far enough back. Humans weren’t the first people to sleep in beds at all – Neanderthals and the Denisovans slept in beds as well, and they were just as bed-like as those Egyptian ones that showed up over 50,000 years later.

In fact, the first “mattress” we’ve found sits at a 77,000 year-old site in South Africa. It’s a big platform about 22 sq. ft. in size, and archaeologists assume it was a family bed. For comparison, a standard king size bed today is about 42 sq. ft. People were much smaller way back when.

Neanderthal sites in Britain and Spain show evidence that Neanderthals had bedrooms in their homes. They included raised platforms that were likely covered in plant material for comfort and warmth. Archaeologists also theorize, because of the proximity of these beds to established fire pits, that a bed probably doubled as a bench/couch during the day.

Because Neanderthals and Denisovans coexisted and interbred, it’s pretty realistic to assume Denisovans had similar concepts of bedrooms and beds.

The First “Mattresses” Weren’t Mattresses at All

If you use the term loosely, people are not nearly the only mammals to sleep on mattresses. Think about it – gorillas, foxes, deer, and birds choose or create little insulated sleeping spaces.

It seems that having a comfortable sleep is second nature to basic survival instincts. But let’s focus on people; more specifically, humans. We’ll start with the Egyptians. As we already discussed, in this period of history, beds were raised platforms covered in mattresses made of reeds and fronds.

Pretty simple, pretty effective. Except for the bugs… and rats… and moisture that caused rot… and the potential for fire when a heat source was too close. Regardless, people slept this way nearly everywhere for thousands of years.

As Egypt itself evolved, ancient mattress technology followed. Wood or metal bedframes – much like that antique bed you’ve got stored in the attic – became the norm. For middle class people they were plain or painted, but for the wealthy they might be covered in jewels or gold.

These bed frames kept people off the cold ground and also made it less likely for a snake or rat to curl up with you at night. And this is where the first “antique” mattresses showed up (read: mattresses we would actually recognize as mattresses).

They were basically linen-covered cushions made of wool, and people slept under linen sheets as well. The Greeks and Romans followed suit with variations on these raised bedframes, wool cushions and wool blankets.

It’s interesting to note here, that in true form, the overachieving Ancient Persians had waterbeds. No, seriously. They would fill goatskins with warm water and use them as mattresses.

In other parts of the world, down pillows, blankets made of skins, and huge bedframes covered in curtains became the norm by the turn of the millennia. Wherever you went, though, it was the wealthy that had beds.

Most people of the lower and working classes slept on floor mats. Throughout history, the “antique mattress” of a poor person was stuff piled on the floor in the corner of a room that just allowed you to sleep in the fetal position.

Antique Beds and Mattresses of the Dark Ages

Focusing on Europe, not a lot happened in the span between the Byzantine era and the Reformation. Over about 1,000 years, most of what happened in historic mattress technology was refining the filling materials and the cover materials.

By the 13th century, most people slept on mattresses covered in a coarse fabric called “tick”. But, of course, in the meantime the rich slept on mattresses filled with down and covered in silk or velvet. During this time, historic beds were extra tall and surrounded by heavy curtains. Why?

You might think privacy for more intimate moments, but royal marriage rituals that involved a group of people “witnessing” the consummation would prove you wrong. It was actually all about heat conservation.

Rich people had huge bedrooms – some things never change. Big rooms get cold, especially in stone castles and manors. Antique beds of the Middle Ages had to be tall because there was usually a heat source underneath, like heated rocks or bricks, and you don’t want to wake up to a burning bed.

The ceiling-height curtains surrounding the bed were meant to… hotbox the bed space. Around the Renaissance, these beds and mattresses became heirlooms because they were so expensive and luxurious.

Fast Forward to the 17th and 18th Centuries: Mattresses as Status Symbols

The Victorian Era and the century preceding it clearly didn’t invent the idea of custom mattresses as status symbols, but they definitely took it and ran. Peasants were still sleeping on the floor, or sharing one big, hay-stuffed mattress for the entire family.

But wealthy people’s beds got more lavish, Victorian mattresses got more comfortable, and bedframes and bedposts got more ornate. Some even had little trundle beds stored underneath where they might have servants stay. The more bedrooms you had, the more ornate beds you could afford, the more comfortable your mattresses were – that was the height of leisure and luxury.

Some people say that King Louis XIV had over 400 beds, and loved being in bed so much that he sometimes held court literally from bed. And as people have always wanted to “keep up with the Joneses”, it then became completely normal to host people in your bedroom.

Antique Mattresses: From Straw to Coil to Foam

Because historic beds were all bespoke (read: custom), so, too, were all antique mattresses. Mattress preferences and technology changed over time, but people kept heirloom mattresses and beds for as long as possible, simply because they were valuable and valued.

So, by the time we get to the 18th century, every antique mattress is a custom mattress – which doesn’t age well when standard mattress sizes come into play in the 20th century. People being shorter than today, and beds being custom, made the concept of a “standard” antique mattress moot.

As far as bedroom culture, the 19th century saw down mattresses replaced with cotton ones, bedrooms became private spaces again, beds got smaller, and lower class people didn’t sleep on the floor anymore. The 19th century is when we first see box spring technology to support mattresses; metal coils started to replace woven metal or rope. And then, in the 1870’s, the first inner spring mattress was invented.

An antique innerspring mattress would be awful to sleep on now, but back then it was the cool new thing, replacing cotton and horsehair. Then, in the 1890’s the waterbed made a comeback… seems like we low-key forgot about that one for a few thousand years.

By the 1930’s, encased coil spring mattresses and waterbeds were common, as were artificial fillings like foam, and rubber mattress covers. Your grandma may still even have one of these antique mattresses.

Memory foam entered the game in the ‘90’s as a result of 30 years of NASA scientists trying to make it work. That’s right – that memory foam mattress you sleep on is (indirectly) a product of NASA… Does that mean mattress-making is rocket science? Maybe.

These 19th and early 20th century mattresses – the ¾ mattresses and short queen mattresses – are what we most commonly see today when we’re antique shopping. They’re short because… well, we were still shorter – before mass-produced food became the norm after WWII and low-key made everyone into giants.

And the ¾ bed was a good size for when couples started pushing their beds together and actually sleeping together in the 1900’s. Married people sleeping together? How scandalous.

Revamping that Antique Bedframe with a Modern Memory Foam Mattress

All this history is interesting – hopefully – but it leaves us with a modern problem. Mattresses for antique beds aren’t sold in stores because the sizes are never consistent, but no one wants to sleep on a horse hair and rope bed anymore.

So now most antique bedframes are just chilling in an attic somewhere, or a staple at your local antique shop (read: will never be bought). Where are you going to find a mattress for a ¾ antique bed? Or a short queen mattress for an old Victorian bed?

Well, modern problems require modern solutions: custom mattress manufacturers.

It’s actually pretty historically accurate to have someone hand-make a custom mattress for your antique bed, because that’s exactly how its first mattress would have been made. But as we said, it’s 2021, so you can get a memory foam mattress for that antique bed – one that’s made to measure.

And you can do it all online. You get to revive a family heirloom, bring an antique back to life, and make use of something that was previously just sitting in storage, all without having to sleep on an actual antique mattress. So if you’ve got an antique bed frame you absolutely love but can’t find a mattress for, you don’t have to look very hard – just find a custom mattress maker to make one for you - like us!

Create A Custom Mattress for Your Antique Bed

No matter what type of bed you have, all of your antique bed mattress needs can be met right here. Seriously. Get the most blissful and historical night of sleep you’ve ever had by crafting your own custom antique mattress on our site. Ditch those traditional horse hair beds that our ancestors laid on and instead spring for a modern, perfectly designed foam bed that boasts the latest tech. Protect your three-quarter bed with a sleek mattress protector that can withstand any stains or spillage. Your ancestors wished they had such creative and perfectly designed accessories to protect their mattresses.

Before the internet, you’d be forced to venture out to costly custom bed manufacturers to take advantage of your historical and treasured antique bed. Now? You’re a few clicks away from giving your ¾ bed a new life.


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