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The Surprising History of the King Sized Bed
In medieval Europe, it was the 15th century that saw beds become very large for the first time. The mattresses of the time were generally filled with pea shucks, straw, or for the wealthier and more luxurious nobles, feathers. In the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, prominent lords and courtiers were in the habit of hauling most of their belongings and property along with them as they traveled about the countryside, including their beds and bed cloths.
Imagine for a moment carrying all your possessions, even your bed, on your back or in your wagon! Because of this, the bedsteads of the time were mere frames to be covered up, but as the nobility became more sedentary in the coming century, bedsteads became more decorative and permanent, and beds became larger and more luxurious.
In fact, one of the largest beds known to historians was built in the year 1580 for the White Hart Inn in Ware, England. At 10 feet long and 11 feet wide, the Great Bed of Ware could reportedly accommodate up to 15 people, or as many as 7 couples! After featuring in a pleasure garden at another Ware Inn, the Saracen’s Head (what a lovely, cozy name for an inn!), since 1870, it was eventually acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1931, where it resides to this day. Many historians believe that this great behemoth of a bed served as the model for the earliest king sized beds that emerged centuries later in the 1950s.
It may surprise you to know that, despite well-established trade and economic relationships between the different communities emerging in the early decades of US history, American furniture manufacturers did not actually begin standardizing bed sizes until around 1870, shortly after the Civil War. As the making of beds and mattresses shifted from hands on artisanship to industrial manufacture, mattress and bed manufacturers agreed upon standard sizes for the single bed (also commonly known as a twin) and the double bed (also called a full).
Just as it happened with any of a number of industries in the close of the 19th and the dawning of the 20th centuries, suddenly people could purchase a bedstead from this carpenter and a mattress from that maker and be guaranteed they would fit compatibly. Where people had formerly needed to have a local artisan furnish a custom made bed and mattress to guarantee they would fit, people now had options in beds and bed accessories for the first time.
And options they explored. As early as the 1920s, demands for different bed dimensions began to emerge. As Americans’ wealth increased, the size of their living spaces expanded, and people wanted to fill the growing sizes of their bedrooms with larger sleeping furniture. The roaring 20s (think Gatsby) saw the emergence of the three quarter bed.
While they are more uncommon, if you have ever purchased a three quarter mattress and wondered why it never quite fit the frame you bought from another manufacturer, well, so much for standardization! Interestingly enough, as the three quarter bed gained prominence in the population centers of America, the East and West coasts, manufacturers in New York and California could not agree on a standard size, and so, to this day, two distinct “three quarter” sizes can be found on the market.
As the American economy gained strength after World War II, and the suburbs began to grow, once again, American consumers began to request larger beds, and the queen and king sized beds were born. Actually, the queen sized bed was meant to replace the full, but because Americans like options so much, this idea never quite turned out how it was meant to.
While you might guess that width was the big selling point in the new sizes, it was actually length that attracted people the most. Americans were getting taller with better nutrition, and the old 74″ long beds kept more and more feet dangling. At 80″ long, the queen and king sizes gained huge popularity among taller people. Bed manufacturers also responded to people’s growing height by creating the “king twin” bed, a twin 80″ long.
But even the king size bed wasn’t enough for some people! The California king, introduced in the 1960s in Los Angeles as an oversized bed for the mansions of celebrities and athletes. Although 4″ narrower than the standard king size, the California king added 4″ to the length, the new 84″ length making for a truly lavish sleeping experience for the tall and short alike.
Eventually, Europe grew jealous of the lavishly large American taste in beds, and a handful of California king offshoots have sprung up, including the Eastern king (76″ by 80″), and in England, the super king (72″ by 78″). The standard king bed today still measures 76″ by 80″, and the California king 72″ by 84″, but the largest bed on the market is Select Comfort’s grand king, which measures a whopping 80″ by 98″. Still, I’m not sure it even comes close to the Great Bed of Ware.