Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.
Our beds are private spaces. Most people close the bedroom door when they have guests. But that hasn’t always been the case. At the court of French King Louis XIV, his bedroom wasn’t just a public place – it was a great stage for the ruler’s demonstrations of power. Louis saw himself as the personification of the sun that rises and sets. And as in nature, his subjects were forced to subordinate themselves to this cycle. When the Sun King rose in the morning, they paid homage. When he went to bed, a select audience witnessed the ‘sunset’.
Louis XIV’s bed became a prestige object and, next to the throne, came to epitomise royal power. Many European princes adopted the Sun King’s habits, and held court in their magnificent bedchambers.The Swiss Confederation didn’t have a king, but the monarchical splendour and prestige of an appearance in the bedchamber gradually found their way into the homes of well-to-do townsfolk. To impress one’s audience, the craftsmanship of one’s bedroom appurtenances was put on show. Fortunately, scores of these objects have survived intact and are now part of the collection of the Swiss National Museum.
The bed as a source of warmth
Among the lower classes too, sleeping quarters were public, but for completely different reasons. Until well into the 18th century, it was normal practice for groups of people – women and men, adults and children, employees and visitors – to bed down together for the night. The reason is simple: apart from the stove, the bed was the only source of heat in the house. A century later, industrialisation resulted in a lack of sleeping places in large cities, so poor families started sharing their beds to earn a little money. During the day they rented out their sleeping space to Schlafgänger, or night lodgers, such as shift workers. However, that had consequences. The night lodgers were one of the main reasons why diseases and vermin such as lice and mites were able to spread so rapidly in these societies.With an increasing awareness of hygiene in the 19th century, behaviour in the bedroom changed yet again, and it went from being a public area to a private space. The youth movement brought another change of direction in the 1960s. With John Lennon and Yoko Ono leading the charge, the sleeping quarters re-entered the public domain. In 1969 the couple stayed in their bed for a ‘bed-in’ demonstrating against the war. But that’s another (bedtime) story…
We spend a third of our lives in bed. It’s the item of furniture we use most often, and it has a past and a history of its own. A stroll through the bedrooms of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries not only shows how beds and nightwear have changed, but also gives an insight into how people lived together as a society.