Mattresses: A History

From leaves and grass to inner-spring, foam, and cooling gels, mattresses have come a long way.

Here at Wolf, we’ve been in the mattress industry since 1873 – so we’ve seen a lot of change over the years in mattress-making. And it’s a darn good thing, because mattresses had some pretty humble beginnings. 

It all started in the Middle Paleolithic period, a time when people slept on bunches of straw or grasses laid on a cave floor. Talk about sleeping rough!

The oldest-known grass bed was found in South Africa in 2020 by archeologists at the University of Witwatersrand and is estimated to be 200,000 years old. That plant bedding had a rather interesting feature: pest control. 

The bedding was laid on the ashes of previously burned bedding: “Ash spread beneath bound bunches of grass may have been used to repel crawling, biting insects, which cannot easily move through fine powder”. In addition to the burning, the bedding included bits of camphor leaves, which are used as a bug repellent. 

Over time, early beds in several regions of the world took similar shapes: piles of straw or hay, sometimes raised off the ground using wood or stone structures, sometimes stuffed into cloth bags to create cushions. 

In ancient Rome, mattresses were stuffed with reeds, wool, hay, and other cheap but soft materials. Wealthy individuals, especially near the end of the Republic period used duck or goose down feathers to fill their cushions and mattresses. Especially-wealthy Romans even distinguished between several different kinds of beds: beds for sleeping, the marital bed, beds for eating, beds for studying, and beds to bear the bodies of the dead. 

During the Medieval Ages in Europe, a divide started to appear between the wealthy and the poor. Many common people still covered themselves with layers of blankets, skins or a linen sheet – and the entire family would sleep on a single bed. 

For commoners, mattresses might’ve been made of “ticking,” a tightly-woven and sturdy cloth, and stuffed with materials like chaff, horsehair, pea shucks, coarse wool, feathers, leaves, reeds, or even seaweed. If it could be afforded, multiple mattresses might be layered on top of each other for optimum comfort. Remember the fairytale “The Princess and the Pea”? She sleeps on top of layered ticking mattresses! 

The mattresses would then be laid on top of a wooden frame with rope or leather supports running beneath the mattresses. These ropes or leathers would need to be tightened frequently because of sagging – this originated the phrase, “good night, sleep tight.” 

The nobility, however, started showing off with their bedsteads, adding ornamentation, inlays, and silks to the bedding and frames. Four-poster beds and “great beds,” made to be transported from place to place, started to pop up in wealthy households. Their mattress covers, as opposed to rough-spun coarse material, would be made of brocade, velvet, or silk. French kings would even entertain ambassadors and host important political meetings in their bedrooms – so the furnishings had to be rich, impressive, and comfortable.  

The 1800s, however, was a big century for mattress technology. The coil spring was introduced to the soft fillings for better support in 1865, with innerspring variations popping up by the 1870s. In 1900, James Marshall, a Canadian engineer, invented the first-ever “inner-spring mattress,” which revolutionized mattresses for the first half of the 20th century. Modern beds had innerspring cores with fiberfill or cotton batting, and the 1950s introduced foam mattresses and pillows. 

Foams, gels, customization, and cooling materials dominate the modern mattress conversation, and Wolf Mattress is at the forefront of it all. Our mattresses offer a full range of high-quality and advanced sleep technology, including anti-microbial safeguards, gel-infused memory foams, pocketed coil systems, temperature control, and even specific lumbar-support memory foam to give you pain relief where you need it. 

Visit us at www.wolfmattress.com to explore our broad selection of options or come see us at our Factory Direct Store at 3434 S. Maplecrest Road in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Or, check out our mattress page and enjoy cross-sections of our mattresses so you can see the layering for yourself.

Wolf Mattress

Sweet Dreams Since 1873

3434 S. Maplecrest Rd.

Fort Wayne, IN

Copyright © Wolf Mattress 1873 - 2023.

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