Nicola here, and today I am musing on pillows. Repetitive strain injury is an occupational hazard of a writer’s life, or indeed anyone who uses a keyboard. It can affect people in all sorts of jobs who, as the words suggest, use the same movements frequently. In an attempt to deal with my RSI, which gives me neck, shoulder and back pain, I’ve taken all sorts of measures, trying to get my desk at the exact correct height and my chair as well, foot rests, wrist rests, and special pillows in bed at night to support my head.
When I first set off down the special pillow route I tried one that was filled with spelt, a grain more commonly found in bread! It was supposed to adjust perfectly to the shape of the head and neck to maintain the spine in a correct line. However I found it just went flat! So then I tried one with foam but didn’t get on with that either. In the end I’ve gone back to a nice feather pillow.
My preoccupation with pillows and natural curiosity lead me to wonder when they were first invented. It turns out that the pillow is an ancient thing, first used over 9000 years ago. Comfort was not at the forefront of the minds of those who first invented and used the pillow; for a start pillows were made of stone and the purpose was to keep the sleeper’s head off the ground in order to avoid bugs crawling into your ears! It sounds very practical and very uncomfortable.
The Egyptians made their pillows out of wood and they were seen as high status possessions. They viewed the head as the spiritual and life centre of the body and so a pillow was curved in shape in order to protect this most important part of the body. The Chinese, meanwhile carved pillows from many different substances including bamboo, bronze, jade and even porcelain. Their philosophy was that soft pillows were inadequate in keeping demons at bay and that a soft pillow would allow the vitality of the body to be stolen during sleep.
The pillow as we recognise it today was the invention of the Greeks and Romans who were the first to create a luxurious soft pillow by stuffing a cloth with feathers or straw. Again, these were high status objects reserved for rich households. Before the invention of pillowcases a pillow would be covered by a head-sheet of linen, known as a pillow “bere” (bearer). The most prized of these were highly decorated with needlework and embroidered patterns, adding to the general opulence of the bed. This sounds nice but the pillow was an unhygienic object. The stuffing needed to be changed regularly in order to prevent mould and insect or vermin infestation!
There are also records from the 15th century of the more well to do peasants having "three boards for a bed", a sheet and pillows, as well as some worn coverlets and canvas covers but these were far from fine or decorative and it was literally somewhere to lay your head – and your exhausted body.
Interestingly though, pillows had connotations of weakness around this time. By the late Middle Ages they had fallen out of favour as men refused to use them because they were considered “un-masculine.” It is claimed that King Henry VIII banned the use of pillows except for pregnant women.
By the Elizabethan period the pillow had made a come back and was an object of desire. Around 1580 the clergyman William Harrison grumbled about the new generation being very self-indulgent with their feather mattresses and pillows. In his day, he said: "If in seven years after marriage a man could buy a mattress and a sack of chaff to rest his head on, he thought himself as well lodged as a lord. Pillows were thought meet only for sick women. As for servants, they were lucky if they had a sheet over them, for there was nothing under them to keep the straw from pricking their hardened hides."
It was not until the industrial revolution that the mass production of textiles allowed for everyone to sleep with a pillow and also to have decorative pillows for couches and chairs. There was a huge expansion in the pillow business and in the different designs of pillowcases.
The bolster, long and cylindrical, was one of the most popular shapes of pillow throughout history. Often it was used in conjunction with the square pillow, the pillows piled up on it and against the head of the bed, which meant that people slept in a sloping, half-sitting position. This is one of the reasons why many old beds look short to our modern eyes. People did not lie down flat as we tend to do. It was thought to be more beneficial to sleep sitting up and I do find that when I’m feeling ill, particularly with colds or flu, I do sleep better in that position but I'm not sure I'd like to do it all the time! I like a nice, crisp cool cotton pillowcase and duvet cover and to be able to stretch out!
And so to bed. Do you like a plump feather pillow and luxury linen or are you more minimalist? How would you feel about sleeping sitting up and do you have any top tips for a good night's rest?