Communal sleeping II – this blog is a sequel to last week’s blog on the same topic: Why have lost the idea of communal sleeping? For hundreds of years, this practice was not only completely normal but driven by circumstances beyond the control of most people. One of those conditions was the cold. We, although we may not want to face it, may well have to reduce our comfortable dependence on home heating systems, as climate change forces the reduction in fossil fuels. An interesting thought?
This blog discusses another aspect of communal sleeping, the remnants of which still exist today in certain circumstances: Wardrobe beds, which were very common until this century, have their evolution today in canopy beds and four-poster beds, although these are mainly for decoration rather than a practical way to keep warm.
The wardrobe beds were cosy, wardrobe-like pieces of furniture could reportedly sleep up to five people. So, why did they fall out of fashion?
At a museum in Wick, in the far north of Scotland, sits, what looks like, a particularly large pine wardrobe (see picture above). With a pair of full-length double doors at the front, and suitcases stacked above it, it wouldn’t look out of place in a modern bedroom. It’s even assembled like regular flat-pack furniture – with each piece slotting together, so it can be easily moved and rebuilt. But this cupboard is not for storing shirts or jackets; there are no hangers or shelves inside. This is a box bed, and it’s designed to hold sleeping people.
Otherwise known as a closet bed, or close bed, the box bed was surprisingly popular across Europe from the medieval era to the early 20th Century. These heavy pieces of furniture involved exactly what you would expect – a box made of wood that contained a bed. Some were plain and humble, no more than basic wooden containers. Others were elaborately decorated, with carved, panelled or painted sides. Often the cupboards had doors that closed to impound the sleeper within the blackness of their cramped interiors, or even a little curtained window. The fanciest had a variety of uses – with bonus drawers and a seat at their base.
For centuries, drowsy farm workers, fish-gutters, and even members of the nobility would crawl inside these cosy wooden dens each night, presumably being careful not to bash their elbows as they did so, and shut themselves in.
Box beds were versatile pieces of furniture. Often, they were used almost as miniature bedrooms – spillover places for people to sleep where there otherwise wouldn’t be enough space. Today’s “Bunkbeds” are another modern version of the same thing.
In one case from 1890, a family living in the Scottish Highlands was too large for their single-room house – so some members slumbered in a box bed in the barn, among dogs and horses, according to the Wick Society. It was also common to use them for migrant workers in some areas, such as the overflow of herring-gutters who descended on the region of Wick during the fishing season – with up to five or six people required to share a bed.
In fact, sharing a box bed with family members or co-workers was not unusual. In the 1825 melodrama The Factory Lad, workers slept in stacks of box beds, with two or three people in each one. Some had holes for ventilation, but cramming too many people in may have carried a risk of suffocation – one tale from 13th-Century France involves a woman hiding three secret guests inside a bed, who then perish in its stuffy interior.
Box beds were particularly common in Britain, and on the continent in Europe. According to one account from 1840, most cottages in Brittany, France, included these pieces of furniture, which were typically made from oak and piled up to 4ft (1.2m) high with bedding. There might be several to a room, and each one would have a long wooden chest placed at their base. “This is always the seat of honour and serves also as a step to assist mine hostess in mounting to her exalted couch,” wrote the author Thomas Adolphus Trollope.
But there was a further benefit to these sleeping coffins; warmth. Without modern heating or insulation, bedrooms, in the winter, could be literally freezing – so cold that it was standard practice to go to bed wearing a hat, so that only your face was exposed. Maybe we should all try this in preparation for colder temperatures!
It was significantly colder in previous centuries, which may have encouraged this communal practice. Roger Ekirch, a university distinguished professor of history at Virginia Tech, Virginia, and the author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, explains that from the 14th to the 19th Century, Europe and portions of North America were experiencing the Little Ice Age. In London, the Thames froze over on eighteen occasions – an event that hasn’t happened today since 1963. “Diaries spoke of sap from burning logs in fireplaces freezing as soon as it seeped from the bare ends… inkwells would freeze overnight,” he says.
This not only made bedmates an appealing prospect, but also the sheltered environment of a box bed, where warm air became trapped, was cherished.
The box bed eventually became associated with poverty and country life, and fell out of fashion. By the mid-20th century, they were rare. However, today, similar pieces of furniture are making a quiet comeback. It is now possible to buy bed tents, which turn sleeping areas into snug little caves with the added benefit of extra privacy, while wooden sleeping “nooks” that look suspiciously similar to box beds are being sold for aspirational “cottage style” homes. On the upper end of the market, canopy and four-poster beds are a fashion statement.
Maybe this could become a new market for boutique hotels – communal sleeping. If anyone knows if they currently exist, please let me know!