Pillows: Historically Soft, Usually

by Fabian Toulouse

When sleep is essential, almost every person in the world thinks of laying his or her head on a nice, soft pillow. The pillow has been a part of recorded human history and has proven necessary for providing comfort. It has become something of a ubiquitous piece of furniture for every human being and every home.

The basic nature of the pillow has varied little over time. The pillow was prominently used by the ancient Egyptian, though their use is thought to extend back to the Mesopotamian city-state era (7000 BCE). The Egyptians considered the head to be sacred, the veritable seat of life, and pillows were lavished with decorations to hold this precious body part.

When analyzing pillows from the past, it is worthy to note that in Europe pillows were placed on top of a cylindrical bolster. The bolster, which ran the width of the bed, was placed between the mattress and the headboard to give the pillow something to rest upon. The pillows were leaned against the bolster, making it a common practice to sleep in a semi-reclined position.

In Asia, the pillow took on a vaguely different shape and significance. In China, specifically, it was believed the especially soft pillows robbed the body of vitality and energy. To remedy this, pillows were fashioned from hard materials, including leather, wood, and ceramics. In medieval Japan, noblewomen enjoyed elaborate hairdos, requiring customized pillows. To protect their hairdos, they utilized “tall pillows,” which were in essence stands made of wood that would cushion the backs of their necks and let their hair hang free.

The history of pillows is the history of mankind. From simple stones, to stuffed sacks, to down pillows, to wooden stand, the pillow has taken on a multiplicity of forms. The basic function of the pillow is to provide comfort. Today pillows span the range from synthetic fibers, to down feathers, to memory foam.

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