The Pillow Throughout History

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Katerina Bulovska
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Pillows are synonymous with comfort and relaxation. They are a cushion for the head and neck, providing support and a good night’s sleep. However, in the past, pillows weren’t exactly the soft headrest they are today.

The history of the pillow dates back to around 7,000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. These pillows were made of stone and obviously weren’t comfortable, although comfort wasn’t really their purpose.

The function of the stone pillow was to prevent insects from crawling into mouths, noses, and ears. With the high price of stone, they were used only by the wealthy citizens.

Decorated pillows piled on the corner of a bed

In ancient Egypt, the head was believed to be the seat of spiritual life and it had to be cherished. Egyptian pillows were made of different materials, including marble, ivory, ceramic, stone and wood. They also had a religious meaning, as the pillow was carved with images of the gods and placed under the heads of the deceased to keep bad spirits away.

An ancient Egyptian wooden pillow. Photo Credit

The ancient Chinese civilization used different materials such as stone, wood, bamboo, bronze, porcelain, and jade decorated with pictures of humans, animals, and plants. They believed that the materials of which the pillow was made could have health benefits for the person using it.

It was generally agreed that the jade pillow increased one’s intelligence. While the Chinese had the ability to make soft pillows, they believed they stole energy from the body while sleeping. The Chinese supported the idea that hard pillows bring health and intellect.

A pottery pillow from the Jīn dynasty. Photo Credit

The ancient Greeks and Romans left behind the idea of the traditional hard pillow and used cloth filled with materials such as cotton, reeds, or straw, while the wealthy used soft down feathers. These pillows were the antecedents of the type of pillows used today.

In the European Middle Ages, pillows were not particularly popular. The soft pillow was a status symbol and many people could not afford to use them. King Henry VIII banned the use of soft pillows for anyone except pregnant women. However, by the 16th century, pillows were once more widespread, although the stuffing inside had to be regularly changed due to mold and vermin.

An embroidered Turkish pillow. Photo Credit

In India, traditional pillows were usually made with plant-based materials, such as the fluffy, glossy fruit-fibres of silk-cotton tree. Photo Credit

In the 19th century with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pillow became common in almost every home. During this time, pillows became more affordable as they were mass produced due to the advancement of technology. In England, it was the Victorian era that turned these items into decorative elements for couches and chairs.

Panda shaped travel pillow. Photo Credit

 

A pile of pillows on a couch. Photo Credit

Modern soft pillows are made from various different materials. The outer cover is usually made of cotton or polyester, while the filling material can be natural, such as cotton, feather, or sheep wool. Because of the allergic reactions some people have from feathers, synthetic materials like latex, foam, and polyester are also used.

Today there are many different types of pillows such as gel pillows, orthopedic pillows, pillows for rest and sleep, and decorative cushions. The evolution of the pillow is not over yet: new materials and shapes arise constantly.