May 14, 2018
If your idea of a good night’s sleep requires a plump pillow that cushions your head and neck in a cloud of soft foam or feathers, count yourself lucky that you were born in modern-day America. Pillows weren’t always the plush, comfy affairs that they are today. Pillows used to serve the far more basic purpose of keeping your head off the ground and away from insects. Slipping comfortably into dreamland was secondary.
Pillows of different cultures and time periods were made of some unusual materials and forms. Here’s how our favorite sleep aid has evolved over the years.
Pillows in ancient times were a lot of things, but soft wasn’t one of them. They were often made of stone or wood, carved into a cradle shape to hold the neck in place off of the ground. The oldest known pillow dates back to Mesopotamia over 9,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians also used these types of pillows, but they were more interested in protecting the head because it was seen as the spiritual center of their bodies — comfort was strictly optional.
The Chinese were also fans of the hard pillow. Though they were advanced enough to make soft textile pillows, they believed that such luxury would sap the body of energy and instead preferred hard pillows made of porcelain, bamboo and precious materials like bronze or jade. Men of ancient Greece and Rome also thought using a pillow was a sign of weakness and reserved the soft cushions for pregnant women instead.
The use of pillows remained uncommon after the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages, as the only people who could reliably afford such a luxurious use of fabric were nobility. Big changes came with the Industrial Revolution, though, and the sudden glut of affordable textiles for purchase made it possible for just about anyone to make a pillow of their own. Pillows were often stuffed with whatever reasonably soft material was available. Lucky hunters could fill their pillows with soft goose down, but it was much more common to use clean hay or possibly chicken feathers. Because natural materials were susceptible to mold and mildew issues, it was common to replace the filling each season to keep things fresh.
Pillows underwent another big change in the 1960s when polyester filling was invented. This synthetic fiber held its shape and allowed pillows to last much longer — and without any fears of premature damage by mildew. Today’s pillows are still made with traditional down, as well as all kinds of advanced synthetics designed to cradle your head and neck with everything from NASA’s memory foam, Styrofoam pellets and cooling gels. You can also find pillows filled with more environmentally friendly materials like buckwheat hulls and dried lavender pods.
Like a good mattress, the right pillow should support your head without feeling too hard or creating uncomfortable pressure points. In general, stomach-sleepers should choose a soft pillow, while back-sleepers will enjoy a firmer pillow. If you’re a side-sleeper or change positions often during the night, you may have to test-drive several pillows before you find the one that works best for you. No matter which you prefer, you’re guaranteed to find something way more comfortable than your Mesopotamian ancestors would have had access to!
Editor’s note: If you’re a pillow history buff, you may be interested in seeing the unique history of pillows display at the Verlo Mattress store in Wauwatosa, WI, in the Mayfair Collection.