Classic TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show feature main characters who, despite being married, never sleep in the same bed. It’s easy to see why many people believe that real people did not sleep in separate beds. Without a doubt, cautious modesty played a significant role in what was shown on television at the time. Pregnancy, sex, and breastfeeding were never discussed on television.
So the question is, did regular people sleep in separate beds in large numbers? Advertisements for beds and bedding from before the advent of early TV shows separate beds for what we assume are married couples. The ad below, from 1920, certainly leads the reader to believe that separate beds provide better sleep. But, is that an objective concept founded on health and common sense? Was it all a ruse to sell more beds and bed frames?
The advertisement promotes the “excellent principle of a separate bed for everyone.” They’d say that, of course. Throughout history, the concept of communal sleeping has been prevalent all over the world. Even in Europe, travelers would frequently share inn beds with complete strangers. Whole families slept in rooms that served multiple functions, such as living rooms by day with straw mats or beds that pulled out for nighttime sleeping.
Separate beds for the wealthy were not a problem. Members of royalty and the wealthy frequently had their own separate quarters, but only because their large houses allowed them to. Similarly, even if you had enough room for separate sleeping areas, beds and bedding were expensive. Having the laundress come and wash all the bedding once a year was a mark of status in the middle ages because it demonstrated how many sets of bedding one family could own, thereby displaying their wealth.
They couldn’t afford to hire a professional unless the family owned a large number of bedding sets to justify the expense. Separate beds were simply unattainable for the rest of the world and were not even considered desirable until the Victorian era. In 1851, England passed legislation making it illegal to force strangers to sleep in the same bed in boarding houses.
Co-sleeping was identified as a possible source of disease transmission as early as the 1700s, and Victorian-era fears of immorality made the practice appear unappealing. Health officials in Europe and the colonies made a concerted effort to discourage people from sleeping in groups, even going so far as to suggest that married couples sleep in separate beds. The twentieth century brought a slew of new innovations, such as reliable bed and bedding manufacturing and the suburban home.
Following World War II, in particular, the increase in the size of homes in the United States with new housing was a significant improvement over the small and unsanitary housing stock found in both urban and rural areas of the United States during the Great Depression. The answer to the question “did people really sleep in separate beds back in the day?” is highly dependent on the family’s financial situation and the size of their home. Certainly some of them did, as evidenced by marriage books that enthusiastically advocated the practice, such as this 1902 book on the subject. Even in the 1970s, some interior design spreads featured separate beds.