Historically sleeping in a group provided both warmth and protection from real and imagined perils. Values that far outweighed any loss of privacy. And since people bathed in groups and often relieved themselves around others, why should sleeping, or even sex be any different?
As civilization developed families began to sleep in their own huts, houses or apartments. For the poor, little had changed; beds were expensive, space was limited and all of a family or even extended family usually slept together.
Egyptian nobility had platform beds, raised off of the ground, slanted slightly towards a foot board and sometimes covered by a cloth sac filled with straw or down. Most of these beds were burned at the owner’s death. Again only those at the top were lucky enough to have these and were likely to actually bed down by themselves or with a spouse or servant.
In Rome the bed wasn’t just for sleeping. The bedchamber still held a platform with a filled sac cushion. Wealthy Romans also had what they called the marital bed – or lectus geniallis - which was placed near a courtyard. There is conjecture if this was largely a symbolic item, or was actually used for sex. Romans also had beds for eating and for study. Which, if any, of these were used for their famed orgies is not clear. They also had funeral beds that would be used to carry the body to the funeral pyre.
By medieval times society had become largely communal again. The great hall served as kitchen, bedroom, trade office, and public hall. In her article A Brief History of the Bedroom for Porch, Anne Reagan explains. “When darkness fell, everyone would lie down on the rush flooring and sleep around the embers of the central fireplace. Rush, a type of grass, was softer than the stone flooring and could easily absorb spills and messes. “Hitting the hay” involved stuffing hay into a hemp sack, called a “tick” (which is where we get the modern word “ticking” to describe the traditional striped material used to cover a mattress). Some people may have used stumps of wood to rest their heads.”
While the Lord and Lady of the manner may sleep on the upper level of the keep they were still surrounded by friends, family, and servants. Even until the 1600’s much of royal business or that of the wealthy classes were still attended to within the actual bedchamber or in adjacent rooms. Royal beds were often ornately carved of hard wood and hung round with curtains to create an extra level of warmth. When a king or queen traveled their bed was taken with them.
As a middle class developed the bed with a trundle, or pull out additional platform for children or servants, and heavy curtains created the first hint of privacy.
Of course that privacy was a thing of the middle and upper classes. As Roger Ekirch explains in his book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, “Even livestock often resided under the same roof, because there was no other structure to put them in, and they generated welcome warmth. Among the lower classes in preindustrial Europe, it was customary for an entire family to sleep in the same bed—typically the costliest item of furniture—if not to ‘pig’ together on a straw pile. Genteel couples, for greater comfort, occasionally slept apart, especially when a spouse was ill.”
By the eighteenth century the bed was becoming less ornate and more commonly used. Though poor families still crammed into a single bed, the wealthy had more privacy. Though many people who could afford it still chose to sleep with a companion. It was not uncommon for friends to bed down together was late at the mid 1800s. President Lincoln slept with a roommate during his early years and was supposed to have slept with a close friend when he did not sleep with Mrs. Lincoln, even while at the White House. Bedrooms were often utilitarian, and generally not large.
This remained the custom until Victorian decorators sought to infuse the bedroom with the same level of clutter and finery as the rest of the home. Another Victorian innovation was the “Twin” or Single bed.
Hailed by doctors as a way to prevent the spread of disease and by pastors as a way to prevent moral decay, they took both England and the US by storm. On the practical level they did keep people from being in close contact with the sick, and they allowed people to house more servants of the same sex in dorm like rooms.
It wasn’t until the post world war two boom in the US economy that young couples of most classes were able to live in a house or apartment of their own. It is only then that the real notion of privacy and the marital bed take serious hold in the western world.