Why Did Married Couples Used to Sleep in Twin Beds? Not for the Reason You Think

If you've ever caught an old episode of "I Love Lucy" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show," you may have noticed something that the leading couples have in common that differs from modern marriages: The husband and wife sleep in separate beds. It's a common belief that the sleeping arrangement on these shows, which aired in the 1950s, was intended to promote modesty. There's some truth to that. But twin beds weren't always connected with the suggestive connotations of Lucy and Desi's days, according to a new book from Hilary Hinds, a literature professor at Lancaster University. And while we now consider this bedroom trend to be old-fashioned, there was once a time when sleeping in separate beds was the symbol of a forward-thinking couple.

Polluted Pillow Talk

You've probably heard about practicing good "sleep hygiene," like avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, turning down the thermostat, and banishing screens from your bedroom. According to Hinds, 19th-century couples practiced a more literal form of sleep hygiene: Sleeping in separate beds was partially a way to ward off illness.

"Health at home began with a healthy bedroom," Hinds writes.

Hygiene became a greater concern to people in the nineteenth century, first in terms of public health — cholera epidemics and "The Great Stink" in London led to hospital and sewer reforms — and later in individual homes. The prevailing idea in public health at the time was "miasma" theory, which asserted that diseases like cholera, typhus, and scarlet fever were caused by a miasma, a polluted air mass that came from decomposing organic matter. Dirty vapors coming from bodies of water swamps were also believed to create miasmas, also known as "night air." Health experts at the time believed that the key to fighting disease was to eliminate filth in homes and improve sanitation practices.

"'Public' health was secured largely in 'private,' that is in domestic spaces," Hinds writes.

Though sharing a bed with a family member, a spouse, or even a visiting friend was a long-standing custom in Europe, heightened concern over hygiene transformed the norm. While bedfellows were once seen as a "blessing" that provided security, warmth, and intimacy, they were suddenly recast as a dangerous source of pollution thanks in particular to one public health expert, Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson, who championed single beds as "an absolute necessity to health."

Twin beds, with a channel of pure air running in between co-sleepers, protected people from toxic "night air" produced by their partners.

Some experts at the time viewed domestic hygiene as a sign of modernity and, therefore, "ignorance of it a sign of 'medieval' lack of enlightenment." This was the first sign that twin beds were viewed as forward-thinking and modern, though they enjoyed popularity long after a more contemporary understanding of disease transmission was established.

Sleeping in Style

By the 1920s, twin beds had become the modern and fashionable choice for middle-class couples. Twin beds were often simple and cleanly designed, which was seen as a rejection of "old-fashioned" Victorian styles and their heavy, ornate double beds. Single beds were featured as integral elements of the architectural and design visions of avant-garde Modernists such as Le Corbusier, Peter Behrens, and Wells Coates. In fact, by 1930, twin beds had become so common that "explanation [was] redundant."

This sleeping arrangement also signified a couple's progressive style, as it balanced their need for togetherness at night with a continuing commitment to separateness and individual autonomy. Simply the fact that twin beds were usually identical symbolized the egalitarian nature of a married couple — they were equally sized beds for equally important partners. Many even considered them the sign of a healthy sexual relationship since spending eight hours in contact every night might reduce a couple's attraction "by making the married pair grow alike physically."

Ideas about couples and marriage changed post World War II, as did society's feelings on their sleeping arrangements. Before the war, austerity and housing shortages made sex and procreation less than desirable. But afterward, as incomes rose and families could live in single-family homes, those priorities flipped. Couples got married and had children at younger ages.

Perhaps as a result, separate beds slowly came to symbolize a marriage in trouble, since they literally impeded a couple's physical connection. Twin beds fell out of fashion by the 1960s, bringing to an end what Hinds calls a bold experiment in 20th-century living.

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Bust more myths about the history of marriage and families in "The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker September 17, 2019

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