Duncan Debroom

Sleeping Around: A History of the Bedroom

We all know that the contemporary home is divided into a number rooms, each with its own special function: the living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, etc.  What could be more natural, right?  In fact, it isn’t natural at all, but historically-speaking a quite recent phenomenon.  The nineteenth century marks a great watershed between the way things had been for centuries and the way they are now.  That century saw incomes rise dramatically thanks to the industrial revolution and consequently the creation of a middle class as we know it.  And one of the interesting things about these newly affluent people was that they increasingly retreated from public spaces towards the seclusion of the home.  During this time the home and the work place became increasingly separated.   In the twentieth century these new informal arrangements became encoded in law as zoning codes which forbad the mixing of residential and industrial spaces.

Simultaneously this increasing privatization of life also took place within the home itself.  Before the nineteenth century, rooms tended to be multipurpose.   Furniture was often shifted from room to room depending on what activity was to take place in a room at any given time of day or night.  Servants often slept in the same rooms as family members and boys and girls slept with their parents, or all the children together. More often than not there were no rooms that served exclusively as bedrooms, except perhaps among the one percent!  But in the nineteenth century all that changed.  The newly prosperous middle class could afford larger houses, and the good house became defined as one that contained many separate spaces.  Spaces to entertain guests, spaces exclusively for family, spaces for parents, spaces for children, spaces for servants.  Just as the family separated itself off from the public, so increasingly the parents were to have their bedroom and each child his or her own.   And these rooms were seen as private refuges for each person, spaces that were not social. For example, when a child was told to “go to your room,” it was both a punishment and a symbolic statement that the child was no longer fit to be part of the family space but was to be banished to his own private space until he was fit to be reincorporated into the family again.

Duncan Bed

The Soho Bed by James Duncan

Among the wealthy in the nineteenth and even up to the mid twentieth century a husband and wife had their own bedrooms.  In America, separate bedrooms for husband and wife are rare today, even among those who can afford to have them.  The reason is that unlike during Victorian times, the shared bedroom is perhaps the key symbol of the happily married couple.    A friend of mine (who sleeps in a separate bedroom from his wife) argues that while the conjugal bed might symbolizes “married” it definitely does not symbolize sexy.  Sexy, he says, is not lying next to someone who snores, or even sleeping next to the same person every night.  Sexy is slipping into another bedroom for a few hours. He goes on to argue that separate bedrooms are the best way of avoiding having marriage become “a long dull meal, with the dessert served first”!  But this, I grant you, is probably a minority opinion.

While we very rarely get asked to create separate bedrooms for a husband and wife, which I think is a shame,  we have noticed that the size of master bedrooms continues to grow.  And such spaces need to be filled with furniture. A king-size bed can’t get much larger without running the risk of looking like a wrestling ring, and so bedrooms are coming to look more and more like intimate living rooms.  The model here is the Victorian “boudoir” (from the French verb bouder, “to sulk”).  In the nineteenth century, wealthy women had their own private sitting room, and dressing room adjacent to their bedroom, where they could entertain intimate friends, or simply sulk if they were fed up with their family.  Wealthy men, of course had their own bedrooms in those days, complete with attached dressing rooms and private sitting rooms.  And so what we are seeing now is an update on the nineteenth century boudoir.

Duncan Bed

New York Bed by James Duncan

But enough of who’s sleeping with who.  Ever notice how the language of advertising has crept into the bedroom?  Who thought up the term, “Master Bedroom?”  If the home and the bedroom in particular are thought of traditionally as the woman’s place, then why is it called the Master bedroom? Why not the Mistress Bedroom?  I suppose that while that sounds like fun, maybe it doesn’t convey the idea of the “happy family!”    And in the master bedroom the couple’s bed is either  a “King” or a “Queen.”  If you think about it, this is getting downright silly.  Here we are in the age of equal rights for women and in the great democracy sleeping in rooms fit for a master with beds of an appropriate size for a king or a queen?  Oh please, tell me it’s all ironic!!!!! But of course, it isn’t.  Advertisers aren’t just playing games with language or, god forbid, trying to be funny.  Their not too subtle message with this pre-modern language of domination and grandeur is that bigger is better, and no expense should be spared.  Maybe if we thought about language more we would be more critical consumers!

And speaking of being critical, for god sake don’t waste your money on a “bedroom set,” for it’s the TV Dinner of interior design.  The “bedroom set” is a twentieth century creation, geared to a rising mass market of new middle class consumers who felt lost. It was a brilliant move on the part of the manufacturers who could now sell sets rather than single pieces and was a boon to upwardly mobile consumers, unsure of their taste, who were assured that their furniture “went together.”  The forerunner of the Ethan Allen Company was a pioneer in this area, and that company and others continued the tradition.   Of course, right from the start, not everyone was impressed by the idea of the “set”.  To the elite, the idea of buying a newly manufactured “set” was poison, precisely because it suggested that they were incapable on their own of choosing furniture that went together.  In fact, I would argue that the essence of interior design is to choose things that go together harmoniously but definitely don’t look like a set!

So where is the bedroom going from here?  My guess is that at the top end, bedrooms are going to get larger and that eventually people are going to realize that rather than creating living room size spaces, that  the Victorian bedroom idea might have been right after all.  What I envisage is a couple having  connecting bedrooms, each with their constellation of ensuite bathrooms, dressing rooms, boudoirs and offices.  That way each person can have exactly the bedroom they want, and yes, have visiting rights in the adjoining bedroom.


About James

The Duncan’s have been working in both interiors and industrial design for the last fifteen years. James and Miriam have developed over 250 designs sold to the trade around the world.