A quick Google search for “pillows” will return almost a billion page results and over 30,000 shopping results. Pillows are a universal part of our lives and there are more options than there have ever been, each with its own claim of support and comfort. While the idea of pillows being a soft place to rest your head is not a new concept, it certainly wasn’t its original purpose.
So far as we know, the earliest pillows date back over 9,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Formed from stone, the top was carved in a half-moon shape to support the neck. The idea obviously wasn’t comfort, at least not immediate comfort. The basic function of the pillow was to keep the head off the ground and prevent insects from crawling into mouths, noses, and ears. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese also used similar pillows, though each culture had its own reasons for them.
The Egyptians believed that the head was an important spiritual and life center for the body, so pillows and headrests were created to hold and protect it. Most of these pillows, while similar to the Mesopotamians in their curved top, were carved out of wood and reserved mainly for wealthy individuals.
The Chinese on the other hand, created ornately decorated pillows from many materials including wood, stone, bamboo, and even porcelain, bronze, and jade. Though they had the knowledge and ability to create soft pillows, they believed that such pillows stole energy and vitality from the body while one slept and were ineffective at keeping demons away.
Ancient Greeks and Romans used pillows more similar to those we know today–cloth filled with materials such as feathers or straw. By the Middle Ages in Europe, however, pillows had fallen out of favor with many. Many men viewed pillows as a sign of weakness, and their use was primarily limited to pregnant women.
While they did make a resurgence after the Middle Ages, pillows did not become nearly as universal as they are today until the industrial revolution. The improvements in technology made mass production of textiles possible, meaning everyone could sleep with a pillow at night and could even afford decorative pillows for chairs and couches, something that earlier would have been seen as a symbol of high status.
For such a simple idea, it’s amazing to see that the pillow is still changing – new materials and shapes arise constantly, claiming to provide more support and a better night’s sleep than your old pillow. Though few people likely base their purchases on how well a pillows protects their ears from insects anymore, the pillow has been an important piece of human culture throughout much of our history and continues to be today.
Eric Palmer is a writer and designer living in Denver, CO, he writes on various topics including health and tips on how to fall asleep.