Myth #8: Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.

Curator Emily Roberts measures a bed and examines a closet in the Wythe House. 2008 CWJ photo story

This persistent myth has been making the rounds for decades.  Often a corollary comes with it: people slept sitting up because of the short beds.

Truth is, early American beds were made individually; there was no standard size.  Some beds, especially those for children, were  shorter than today’s. Some were longer.  Some people may have slept propped up on pillows, just as they do today, but beds were not made shorter because of that.

Visitors to historic houses are often surprised if the tour guide takes a measuring tape to a “short” bed and they find it is as long or longer than today’s standard 75” double bed.  In 1981 Colonial Williamsburg curators surveyed the antique beds in the exhibition buildings and found that all of them equaled or exceeded 6’3”, the standard today.  Some are as long as 80”, the length of today’s king or queen size.

So why do we think the beds are shorter? Because the high bed posts, fabric hangings, canopy, and plouffy mattresses make beds appear shorter in comparison  than they are.

As for the short people, heights varied in the eighteenth century as much as they do today.  But overall, people in the colonial era were not dramatically shorter than today.  When Colonial Williamsburg historian Harold Gill compared the average heights of white male soldiers during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s to those serving in the US Army in the 1950s, the difference was only about two-thirds of an  inch.  Other similar studies have shown similar results.  Interestingly, the average height of colonial American males does seem to have been significantly greater—up to 2 inches—than the average height of European males of the same time, a result ascribed to better nutrition and healthier living conditions (fewer crowded cities) in the New World than in the Old.

More recent studies have shown that in the past half century, the average height of Americans has, indeed, increased. Comparing soldiers from the Civil War era, who averaged 5′ 7 1/4″, with today’s average for men, 5′ 10 1/2″, shows an increase of over three inches, much of which occurred in the last half century.  Did beds become larger in the last half century? Well, bed lengths didn’t change but their relative popularity has. Ever since the 1960s, queen-size and king-size beds, with their extra 5 inches in length, have become increasingly popular to the point that the queen is now the bed of choice for most couples.

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13 Responses to Myth #8: Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.

  1. I just had to post on this topic – the Museum of London is also attempting to debunk this particular myth which continues to perpetuate. As part an exhibit, they have a placard which says (I have the picture somewhere, but I believe I recall the text well enough):

    “What can we learn from medieval bones?”
    “On the average, people in the Medieval era were only about 2-3 centimeters shorter than people today.” (2-3cm fits in pretty well with your description of 2/3 of an inch). Just thought I’d comment on that. =)

  2. marymiley says:

    More proof that people weren’t significantly smaller in colonial times–even as far back as the Middle Ages.
    In the Dec. 18-31 issue of the Economist (page 111), there is a long article about medieval warfare based on excavations into a mass grave of soldiers killed during the War of the Roses. It is all fascinating, but the part that stopped me cold was the information about heights. Seems people were not noticeably shorter in those days either! In the section subtitled “Who are you calling short?” the author says that medieval men averaged 1.71 meters tall, just 4 centimeters shorter than a modern Englishman.

  3. elbduval says:

    I hear a lot in historic houses / sites that people slept sitting up in bed (for health reasons, perhaps?). Any widespread truth to this?

    • marymiley says:

      Yes, I’ve heard that one for decades. (I’ve probably helped to spread it along, too, which makes me ashamed of myself.) I checked with a couple experts in 18th-c. medical issues and they say that there just isn’t any evidence that people slept sitting up for any health reason. There is nothing in medical books of the period to suggest it. Nor are there any diary entries that say, “I slept sitting up last night so I wouldn’t breathe the bad night air,” or something like that. Some people did think bad air caused disease (hence the word malaria, or bad air), and some may have thought night air was unhealthy, but sleeping sitting up would have no effect on that. You’re still breathing!
      Some people–my husband among them–just sleep better propped up on pillows.

      • Melissa Nesbitt says:

        I’m so glad to see this one. We get this all the time in the historic home where I work. It was built in the late 19th century, and we know the last lady who owned the house was 5′ 5″ (according to both her passport application and driver’s license). People comment all the time how “small” her bed is. First of all, she slept in a twin bed which doesn’t seem as popular today (a full bed seems almost too small for my taste). Secondly, the dimensions of her bedroom are 18′ x 28′ with 16′ ceiling. That’s enough to dwarf the size of ANY bed. I finally measured the darn thing myself, and I’m about to the point of keeping a tape measure in her room to actually show people who still don’t believe me.

  4. Donald Gappa says:

    Why did I have to have a special shorter mattress made for my 1870’s Victorian bed ?

    • marymiley says:

      Gosh, I don’t know. Standard sizes for beds and mattresses didn’t exist then. Beds that were shorter and longer than today’s standard lengths were certainly made, sometimes custom made, for children, youths, or small people. I had a mattress issue with an old bed too, but not because of length. Rather, it was because of the mattresses today being so thick. When I put a standard box spring and mattress on the single bed, the height was way above the footboard. I ended up buying a bunk bed mattress because, as it turns out, those are thinner.

  5. Thomm Yost says:

    Thank for this I worked for a time at the Winchester Mystery House and told people that Mrs. Winchester was only 4′ 10″ tall. Every tour someone would say that was because people were shorter back then. I should point out she lived from the mid 19th century to the early 20th. I would have to explain that no Mrs Winchester was really short no matter what era you compared her to and being born in 1839 or so that the human race does just not evolve that quickly. Now I have some more facts to back that up. Thank you.

  6. Kirill says:

    People slept sitting up! 1 it was just fashionable, esp. among kings and rich because some doctors were advising sleeping sitting up to people with heart problems, and it was thought that sleeping this way helps blood drain from the brain for better brain work and health reasons. People were not sleeping actually sitting, but laying high on several pillows, except those, who were sleeping in special cabinets (this came from Netherlands). The russian Emperor Peter the Great, who actually was very in to the fashion and brought a lot from Europe (meaning tought people to) clothes, habbits, building ships and structures, even building of the cities (even the names of the cities were given in a german manner – e.g. Petersburg) once brought that spesial cabinet from a trip and started sleeping in it. But this was the only thing, he couldn’t make his suite do :)

    • Mary Miley says:

      No doubt some people slept sitting up (propped up on pillows) just as they do today. But I don’t think we can make a blanket statement that “people slept sitting up.” That part about fashion and health is yet another myth. I’ll have to add that to my list and look into it. Thanks for the comment!

    • guthrie says:

      I looked through lots of medieval illustrations available online a couple of years ago, and found that the majority of people slept on their backs, flat. Often their heads were held more upright by large pillows or bolsters, but they did sleep flat. This myth of people sleeping sitting upright simply has no evidence for it.

  7. Anne Marie says:

    When I am pregnant I always have to sleep in an elevated position. When I lie flat I can’t breath and feel like I am drowning. Perhaps this could have been the same for some pregnant women or overweight people in that day.

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