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.