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.
For over 1000 years they made pillows from wood, bronze, bamboo and porcelain. They also liked to decorate their pillows and today are sought after by collectors. Japanese Geisha used a hard pillow in order not to mess up their hair. Today across Africa you can find a variety of wooden pillows and some like to collect these. You can often find them for sale at collectors and antiques fairs. The Greeks and Romans preferred softer substances for pillows and used materials like reed, straw and feathered down.
The Chinese and Japanese 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. The first pillow was best described by Confucius five centuries before the birth of Christ: “With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow–I have still joy in the midst of these things.” One theory has it that makura (“pillow” in Japanese) is derived from tamakura, which means resting your head on your hands.
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.
During the middle ages in Europe many people did not use a pillow. Soft pillows became a status symbol. King Henry VIII banned the use of soft pillows with the exception of use by pregnant women. By the 16th Century the use of pillows had become increasingly commonplace. The stuffing of pillows had to be changed regularly as it would become mouldy or suffer from insect or vermin infestation.
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.
Today there is a huge variety of pillows available. There are different materials used for the outer cover such as cotton or polyester. The pillow filling material provides the overall support of the pillow and establishes the comfort level. The filling can be natural such as down, feather, buckwheat, cotton, alpaca wool or sheep wool. Because some people are allergic to feather and down a range of synthetic materials is also used such as foam, latex and polyester. The average comfort lifetime of feather pillows is 8 to 10 years, down pillows 5 to 10 years and polyester 6 months to 2 years.
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 pillow 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.