A while back I read this article by Mary Miley Theobald in Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine about common myths of American historic sites. Then I listened to a podcast interview with the author (MP3 download and transcription). And that in turn told me about her History Myths Debunked blog. Which all, to be accurate, cover the same ground.
My favorite item is “Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.” People were shorter, but not that shorter. Alternative explanations I’ve heard, referring to earlier centuries and different places, is that people tended to sleep propped up instead of flat, or that shorter beds don’t have so many cold spots.
Theobald offers a different debunking based on looking at actual eighteenth-century beds. It turns out they’re not shorter after all:
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.The photograph above comes from another Colonial Williamsburg article that debunks the other myth that “sleep tight” refers to rope beds, and comes with a bonus Wizard of Oz reference.
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.