Making Beds (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the various books I’ve read/skimmed about household organization, I read over and over again exhortations to make one’s bed every morning. Many of these exhortations were phrased something like this: “I never used to make my bed, but then I changed my ways. It makes a big difference. Try it out yourself”. For more detailed examples of exhortations to make one’s bed every morning, click here and here.

These exhortations to make one’s bed every morning assume that making a bed only takes a minute or two. Most of the justifications for making the bed boil down to a) it looks nicer and b) it puts you in a better mindset.

Compare that to people on a long-distance hike who have to carry their ‘sleep-system’ with them.

Long-distance hikers tend to be very good about making their bed sleep system every morning. However, it has little to do with aesthetics or mindset. It’s a much more practical reason: the sleep system needs to be packed to fit into a backpack before leaving.

Some long-distance hikers take out their sleep system every day (possibly around lunchtime) to air it out (unless it’s raining/snowing), and most do this at least occasionally (I do this occasionally). The reason for this is also practical: staying warm and dry at night. Airing out bedding helps restore loft (warmer) and helps dry it out (warmer and drier). Even during dry weather, the body releases a lot of moisture while inside the bedding, so the bedding will become moister (this is also why sleeping bags/quilts need ‘breathable’ shell fabrics).

Reading Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk, I learned that in Victorian England, making/unmaking a middle-to-upper class bed was a substantially effort. Unmaking a bed ‘properly’ took half an hour, and re-making took another half-hour. To quote the book:

[A Victorian bed] consisted of a bedstead, a sheet of thick brown Holland fabric to cover the metal springs, then a horsehair mattress, feather mattress, underblanket, undersheet, bottom sheet, top sheet, three or four blankets, eiderdown and pillow covers. Mrs Panton recommended stripping all this off, every day: ‘there is not one single thing that should be left on the bed once one is out of it. Do not be content with turning all the bed-clothes over the rail; see that they are all pulled out from under the mattress, separated, and hung up.’

Of course, middle class and upper class people rarely did this work themselves; their servants did it. (And in reality, servants often skipped some of the steps so that it would take less than hour to unmake + remake a bed.)

Part of all of this fuss about properly airing out and making a bed with so many layers was a matter of conspicuous consumption, but there were also practical reasons. First, it helped to reshape/fluff the parts of the bed so they would remain comfortable. And, as I said before, the body releases a lot of moisture while wrapped in bedding, and moist bedding is a great environment for tuberculosis-causing bacteria to thrive (even before the bacteria was identified, people were aware of a connection between moist bedding and tuberculosis). There were no antibiotics in Victorian times.

Poor people, if they even had multi-layered beds (many did not), probably did not have the time and energy to properly air them most days. My guess is that they were more likely to suffer from tuberculosis than middle class and upper class people.

Having all of these layers of sheets, blankets, etc. was standard for affluent people’s beds until the 1970s. To quote Lucy Worsley:

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the greatest revolution yet in bed-making occurred. This was the decade during which the duvet arrived from Scandinavia. With it the use of top sheet, blankets and bedspread would almost disappear, or at the very least, would come to appear deliberately nostalgic … Duvets were associated with liberation form the drudgery of bed-making … few people, once they’d tried duvets, went back to sheets and blankets … the simplicity of most modern beds – just one mattress, just one covering – takes us back in a strange kind of circle to the medieval period, when a sack full of straw and a cloak were all one needed.

One place which still often has the old fashioned sheets + blankets setup are hostels. I’m used to properly setting up the sheets and blankets hostel-style. That is because it is cheaper for hostels to just wash sheets between uses (blankets are rarely washed) than to wash duvets between uses, keeping prices down.

As I’ve written about before on this blog, I currently sleep on a shikifuton (traditional style futon). The way I ‘make my bed’ is that I pull off my comforter and pillow (I don’t take off the pillowcase) and roll up my shikifuton. I unroll it when I want to lie down on it. I do this not for aesthetics or for mindset. I do it to prevent mold, to stretch the batting (which helps it last longer and remain comfortable) and to make that space available for other uses. It’s so simple that I don’t think ‘making’ my ‘bed’ (if that concept even applies) makes much difference to how neat my room looks. I do admit that it probably does influence my mindset – I associate having it laid out with ‘time to go to bed’ and rolling it back up with ‘time to get out of bed’. I think these clear physical cues have a mildly positive influence on my sleeping/waking cycle. However, I do this so habitually that it does not give me a feeling of having accomplished anything, or any of the other mental benefits ascribed to making one’s bed.

I think the people who exhort others to make a (modern-with-duvet) bed every day are overstating their case. I don’t think they are wrong, I just think they are exaggerating. And I think to some extent they are trying to justify an impulse which is a leftover from the era when good bed-making affected ones odds of becoming sick with tuberculosis. I find practical concerns, such as preventing mold and keeping my bedding dry and warm, to be much better at motivating me to ‘make’ my ‘bed’.

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