Pillow Talk

Pillow Fight, Photo by Christopher Michel (2010), Wikimedia Commons-300px
Pillow Fight, Photo by Christopher Michel (2010), Wikimedia Commons

Grab a blanket because today on Museum Bites we’re cozying up for some pillow talk. Whether you prefer fluffy or firm, pillows not only help us get a good night sleep, they cushion our tushes, stack up into handy forts, and add a soft but significant wallop in a friendly fight. The headrest, on the other hand, is the pillow’s stern ancestor. Handcrafted from wood, stone and a variety of other neck-crunching materials, the headrest looks more like a torture device than a means of inducing slumber. But headrest enthusiasts have touted both its practical and mystical virtues. Join me for a brief look at the art and history of these ancient sleep aids. We begin by dialing back the clock to ancient Egypt…

Tutankhamun Ivory Headrest (c1323 BCE), Photo by Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Tutankhamun Ivory Headrest (c1323 BCE), Photo by Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons

Grave Goods:  The oldest headrests on record date back almost 5,000 years. Considered a common household object in the ancient Egyptian home, headrests ranged from the austere to the extravagant. Egyptians treasured their headrests so much, it was regularly included on their journey-through-the-afterlife packing list along with food, weapons, shabti, and other grave goodies. Click on this Museum Bites: The Game of Life link to learn more Egyptian afterlife prep.

Fun Pillow Talk Fact #1: Chronic over packer King Tutankhamun had eight headrests stashed inside his tomb.

African Head Rests, Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2017)-300px
African Head Rests, Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Status Symbol:  Catching some Zs on a headrest was and in some, cases still is a widespread practice in parts of central, western and southern Africa. Handcrafted and typically made of wood, African headrests were used to preserve intricate hairdos, help users commune with the spirits while sleeping, and establish one’s status in the tribe. Like scarification, the imprints left on a tribe member’s face after sleeping on a stiff-necked headrest are considered visual evidence of a person’s badassery.

Fun Pillow Talk Fact #2:  African herdsmen often sleep on wobbly wooden headrests to prevent deep sleep. All the better to keep an eye and ear on their precious herds.

Hard Core:  Headrests were also a popular sleep aid in parts of Asia. Chinese headrests date back more than a thousand years and were also crafted in a variety of designs and materials, including wood, bronze, jade, porcelain, and bamboo, to name a few. But no fluffy versions here. At the time, anything soft was believed to decrease circulation, deprive the body of energy, and even go so far as to court demons. These durable and delicately carved Chinese headrests were used to elevate the head and help users communicate with their ancestors while sleeping. Like the ancient Egyptians, Chinese tombs were packed with a vast array of headrests.

Fun Pillow Talk Fact #3:  During the Tokugawa (aka Edo, 1603–1867) and Meiji (1868–1912) eras in Japan, women used headrests with tiny pillows atop to preserve their elaborate updos.

Dream Weavers:  Pacific Islanders wove their headrests from grass, leaves or bamboo. In addition to signifying a person’s status, Pacific Islanders believed these somewhat cushier sleep aids opened pathways to the spirit world when they were dreaming. Click on this Google Arts & Culture Headrest link to view more delightful examples from all over the world.

Beds of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans (1905) by CL Ransom, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Beds of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans (1905) by CL Ransom, Wikimedia Commons

Soft Spot:  The ancient Greeks were the first to snuggle up with a fluffy pillow or two for the sole purpose of comfort. Packed with feathers, grass or straw, these ancient cushions required regular stuffing replacement since they were prone to bugs, mice, and mold. Taking their cue from the Greeks, the Etruscans and Romans also indulged in the benefits of sleeping on pillows.

Fun Pillow Talk Fact #4: Alexander the Great slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow.

Embroidered Cotton Pillows, British (c17th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art-300px
Embroidered Cotton Pillows, British (c17th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pillow Craze:  Pillow mania eventually swept throughout Europe, gaining support and improving in style. By the Middle Ages, hand embroidered pillows became the got-to-have-it merch of the rich. The Industrial Revolution ushered in machine-made and mass-produced pillows. And today, from the full-length body to the wee cellphone variety, our beds, couches, planes, trains, and so on are chock-full of a wide and sometimes ridiculous assortment of pillows.

“Fun” Pillow Fact #5:  The Tailormade Gold Edition pillow by Van der Hilst, is custom built using 3-D body scans and a 3-D printer at a cost of…$56,995.

That wraps up our look at pillows and headrests. Remember to turn your clocks back this weekend as we switch to Standard Time. Next week we’re hitting the rails and taking a tour of the National Railroad Museum. Until then, have a relaxing and rest-filled week!

Photo by cjverb (2009)-100px Cover photo by cjverb (2009).


Architectural Digest

Ancient History EncyclopediaMuseum Bites: The Game of Life


British Museum: Pillows

Fitzwilliam Museum

FlySFO Museum

Fowler Museum

Google: Arts & Culture-Headrests

LA Times

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Pillows

Museum Bites: The Game of Life


Washington Post

Wikimedia Commons

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