Girl Power (Eighteenth-century-style): Strong Tea, Scandal…and Your Own Private Space

Millie’s no milksop. Her wedding’s just round the corner and she’s drawn up a pre-nup with the following demand: Mike – her husband-to-be – can’t enter her study unless he knocks first, and if she wants to, she can shut him out. Not that unreasonable, you might think, in this day and age. After all, if Mike wants to spend time alone in his man-cave (AKA his shed), no one would bat an eyelid. Except that Millie (her real name’s Millimant) is not alive in 2019; she’s a character in a play written in 1700 when women were still their husband’s property, and demanding your own closet, in some men’s eyes, was tantamount to treason.*

But things were beginning to change for middle-class women entering the 1700s. Not only did they feel entitled to their own ‘snugitude’, they could become quite indignant if it was not forthcoming upon marriage.

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Bundling – Love in a Cold Climate

Modern-day dating is fraught with angst for the average teenager, but none of it compares with the traumas of being a loved-up youngster in seventeenth-century Scotland. You’ve found the guy you want to marry but to prove to your parents he’s the one, you and your mate have to submit to a humiliating ordeal known as ‘bundling’.

This is roughy how it went. You invite your boyfriend home to meet your parents. Next thing you know, your mother’s tying you up from feet to waist (and even to the neck) and placing you in a sack. Just to be on the safe side, she gets you to put your legs inside a large stocking tied securely above the knees. You and your bewildered boyfriend get into your family’s best bed – always in the main reception room – where you spend the night under your parents’ watchful eyes.

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Sleeping with Technology

The marriage between technology and beds has a long pedigree. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention and the necessity to make beds help us sleep better, protect our backs and save space have incentivised scientists and engineers to push the boundaries. So has the need to come up with beds to improve our sex lives. In the 1780s, Scottish quack James Graham, the world’s first sex therapist, lured London’s glitterati to his fancy clinic in Pall Mall. Here, he assured the likes of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire that sleeping in his electrically-charged Celestial Bed – at the modest fee of £50 (about £3,000 in today’s money) – would cure impotency and infertility. 12-feet long, 9-feet wide and fitted with 15 cwt of magnets, when a couple were about to climax, the bed tilted on its axis, allegedly helping the woman to conceive.

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Bedding The Bride

Whatever you think about getting spliced – and April’s a popular month for it – thank your lucky stars you’re not living in the past with the prospect of a ’bedding-the-bride’ party on the horizon. Originating in the Middle Ages, and providing an opportunity for guests to behave like peeping-Toms, nobody then would have regarded these events as voyeuristic: little was considered private and out of bounds.

Imagine you’re the helpless bride. After the marriage service, the priest leads you and the groom, your families and friends, to the bridal suite. While you get undressed by your female friends and led to the marital bed, your husband’s attendants disrobe him, then take him to join you. A priest stands by, swinging a censor and sprinkling holy water over the bed. While he blesses you both and wishes you many healthy children, the guests look on, impatient to get the party started.

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Superstition and the Bed

When the acrimonious divorce of super-celebrities Sandra Bullock and Jesse James hit the news in June 2010, interiors expert Ken Lauher put it down to the exposed beam directly above the marital bed at their luxury home in Sunset Beach *. The beam, Lauher argued, effectively divided the bed in two, foreshadowing the couple’s split. Whether you regard Feng Shui as law, myth or just whacky, there is no doubt that superstitions and folklore have played a major role in where we position our beds, what we keep in, on and around them, and how we sleep.

Many of these superstitions and old wives’ tales go back to our earliest ancestors. Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese belief system whose non-negotiables include siting a mirror opposite a bed – to avoid your spirit leaving your body – and making sure your feet don’t face the door when asleep.

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Marriage – Single or Double Beds?

Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows, matrimony does,’ Groucho Marx.

Though – even ‘with kids screaming’ or on the eve of a grand slam final – Roger Federer makes it a rule to sleep in the marital bed*, in 2018 a YouGov poll found that as many as 15 per cent of Britons would – if they had the choice – opt to sleep in a different bed to their spouse.

The reasons for this included snoring, restlessness and a partner’s insistence on having a threesome with their phone or tablet. Sleep disturbance from your nearest (and not so dearest) has even been cited in divorce proceedings as a cause of one party’s ‘unreasonable behaviour.’ Though not halitosis, a divorce ground recognised by the Vikings.

Those who have opted for separate beds from their partners – such as Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray** – are probably blissfully unaware they’re emulating the ancient custom of kings and toffs who considered it uncivilised to share a bed.

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