China ‘headrests’ evolved from smooth stones with a concave surface. By the late sixth century, they were rectangular blocks made of jade, bronze, ceramic or wood depending on your social status. Woven split bamboo pillows were common but they were generally all hard with a stable base and a concave top surface to hold the head. Before sleep a pillow’s hollow interior might be filled with fragrant leaves, flowers or even incense to sweeten dreams.
Porcelain pillows were made from the 10th to the 14th century decorated in colourful glazes with animals, plants, people, mountains, geometric motifs and familiar cultural stories, and often shaped as animals, small children wagons and clouds .They were gradually replaced by pillows of different styles such as the European stuffed pillows. To our modern eye the intricately decorated and moulded forms don’t appear to be pillows or more correctly headrests. How could anything so hard be comfortable? European observers called them “opium pillows” because opium users claimed that after smoking opium for a while, even a hard pillow felt “like a cloud.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century pillows continued to be made as decorative ceramics more for travellers’ curiosities cabinets than use on the bed. True Chinese pillows have long ceased to be used except in historical renactments on film. They are however collected as ceramics or antiquities because of their intrinsic value due to their craftsmanship and place in the long story of Chinese culture. Despite the therapeutic and possibly spiritual values of the ‘hard’ pillow, nowadays the emphasis is on softness, quality of the fabric and the hygiene of the place where we lay our head. The very old English word ‘pillow’ has always meant ‘cushion’. Its functions are not only to separate the head from underlying hardness but more importantly to elevate the head, thus keeping it horizontal, the neck relaxed and airways unconstricted. The pillow evolved in European culture from a pad of soft grass or leaves on hard ground to a roll of animal skins to a plain or embellished fine fabric case firmly filled with softness. Handmade pillows were the norm in Medieval Europe and the European way of sleeping followed the first explorers into the New World. In mid-19th century Britain, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution the growth of cities and an increasingly global textile industry the way pillows were made changed.
Bed linen was made from cotton – or Manchester after the city where it was woven. The painstakingly hand stitched and embroidered cases filled with cushioning softness, once the privilege of landed aristocracies, were replaced with machine-made, hygenically changeable and often even machine embroidered with a soft inner ‘pillow’ of goose down or feathers which were available to all. Soon the new discovery rubber displaced the fast disappearing feathers. In ancient Egyptian, African and Chinese cultures the head was understood as the home of the spirit. A sleeping head, therefore, deserved more than simple cushioning comfort in sleep, however luxurious. Finely carved personal headrests are still integral to the identity of young men in some African states – doubling up as stools they are carried everywhere. Gilded wooden and finely carved and embellished stone headrests are found as funerary furniture in the tombs of the Pharaohs.