Together but apart

Far from being an outmoded sign of prudishness, twin beds were once seen as just the thing for forward-thinking couples

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For most people today, twin beds clearly signal a bygone age. They conjure up images from mid-century films such as Brief Encounter or Mrs Miniver, or the I Love Lucy show from the 1950s, and suggest a society too coy or repressed to show the grittier and messier real world of sex and marriage.

While this might be the reputation that twin beds have now, it is not how they have always been seen. For a century or so, from the 1880s onwards, they were far from being the old-fashioned, prudish or faintly ridiculous objects that they have now become. Instead, they were the height of household fashion, the sign of a forward-thinking couple and a modern marriage. In 1892, the Yorkshire Herald predicted that twins would “no doubt in time succeed the double bed”, and by the late 1920s, The Complete Household Adviser found this to be the case: twins had become “the rule in most houses”.

This turn away from the double bed for married couples was prompted not by Victorian prudishness, however, but anxieties about health and illness. This new way of sleeping arose in the context of a widespread concern among the middle classes about unhealthy houses. It was believed that any disease – from so-called “filth diseases” such as diphtheria, dysentery, measles and pneumonia to the more commonplace colds, headaches or general malaise – could arise in insanitary conditions. The fear was that disease could lurk in dust, odours from drains and arsenic in wallpaper, but there was particular concern about the dangers of foul air, including the exhaled breath of a fellow sleeper if you were up close to them in a double bed. Dr Benjamin Ward Richardson, one of the most prolific writers about such hazards, was unequivocal. “The system of having beds in which two persons can sleep is always, to some extent, unhealthy.”

Twin beds were a widely recommended solution to this problem. They maintained the companionableness of sharing a room with one’s spouse but guarded against the risk of inhaling their potentially dangerous, disease-laden exhaled breath. They allowed couples to be simultaneously – and healthily – both together and apart in the bedroom.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, twin beds were firmly established as the sign of a modern, progressive couple, committed to furnishing their house in as healthy a manner as possible. The design of the twin beds sold in London stores such as Maples or Heal’s reflected this commitment to modernity. Sweeping away the fussy, ornate style preferences of the Victorians in favour of simpler, cleaner lines, fashionable designers included twin beds in their plans for modern homes fit for the new century.

Twin beds came into fashion as a healthy bedroom choice but were quickly also understood to be the sign of a healthy modern marriage. Just as forward-thinking couples were troubled by the way their houses might be making them ill and changing to twin beds to counteract this, so too such couples were also rethinking conventional ideas about marriage. Moving away from the idea that middle-class married men and women occupied “separate spheres” – the husband associated with the public world of the city and the workplace, the wife with the home and the family – a new ideal was forming, stressing the importance of equality, mutuality and companionship in marriage. While men and women were still thought to have different areas of responsibility in the family, they were also now encouraged to cultivate and enjoy the things they had in common – going to the theatre, perhaps, or playing bridge – and also to respect each other’s individuality and separateness. This ideal is embodied in twin beds. By separating the sleeping couple but nonetheless keeping them close by, side by side, these beds gave the wife, as well as the husband, her own space, a night-time territory over which she had control.

Many late Victorian marital reformers recommended twin beds for precisely this reason. The double bed, wrote Eliza Duffey, “is a constant provocative of amorous ideas and sensations to the husband, if not to both”. Such desires needed to be regulated because sexual excess in marriage was seen as debilitating and coarsening for both men and women, “deadening their finer sentiments”. Twin beds guarded against this, but in so doing they were certainly not straightforwardly anti-sex. Rather, they allowed the couple to “gather all the delicate aroma of mutual passion”, and therefore resulted in better – more mutually satisfying – sex than the double bed.

Not everyone, however, was convinced by this argument. In the 1920s and 1930s, the best-known marital reformer of the day, Marie Stopes, regularly wrote against the twin bedstead, calling it “that invention of the devil… one of the enemies of true marriage”. She was eloquent on the problems it introduced. “It gives a false pretence of nearness in union which is a travesty. Its narrowness creates cold draughts at a time when warm comfort and space is vital. It secures the ever-present sense of intrusion when real solitude is desired. It enforces continual proximity, and deadens feeling, without that intimate and close contact which rests, soothes and invigorates.”

In the inter-war period, Stopes’s was a lone voice speaking against the problems she saw caused by twin beds. After the Second World War, however, her views gradually came into the mainstream. Newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Observer debated – often via their letters pages – the relative merits of double or twin, and increasingly the consensus was in the double’s favour. As the Mirror concluded in 1955, the double bed might have the disadvantage of starting rows over “blanket-snatching”, but nevertheless, “one thing must be admitted. It’s so darned friendly.” In a period where “togetherness” emerged as a marital ideal combining companionship, complementarity and sexual compatibility, and promising these as the principal source of fulfilment for the wife, in particular, this new advocacy of the double made perfect sense.

By the 1970s, twin beds had acquired the air of outmodedness and prudishness they still have today. However, when we read in the media today about the current epidemic of insomnia and the national sleep deficit, or sleep specialists’ recommendations to sleep alone to ensure a good night’s rest, or celebrity interviews which recommend living in separate houses as a way of keeping a relationship fresh and exciting, maybe the concerns and desires which led to a century of twin-bedded sleep are not so very different from those that still exercise
us today.

Hilary Hinds is head of the Department of English literature and creative writing at Lancaster University. Her book A Cultural History Of Twin Beds is published by Bloomsbury and is freely available by Open Access: put Bloomsbury Collections Twin Beds into your search engine

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