Pillows were originally used mainly by the wealthy, and have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. The difficulty of sophisticated dyes and sewing techniques led to the development of pillows as an art form, with highly decorated pillows becoming prized commodities first in China and Persia and later in Medieval Europe. In Tudor England, pillows became widely-used; it was believed only women giving birth should use one. The Industrial Revolution saw the mass production of decorated textiles and decorated pillows. Traditional Chinese pillows are often hard boxes made from stone, wood, metal, or porcelain instead of stuffed fabric.
The shape and contents of pillows have varied little over time. The wealthier Greeks rested their heads and feet upon richly embroidered cushions and bolsters. The Egyptians, regarding the head as the seat of life, lavished much attention, detail, and money on pillows for the dead. The Chinese, however, thought that soft pillows robbed the body of vitality, and their pillows were made of wood, leather, and ceramic materials. Some were even filled with herbal remedies to cure disease, turn white hair black, restore lost teeth, and inspire sweet dreams.
For centuries, people slept fairly upright with not only a pair of pillows on the bed but a large, cylindrical bolster as well. These bolsters, sometimes nearly the width of the bed, were stuffed with down or some other type of batting and closed up. They were placed against the headboard and were the foundation for the pillows. Then, a pair of pillows was placed upright against the bolster. The sleeper would prop himself up against these pillows, resulting in a sleeping position that was closer to sitting than reclining. Until about the mid-1800s it was thought this position was better for the body.
Other fancy pillows were found on beds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sometimes large, square pillows were placed within a decorative pillow cover and then placed against the pillows actually used for sleeping on a bed. These were often removed from the bed before sleep. Until cotton became easy to obtain around 1840, American women showed their needlework prowess by carefully hand weaving and sewing linen pillow cases and marking them with their initials and the number the case was within a set of pillow cases. As the American textile industry flourished throughout the 1800s, covers for pillows (which housed the stuffing) went from utilitarian linen to the sturdy cotton ticking, still seen on pillows and in fabric stores.
The traditional filler for pillows was, until recently, down and feather. However, as fabrics changed, so too did yarns. Synthetic polyester filling has replaced natural batts as it is has acceptable loft and shape retention, is relatively inexpensive, may be washed, and few people are allergic to it.
Americans usually have two or three pillows on their bed. Today, pillows are stuffed primarily with materials such as polyester (a synthetic), feathers, down, or a combination of the latter two. The least expensive pillows to manufacture are polyester, although they are the most durable, easily washed, and cause few allergic reactions. The most expensive is the pillow filled with goose down. Feathers are a moderately priced stuffing. Some higher-end pillows may be filled with a combination of goose feathers and down, and that ratio may be varied extensively according to price point (the more down, the more expensive). The pillow filling is distinguished by the tag on the pillow casing, which must be there by law in the event that the consumer may be allergic to the contents.
Pillows are still manufactured in great quantities in the United States. They are also produced outside the country, but pillows are generally not imported to the United States. Shipping is measured by volume and pillows are extraordinarily expensive to ship. Some manufacturers have tried to have pillows made out of the country—where labor is cheaper—and crush the pillows during transportation in order to save money. However, once the pillow is crushed, it is difficult for it to spring back to its original shape and much of its plushness is lost.
Types of pillows
A pillow is designed to provide both support and comfort to the area of the body resting upon it. The design of each pillow reflects the type of support that it is intended to provide.
Body pillows are as long as a full adult body, providing support to the head and neck at the top and to the knees and legs lower down. This type of pillow can be especially useful in providing support for those who sleep on their sides and for pregnant women.
Neck pillows support the neck by providing a deep area for the head to rest and a supportive area to keep the neck in alignment. These can also be known as cervical pillows.
Travel pillows provide support for the neck and head in a sitting position. Their convenient “U” shape fits around the neck and keeps the head from slipping into an uncomfortable and possibly harmful position during sleep.
A husband pillow (also known as a bedrest) is a large, high-backed pillow with two “arms”. It is conventionally used to prop oneself upright while in bed, as for reading or watching television.
Donut pillows are shaped like a donut, with a space in the middle to alleviate pressure on the tailbone area. These pillows are used primarily by individuals who have suffered an injury to the tailbone area or who suffer pain from hemorrhoids or another ailment of the colon.
Lumbar pillows are designed to support the inward curve of the lower back, filling the space created when in a sitting position. These pillows are generally used while driving or sitting for extended periods of time, such as in an office chair.
Spillow Pillow is a new type of body pillow that is naturally contoured to help alleviate lower back pain like the body pillow but shaped more like a spooning position. These pillows are used in bed during sleep.
Using a pillow under the knees while sleeping on the back can relieve low back pain by helping to reduce the curve of the lower back in this position.
Using a pillow between the knees while sleeping on the side can prevent the upper leg from pulling downward and creating a twist in the spine.
Some pillows may also provide additional aids to relaxation, such as a heating pad or aromatherapy. Sleeping without a pillow can cause discomfort and soreness for some people, but it seems completely healthy to sleep without a pillow.
Pillows have varied little since they were first used. They are now also made with blends of hypo-allergenic fibers so that even people with allergies or extremely sensitive skin are able to enjoy their comfort. In this age of therapeutic remedies, some pillows are reverting back to the Chinese method of including herbs to relieve aliments and give a better nights rest. Orthopedic pillows are also advancing rapidly. They are filled with or surrounded by foam (some even contain gel or water that can be heated or cooled) that is either already formed or forms around the head, to fully support the neck. These pillows help to relieve neck, back, and lumbar pain. Some help to keep the head elevated to relive congested lungs, sinus problems, and puffy eyes. One company even markets a pillow with an undetectable speaker built in that plugs into the headphone outlet in a stereo.