Med thumb evolution of pillow main

Among the enduring mysteries of modern life, the prominence and staying power of the decorative throw pillow is among our most curious developments. The Mt. McKinley-sized piles covering our places of rest and relaxation are so confounding because they lack a raison d'etre: They provide no comfort. They serve no practical purpose. At best, we might see them as a brake-pump to too-spontaneous sex. 

To those of us immune to the allure of throw pillows, they embody the ultimate Sisyphean task: Every night we remove and stack the pillows, so that every morning we can rebuild and stack the pillows, so that every night we remove and stack the pillows, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. According to Judith Gura, an author and professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design, throw pillows began as an escape from the drab design that plagued many houses. "We've gotten tired of stark modernism, so a way to relieve that is with pillows," she says. With Gura as our Virgil, here's a look at how the glaciers of history coalesced to deposit this detritus in our living rooms, and an analysis of what it might mean.  

The Pillow as Bug Repellent 

It's nearly impossible to find a precursor to the pillow we know today. But archeologists have found carved wooden neck rests from ancient Mesopotamia designed to support the neck during sleep. What with the high price of stone, these pre-pillows would might have only been affordable to the rich, but scientists believe they were used less for comfort than to keep bugs from invading their brains. No argument there. 

The Pillow as Spiritual Totem

Ancient Egyptian Headrest

The ancient Egyptians, who lived around 2,000 BC, are known for their unique beliefs about (and rituals celebrating) various bodily functions, and their approach to head-and-neck support was no exception. Judith Gura, an author and professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design, says their version of pillows (pictured above) is easy to misinterpret. "We see the ones in a museum are these objects, maybe nine or ten inches high that look like a very low stool," she says. "But they're actually head rests. You see them from parts of Africa as well."
The Egyptians crafted these curved braces with a stand from a number of materials, including ivory, marble, stone, ceramic and wood, but all of them functioned to keep the head elevated, which was believed to aid in health and breathing. Their stone "pillow" also held religious significance, as they considered death nothing more than one long sleep. Thus, many of these headrests were intricately carved with images of the gods. 

The Pillow as Training Device

Perhaps few humans have lived under such rigorous instruction and ritual as Japanese Geisha. Beauty was everything to them. They were subject to rules governing their appearance during both waking and sleeping hours. 
Take the taka-makura, or "tall pillow." The padded head rest used specifically by Geisha elevated their necks and heads without touching their hair — this being the crucial element, as their complex hairdos were time-consuming to construct and thus supposed to last several days. It is said that to train Geisha from removing their head from their taka-makura overnight, rice would be spread around their sleeping quarters. If rice was stuck to their face or hair in the morning, there would be hell to pay. 

The Pillow as Status Symbol 

It's kind of mind-blowing, but our notion of a pillow as a cushion is a modern concept. Why? Until the industrial revolution, fabrics were to expensive to waste on something like a head rest. "In the colonial US, textiles were the most expensive part of a home's interior, so you didn't use fabric for something extravagant like that," says Gura.
As an idea of how dear textiles were, she notes that early settlers made new clothing by taking apart and reusing old clothing. And if you were wealthy enough to, say, import a carpet, you would have kept it on your dining table, to prevent it from getting worn out. It would take the price-dropping powers of industrial production for textiles to become widely affordable. "To use fabric for a pillow would have been a real extravagance. It would have been a status symbol," she says. 

The Pillow as Ornament

The notion of a proper throw pillow, meaning a cushion intended purely for decorative use in a public space, didn't appear in the west until probably the Victorian era. "Before then they were strictly sleep items or perhaps used as a cushion for feet," Gura says. "The Renaissance and Rococo revivals during the Victorian era were all about ornament and pattern and fringe, and pillows would have gone along with it." The roots of our destruction were sown.

The Pillow as Decorative Excess


The fashions of the past century have run a sort of boom-and-bust cycle between excess and minimalism — the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression. The buttoned-up '50s (and early '60s) was followed by '70s psychedelic insanity. So it may be that our extended love affair-turned-SWF obsession with squishy, often conspicuously graphic throw pillows is a reaction to earlier periods of minimalism."We're more eclectic and softer and more romantic now." 
But Gura also notes that the throw pillow has a more practical appeal: Furniture is expensive, and throw pillows are a cheap way to make something look new, or at least different. "Like any piece of jewelry, it's ornament. But it has become decorative excess," Gura says. "To get in bed you have to take 70 pillows off. It's a pain." Amen.