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Ancestral Tablet or Pillow? The Subjectivity of Appearance and Function

Posted on November 15, 2012

Chinese Pillow

Emily Hartwell Collection, MC 076, Chinese Pillow, circa 1800.

Hanna Juergens '13

I have come across this pillow on a few separate occasions when putting objects away. Within the Emily Hartwell Collection (MC076) there are also ancestral tablets and the first time I saw the pillow I assumed that it is one of them; only to discover that no, this small, hard wooden object, is a pillow. The pillow is quite small, one could not possibly fit their whole head upon it, and the pillow is also surprisingly hard. It made me question my idea of what a pillow should be and how this is grounded in my 21st century American view, a place in which a pillow is large, soft, and fluffy. . It made me think about how objects change over time and that perhaps a pillow is not inherently soft or fluffy.   My next question was, what exactly is the function of a pillow anyways? I began to wonder what about the socio-cultural context made this pillow take the form that it did. I then began to wonder if other cultures and time periods had other versions of pillows, different from the Chinese style as well.

The earliest record of pillow use is in Mesopotamia around 7000 BCE. These ancient pillows were usually made of stone and used by Egyptians who propped their necks up on these stone pillows as a way to keep bugs form crawling into their ears, mouths, and noses. In Asia, pillows were originally used by wealthy men. Like the early Egyptian pillows, traditional Chinese pillows were hard, and made from stone, wood, metal, or porcelain. This is because early Asian cultures believed that soft pillows stole energy from your body while you slept.

Porcelain Pillow

Photo Courtesy of Professor Gary Lee Todd (Professor of History, Sias International University, Xinzheng, Henan, China)

However, pillows made out of certain materials were believed to translate energy from the stone to the brain. For example, Shitou shentou (rock pillow) made from jade were thought to increase one’s intelligence. Pillows were also trusted to cure headaches, depression, and other maladies. They were more common in the royalties because they were expensive and rare.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used slightly more comfortable pillows made of cloth and stuffed with feathers, reeds, or straw. The Greeks and Romans often embroidered their pillows and skilled pillow embroiders were highly valued in society. The difficulty of sophisticated dyes and sewing techniques lead to the development of pillows as an art form, with highly decorated pillows becoming prized possessions first in China and Persia and later Medieval Europe.

Birth of Louis VIII of France in 1187, as pictured in the 14th or 15th century Grandes Chroniques de France, from Wikimedia Commons

In Tudor England, pillows fell into slight disfavor, and it was believed that only women giving birth and “weak” men should use them. A few hundred years later it was the Industrial Revolution that brought the mass production of decorated textiles and pillows, similar to the ones we have today.

The different functions of the pillow show the development of different societies and the respective things that those societies valued. In ancient Egypt basic protection of the head was wanted. In ancient China, the focus was placed on one’s head in terms of intellect and health. Finally, in the current day the pillow reflects an emphasis on comfort. These various functions prove that the appearance of historical artifacts often do not match up with one’s preconceived contemporary notions. The awareness of this subjectivity of appearance and function allows one to be a better historian or researcher, one who does not take things at face value. Furthermore, knowing that something as obvious as a pillow can have multiple meanings and purposes shows that objects, as well as the history and societies that they reflect, are not stable or stagnant.

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