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For much of history a bed was, for most homeowners, the most valuable thing they owned. In William Shakespeare’s day, for instance, a decent canopied bed cost £5, half the annual salary of a typical schoolmaster. Because they were such treasured items, the best bed was often kept downstairs, sometimes in the living room, where it could be better shown off to visitors or seen through an open window by passers-by. Generally, such beds were notionally reserved for really important visitors, but in practice were hardly used, a fact that adds some perspective to the famous clause in Shakespeare’s will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife, Anne. This has often been construed as an insult, when in fact the second-best bed was almost certainly the marital one and therefore the one with the most tender associations.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010

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