Q&A: Why are they called “king” and “queen” beds?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the royal treatment…

Q: Hey AWC, I’ve been thinking about upgrading my queen bed to a king.

A: That’s rather timely.

Q: My question is where did these names come from for bed sizes? I understand a single or double – but at which point did it switch to royal denotations? 

A: Hmmm, good question actually. 

Q: I thought so.

A: It wasn’t the bed frame but rather the mattress that first got these names – and it’s not that long ago really. 

Q: How recent?

A: Well, it was during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign!

Q: Okay, so that narrows it down to around 70 years.

A: In fact, she’d only been Queen for about six years at the time.

Q: Wait, hold that thought. Do we always capitalise “King” and “Queen”?

A: It’s not necessary for bed sizes, but we do when it is referring to a specific person. For example, if it is a placeholder for “Queen Elizabeth II” then yes, it would be the Queen. “The King gave his first public address”, referring to King Charles III this week, and so on. Yet when we're not referring to a specific monarch we might say, “The gala was attended by many kings and queens”. Or even, “I began by moving the queen’s pawn two squares forward” in a game of chess. 

Q: Ahhh, the Queen’s Gambit. Nice. Anyway, you were saying?

A: According to research, it was an American mattress company named Simmons – or their ad agency at least – that first coined the terms “king” and “queen” bed – doing so in 1958.

Q: It does seem quite recent.

A: There is of course a simple reason for why we didn’t have these names until the 1950s. No one bought big beds!

Q: How odd. I like bed beds an’ I can not lie.

A: Yes, very good Sir Mix Alot, but while manufacturers had started promoting larger-sized bed frames in the 1940s, it seemed an indulgence for most. Typical bed sizes were a lot smaller and no one really saw it as an issue. It would take clever marketing people to convince the public that they suddenly needed something bigger.

Q: Yes, they’re quite good at that.

A: Indeed. And so, with sales of big beds drifting off to sleep, Simmons had the idea to promote them as a “luxury” item you couldn’t do without. It certainly wasn’t without precedent – mining company De Beers had just a few years earlier in 1947 launched their now-famous “Diamonds are Forever” ad campaign. Before then, diamond engagement rings weren’t commonplace in the mass market. Amid falling global diamond prices, De Beers convinced the world that they were a must-have luxury item.

Q: And nothing says unnecessary luxury quite like a royal, right?

A: That’s right. Hence the idea to call these large mattresses “king” and “queen”. And it worked. Through the 1960s, king and queen mattresses enjoyed a right royal surge in popularity across America. It was a post-war time of excess, and this meant keeping up with the latest luxury lifestyle trends – including buying a bigger bed.

Q: I’m guessing the Americans’ fascination with all things royal certainly helped.

A: Absolutely – the entire world was still in the “honeymoon phase” of the young Queen Elizabeth II at that time. There were other things at play too however, such as the fact that people were simply growing bigger and welcomed a bed they could actually fit into.

Q: So here’s a question. If the names came about when the Queen was top of the tree, why is the bigger mattress a KING? Sexist much?

A: Well, it was 1950s America, so sexist for sure. But there were other references at play. For example, in a chess game, while the queen is certainly the most powerful piece, you still must capture that bumbling, shuffling king to win the game. And for centuries, nature had been busy naming the biggest of a species things like “king crabs” (1690s), “king cobras” (1880s). 

Q: Don’t forget King Kong – biggest of all the stop-motion gorillas.

A: That’s true. Perhaps, more relevant however was the concept of “king-sized” – a term coined by marketers in 1939 – originally for cigarettes. 

Q: Because nothing says “big” like big tobacco…

A: Correct.

Q: Well, I suppose “king” makes sense then considering men were in charge of naming everything for centuries.

A: Yep.

Q: So, are the names “king” and “queen” used for beds everywhere?

A: Almost all English-speaking countries use them. America has gone on to add even longer sizes like California King mattresses, for example. In Australia and New Zealand, you’ll also find “queens”, “kings” and even bigger “super kings”.

Q: And Britain, home of the royal family?

A: This is where things get weird. Perhaps because she was the ruling monarch when these names were first invented, there is NO SUCH THING as a “queen” mattress in Britain!

Q: Wait, what?

A: Perhaps they thought it disrespectful at the time. They still have the SIZE equivalent, but what the rest of us call a “queen”, they instead call a “king” and our “king” is a “super king” for them.

Q: Wow. Mind blown. God saved the queen bed…

A: That’s right. 

Q: And other countries’ sizes?

A: A bit of a mess. Here in Australia, we have a “queen” mattress (153cm wide), then a “king” (183cm) and even bigger “super king” (203cm). South Africa is similar, however, just next door in New Zealand, while their queen size is the same, they call our king size a “super king”, and invented a smaller in-between size for their “king” (165cm). Having run out of names by this point, their biggest one (equivalent to Australia’s “super king”) is instead called a “California King” – nothing like America’s one though.

Q: Oh dear. I hope those Kiwis have good mattresses – wouldn’t want to get a bed beck, aye bro?

A: Haha. In the USA, their “queen” size is pretty much the same as Australia’s, yet their “king” goes wider for 193cm. And being America, they have about 20 other varieties like Wyoming King, Alaska King and Olympic Queen.

Q: Anything like this Olympic Queen?

A: Nope, but it remains a great video. And one silver lining is that despite everywhere from Japan to France to Australia to Portugal all having different ideas of what SIZE a queen or king mattress is, the one consistent rule is that a king bed is always bigger.

Q: Although if you live in Britain, it doesn’t matter because all you have is kings.

A: Yes. And rather appropriate…

Q: Well, this has been quite the journey, and I’m going to need a lie down soon. Actually, all this talk reminds me of the band I used to play in. 

A: You were in a band?

Q: Yep. We were called “Teenage Bed”. Rather appropriate really.

A: Why?

Q: We never made it…


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