I can proudly say that my book review on Hilary Hinds’s A Cultural History of Twin Beds has been successfully published in Lancaster University’s annual LUX journal. In the review, written at the start of lockdown and copied below, I present Hinds’s investigation into how Western modernity’s investment in health and hygiene is manifest in the apparently mundane topic of twin beds.
You can find the LUX Journal here.
Hilary Hinds. A Cultural History of Twin Beds. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. By Bethany Dixon.
Hilary Hinds’s most recently published book, A Cultural History of Twin Beds, presents a curious cultural investigation into the twin-bedded phenomenon of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In her thorough examination of contemporary household advice books, marriage manuals, newspapers, films and novels, Hinds details the often-overlooked “story ofthe sojourn of twin beds in the bedrooms of the British middle classes” (5) by employing thetripartite structure of hygiene, modernity and marriage. These three cultural motifs are then drawn together, emblemised in the multi-layered symbolism of the twin bed, to consider thefascinating cultural reasons for its “uncoupling the couple” (3) in the ephemeral history of twinbeds.
For Hinds, twin beds were first gradually welcomed into the intimacy of the marital bedroom following the emergence of cultural anxieties about corporeal health, domestic hygiene,and disease transmission, amid the British sanitary reform. She states that “health at home beganwith a healthy bedroom, namely twin beds” (27); “exhibiting occupants of the double bed, sleeping in close proximity for long periods, to be at severe risk from transmitting disease by theinhalation of “breathed breath” (43) and loss of vitality, with the weaker sleeper leaching fromthe stronger sleeper’s electromagnetic charge. Here, twin beds first triumph in the “double or twin?” (18) debate as to the culturally preferred sleeping arrangement, separating their sleepers as a mechanism of hygiene, in this nineteenth-century “sanitary craze” (74). I found the genderednotions of responsibility in this hygiene panic, and the wider domestic sphere, to be particularly fascinating. In chapter two, Hinds skilfully exemplifies the innate gendering of the domesticrealm by evoking the military metaphor: “[w]omen – mistresses of households, domestic servants – are the soldiers who are deputed by society to engage in this war against dirt”, while men may “come and go” in “know[ing] little of the ins and outs of anything domestic” (35).Thereby, with this rigid binary of gender roles, Hinds intrinsically links the evolving status of the domestic woman with the cultural emergence of twin beds. She deduces that, with growing independence in the household environment, it falls solely to the woman to eliminate“destructive human emanations” (44) in the bedroom by innovatively choosing to install twinbeds over the double-bedded marital norm.
Interestingly, Hinds proposes that women, in choosing to sleep in twin beds, take a sharp turn to modernity both at the scale of home design and the individual self. She demonstrates how the simple singularity of twin beds is explicitly anti-Victorian; it refutes the horrifically“dark, cluttered, elaborately decorated and oppressive” (80) aesthetic of the Victorian gothic to employ a modern style that is much “more practical, easier to keep clean, [and] more efficient” (94) for the woman’s domestic routine. Furthermore, in sleeping physically separate from theirpartner, the modern woman can choose to limit the frequency of her childbirth – with twin beds playing a key role in reducing the British birth rate – and enhance her sleep quality by“counter[ing] snoring, cold feet, sharp elbows and cover-thieving” (187). With Hinds’s inference that twin beds are modern in their improvement to domestic hygiene and convenience, a gendered view that they are more advantageous to the domestic woman than the working man is thus taken.
Hinds then widens this cultural discourse on the modernity of twin beds to consider theirbrief transatlantic currency as “standard equipment” (122) in the Hollywood marital bedroom. She explains that “[s]ince the British market represented 30 per cent of Hollywood’s profits”(113), even the most prestigious of directors had to follow the British censorship guidelines of“Don’ts and Be Carefuls” (122) when filming intimate scenes in the marital bedroom. In 1927, Hollywood found that, by primarily implementing twin beds, such “delicate” (114) scenes couldbe treated with “special care” (112), so that the consequential cost of retaking or deleting thesescenes could be avoided. Here, Hinds expertly embraces the contemporary Hollywood film, My Awful Wife (1947), to exemplify how, in reshooting a scene where twin beds were not kept “at least a foot apart” (114), the cost of such British “code of propriety” (116) was “£625 for every inch the bed was moved” (114) apart. She further notes, however, that in short subsequence to screening this film, “twin beds were emerging again into cultural visibility regarding questions ofconjugal sexuality” (117), swiftly shifting her cultural focus from twin-bedded modernity to thecommodity’s advancing outdatedness following the post-war change in ideas about marriage and the married couple.
Lastly, Hinds concludes her rigorous cultural questioning of why, “for the best part of ahundred years, so many couples chose a sleeping arrangement that both brought them
together and kept them apart” (9), by turning her analytical lens to the symbolism of twin beds in marital relationships between 1870 and 1970. She has interwoven, throughout the cultural history of her twin-bedded discourse, the evolving values, priorities and practices that structure these contemporary marriages: from the ubiquitous squeamishness about marital sex in the late nineteenth-century to sex acceptance and desire for “lasting joy in each other’s embrace” (145) inthe proceeding early twentieth century. I most enjoyed, in these marriage chapters, her engagement with the work of Marie Stopes, an influential and vehement resistor of the twinbedstead, who denotes such sleeping arrangement as the “invention of the Devil, jealous of married bliss” (151). It is stimulating that, albeit cultural anxieties about disease and general enfeeblement were flatly abated by the early twentieth century, Stopes extends this previousconceptual linking of twin beds with the “bodily health of the individual” (156) to their presentindications of the health of a marriage, and a rather unhealthy one at that. With Stopes entirelycondemning the twin bedstead as “an obstacle to intimacy” (156), Hinds considers the dividedspace between these identical beds to be, in the literal sense, a physical barrier to the marital relationship, and a potent metaphor for the vast emotional distance in a troubled marriage.
Therefore, in her book, Hinds is successful in succinctly signifying twin beds as “acommitment to health and hygiene, to being modern or to a particular understanding ofmarriage” (222) at different moments in their cultural history. She refutes their seemingly impotent role as inanimate objects in the domestic sphere and unbinds their modern preconceptions of marital failure to consider the wider dynamics of why married couples in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century collated their cultured attitudes ideas about health, hygiene and modernity and chose to sleep in the twin bed. I would recommend this book to those interested in the subjects of cultural history, sociology and design anthropology.Additionally, I think it would be an invaluable text for students studying Gender and Women’sStudies both at Lancaster University and in a wider academic field.
Thanks for reading my first piece of published work!