The shape and contents of pillows have varied little over time. The wealthier Greeks rested their heads and feet upon richly embroidered cushions and bolsters. The Egyptians, regarding the head as the seat of life, lavished much attention, detail, and money on pillows for the dead. The Chinese, however, thought that soft pillows robbed the body of vitality, and their pillows were made of wood, leather, and ceramic materials. Some were even filled with herbal remedies to cure disease, turn white hair black, restore lost teeth, and inspire sweet dreams.
For centuries, people slept fairly upright with not only a pair of pillows on the bed but a large, cylindrical bolster as well. These bolsters, sometimes nearly the width of the bed, were stuffed with down or some other type of batting and closed up. They were placed against the headboard and were the foundation for the pillows. Then, a pair of pillows was placed upright against the bolster. The sleeper would prop himself up against these pillows, resulting in a sleeping position that was closer to sitting than reclining. Until about the mid-1800s it was thought this position was better for the body.
Other fancy pillows were found on beds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sometimes large, square pillows were placed within a decorative pillow cover and then placed against the pillows actually used for sleeping on a bed. These were often removed from the bed before sleep. Until cotton became easy to obtain around 1840, American women showed their needlework prowess by carefully hand weaving and sewing linen pillow cases and marking them with their initials and the number the case was within a set of pillow cases. As the American textile industry flourished throughout the 1800s, covers for pillows (which housed the stuffing) went from utilitarian linen to the sturdy cotton ticking, still seen on pillows and in fabric stores.
The traditional filler for pillows was, until recently, down and feather. However, as fabrics changed, so too did yarns. Synthetic polyester filling has replaced natural batts as it is has acceptable loft and shape retention, is relatively inexpensive, may be washed, and few people are allergic to it.