What is a Donkey's Breakfast?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In nautical slang, a “donkey's breakfast” was the slang term used to describe the straw-stuffed mattresses used on board ship well into the 20th century. As one might imagine, straw-stuffed mattresses were not terribly comfortable, especially by the end of a long trip; it is doubtful that any donkey would have wanted to sample the innards of a sailor's mattress after an ocean crossing. These uncomfortable and unsanitary mattresses were used up through the Second World War on some parts of ships.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The concept of a straw-stuffed mattress is quite old. Early humans undoubtedly used straw in their bedding, along with furs and skins for additional padding. Straw stuffed mattresses known as straw ticks were used everywhere from the chambers of queens to the cottages of shepherds until someone got the bright idea of stuffing a mattress with feathers. Other mattress stuffers included horsehair and wool, until synthetics and springs were developed and the modern mattress was born.

Incidentally, the “ticking” in straw ticking is not a reference to parasites, although straw ticking undoubtedly housed a wide assortment of parasites, dust mites, and other small visitors. It is derived from the Middle Dutch tike, which means “a cloth covering for mattresses.” Like other straw ticking mattresses, a donkey's breakfast was made by sewing a sturdy canvas cover and then stuffing it with straw. Periodically the straw would be discarded and the mattress would be refilled; sailors usually emptied their donkey's breakfasts at the end of a journey.

For most of sailing history, the uncomfortable donkey's breakfast would have been the least of a sailor's problems. Sailors contended with extremely dangerous and sometimes brutal conditions on board ship. They also often shared their coarse straw ticks with other men; many ships used a hot-bunking system, in which men who were not on duty would sleep in the beds left vacant by men on duty. As one might imagine, this contributed to the spread of parasites such as body lice, and a donkey's breakfast probably would have been itchy in a number of ways by the end of the trip.

In addition to providing fodder for parasites, straw ticking also flattens out as it is used. A donkey's breakfast would have resembled a straw pancake at the end of a journey, with a thin layer of hard, scratchy straw sandwiched between the ticking of the mattress. On journeys with more concern for comfort and hygiene, the mattresses might be periodically aired and beaten on deck to freshen them up.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have used straw in my dog house in the winter as an insulator from the cold. I thought I was doing a good thing by helping keep my dog warm, but after reading this article, think I will find something else that would work better.

That probably explains why she does a lot of scratching after she has spent much time in her dog house.

If straw is a magnet for fleas and ticks, that is the last thing I want to have for my dog to sleep on. Not only is she miserable, but she would also bring those parasites in the house.

Does anyone have any good alternatives to use in place of straw for something like this?


About the closest thing I have come to knowing what a donkey's breakfast would be like is in the fall.

Every year our family goes on a hay rack ride and we sit on bales of straw that are placed on a wagon.

Even for the short amount of time we are sitting on this straw, it gets very itchy and uncomfortable. I can't imagine what it would be like to have this as a bed every night.


@everetra - The worst part is providing a feeding ground for parasites. I sometimes go camping and one of the most important things for me is to make sure that the tents or the sleeping bags are free from pests, or they can at least successfully repel them through the use of sprays.

Nothing spoils a camping trip like little critters scurrying about in your tent and up your legs. There’s no way I could have lived with the straw mattress - or donkey’s breakfast, whatever you want to call it.

However as the article points out there are worse problems for a sailor, so I imagine you would have to weigh all of these potential job hazards before deciding whether you want to be a sailor for a living.


I can’t imagine sleeping on a straw mattress. That’s like sleeping in a barn. I’m definitely glad that I am alive in the current age, that’s for sure.

I wouldn’t have been cut out to be a sailor in those early days. I suffer from back pain and so I have to have my coiled, gentle spring bed mattress that hugs and shapes to my figure.

A straw mattress would make my back pain much worse, and it’s important for me to get a good night’s sleep.

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