A bolster (etymology: Middle English, derived from Old English, and before that the Germanic word bulgstraz) is a long narrow pillow or cushion filled with cotton, down, or fibre. In western countries, it is usually placed at the head of bed and functions as head or back support. In southeast Asian countries, in particular Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, the bolster is designed to be hugged when sleeping. It is called a dakimakura in Japanese. In the Philippines, many call it the "hotdog pillow" (or more natively, "tandayan") following the close resemblance to the food bearing that name. In Chinese, its hanyu pinyin is "bao zhen" (lit. "hugging pillow"). In cantonese, it is called "Lam Chim". The Indonesian/Malay folks called it "bantal peluk" or "bantal guling".
Tradition suggests that a wife would fashion the bolster out of bamboo and give it to her husband when he travelled away from home so that he would not be lonely at night, hence the name "bamboo wife," or "Dutch wife," or chikufujin in Japanese.
In many Chinese and Malay families, children are provided with a bolster and the habit of sleeping with a bolster carries over into adulthood. It is said that hugging a bolster will calm one's mind when sleeping, and, in the hot tropical climate of Singapore and Malaysia, it is often too hot to cover oneself with a blanket when sleeping, especially in a non-air-conditioned room, hence hugging a bolster will avoid catching a cold.
In the past, it was common for people to make their own bolsters. Old folks usually made the inner cover with a slit at its centre and stuff cotton wool until it is fairly compact and then sewing the slit up. A bolster cover is then made, with tie strings at its end, to keep it clean. Now most shopping centres and Department Stores like Target, John Little, do sell ready made bolsters with different insert/fillings to cater to different needs and price ranges. Because of its popularity among the locals, bedsheet sets often come with matching pillow and bolster cases.
In more traditional Chinese families, a newly-wed couple's wedding chamber will most likely have a bed that comes with two pillows and one bolster with embroideries of love birds, flowers etc and are usually bright red in colour. It is said that the bolster is to provide the husband with something to hug when the wife is not in the mood or vice versa.
In many other countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, a bolster is quite different. They use a bolster the way what some western countries use their body pillows . These are pillows that the sleeper can rest his head on and also hug it with both arms and legs. This is great for children who like the comfort of sleeping with something and the habit extends to adults too. It is also good for people who have hip, shoulder, or back problems. The sleeper can adjust the body pillow bolster to make sleeping more comfortable.
The use of the bolster is so common among Indonesian people that most local hotels provide bolsters for their guests. However, this is less common in westernized hotels in bigger cities in Indonesia. In Singapore, most hotels do not provide bolster for guests unless they specifically request it.
The equivalent of bolster in the western countries is the body pillow. So exactly what a bolster is depends a bit on the country you live in. No matter where you live, it is long and narrow rather than square or the familiar rectangular pillow for the head. Bolsters for the bedroom are often cylindrical.