Vintage Sleep

Vintage Sleep

Turn of the century bedroom

The Big Sleep

No, not the classically fabulous film noir story, starring the incomparable Bogey and Bacall – but winter time.

That time of year when our most primal desire is to hibernate. Nest. Snuggle. Be a couch potato. Visit the Land of Nod. Fall into the arms of Morpheus. Say hello to the Sandman.

It’s dark. It’s cold – in theory. Here in Indiana we’ve gone from Ice Station Zebra (another great old movie , BTW) to balmy early April like days in the low-60’s. Snow and rain. Gloomy clouds and gusty wind. Ice on the roads. Sudden snow bursts that snarl traffic and rile tempers. Add to that – we now name winter storms and they are not excluded from the same level of media drama that say, a hurricane or super-storm… Yes, some of them are horrible, as our friends on the coasts and in the heartland have experienced over the past few weeks, what with all that rain and snow. What a mess.

But, I digress…

Winter is the perfect season for an avowed introvert, such as myself. Perfect excuse to nest, cook, read like a fiend, binge Netflix and sleep.  Ah yes, sleep.

We’ve all seen and read dozens upon dozens of articles and studies addressing the perfect way to get enough sleep. What type of mattress is best, the best pre-sleep routine. Which habits to adopt, which to avoid. Yes, a glass of wine is good, no a glass of wine is bad. Why do I always wake up at 3:00 am? How much is enough? Eight hours? Seven? Ten? How do I survive on six hours a night?

It’s overwhelming, really. Enough to drive one to insomnia.

We stress about sleep – getting too much, or not enough. Or the fact we may awaken in the middle of night. What about naps? I personally condone them at all turns, consider myself a champion- but that’s just me.

Vintage Sleep

Napping Edwardian style

As humans, we’ve pretty much always focused on sleep. It’s vital, to be sure, we cannot survive without it. Our bodies and minds need rest.  But, how has it changed? Has it evolved? Didn’t we always sleep in big eight or nine hour chunks?

Put on your boudoir cap, your favorite nightdress and let’s snuggle in for a dreamy look at sleep, shall we?

 Vintage Sleep | Sleeping in Segments

Back, back in the way back (think before our Founding Fathers and before the early years of Queen Victoria), people tended to go to bed when it got dark. I mean, without electric light and effective heating, houses got dark and cold fast, especially in the colder months. So, what else was there to do? Go to bed. Plus, if you weren’t a member of the upper classes, you’d worked really hard all day. You were beat.  So, with the dark comes your first chunk of sleep (usually within two or so hours after sunset). Frequently called “dead sleep” or “first sleep”. This usually lasted three to five hours.

Then… surprise! You’d get up! It was usually around midnight or in the wee hours of the morning. So what would you do? Reading was a big thing, meditate or pray, catch up your correspondence, make love (it was thought women were most fertile after this initial sleep) or even visit with neighbors. Some taverns would be open for a bit of drink and socialization, if you were so inclined. You’d be up for a couple hours, just you know, hanging around. It was a good time for scofflaws and hooligans to practice their trade as well, as several diary entries noted farm animals frequently disappeared during the early morning hours.

So, after your break, you’d go back to bed and sleep more – until it was light enough to go out and about. Then the whole cycle would start up again. Typically our ancestors were pretty well rested and ready for whatever the day brought. Got around eight or nine hours of sleep.

Interesting, yes? Of course, worker-bees had to get up earlier to get the big houses lit and warmed for their bigwig inhabitants. But for the most part, this is how it went!

Sleep – wake – sleep-wake. If you really look at it, it makes sense. Even in this over-lit world we inhabit today, you do tend to feel sleepier when the sun goes down. It’s a natural rhythm left over from our prehistoric ancestors. Perhaps they were on to something?

A brief word on napping. Naps weren’t a huge thing, many intellectuals napped – think Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill, but others, not so much. Napping was more popular in Southern Europe.  The “siesta” still is acceptable in Spain! Yay Spain! Boo us.

This sounds pretty cool, right? Perhaps this is why some of us wake up in the wee hours of the morning? I recently tried to embrace the middle of the night wake up – I tend to go to bed early -my only rule is it has to be dark, I break this rule in the summer months, it’s definitely a holdover from my childhood and 7:00pm bedtimes. Thanks mom and dad. Therefore, I wake up around one to two in the morning. Instead of forcing myself to relax and get back to sleep, I read or did some easy research for my stories; even played a quiet game on my iPad – it has soothing music. What I tried not do was turn on the lights or TV. My iPad is dimmed  on night mode, so it’s not bright.  What did I discover? I would stay awake about two or so hours, then I would feel sleepy again and sleep until my alarm went off at 6:00am.

Vintage Sleep

Watch out for excessive secretions

How did I feel? Most days totally fine. Other days not-so-much. But we’re not used to that, right? The days not-so-much were the days I gotten totally up and turned on the lights. Or  laid in bed stressing about work.


But all in all, it was OK and I felt fine .

Vintage Sleep | The Machines of Industry

So what changed? When did this seemingly natural way of sleeping fall along the wayside?

When the world began to change – first the with the industrial revolution and more structured work days, which began around 7:00 am or even earlier and went until well after dark AND six days a week – sometimes seven if the product was behind. Before this time, research shows that people didn’t work as much, or such long hours. In fact, back in the 15th century, people worked about 180 days a year! Woot…

Add to that the dangers of early factories and machinery – and only earning pennies a day – horrifying and totally messed up sleep. We were now sleeping in one big chunk, cramming in as much as we could until the factory whistle blew early in the morning.

What else?

Electric lights. Everywhere. The delineation between night and day became less apparent. We went from very dark, to fairly dark to not-so-dark in a span of 100 or so years. Electric street lamps, automobile lights, electric light in homes all extended our waking hours.  Artificially lit factories, shops and offices extended our working hours.

We could stay up and work all the time! Huzzah!

Not huzzah. No not really.

Medical authorities of the day as well as others lamented the lack of sleep. It was unhealthy and unsafe. Especially for workers and mothers. Sleep-aids started popping up – laced with opium and cannabis. Even for babies and children! Better sleeping through chemistry. More on the fall out from this quackery here .

We were all supposed to sleep a healthy eight hours overnight – not waking up mid-way, but as I noted, in one big chunk. This was normal and natural. So by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the sleep patterns of most people had been radically changed.

We would recognize Aunt Carrie’s sleep pattern more so than great-great-great-great-great grandfather Joseph Robertson Collins, III who lived on the Isle of Wight in the 1700’s. BTW, his wife, Susannah had like, over 20 children. I really have no words.

Vintage Sleep

A gorgeous Edwardian negligee

True fact, those of us inhabiting the 21st century don’t have the corner on lack of sleep, no. It was stylish and considered upper-crust, by some, to NOT sleep at all, or subsist on only three or four hours of sleep. Dandies in Regency England bragged about how little sleep they got, how they were up all night. So busy, so popular. Too much to do – sound familiar? We all know that person who seems to thrive on “the twirl” and seems to always be working or socializing or up at all hours tweeting and Instagramming. No sleep, which perhaps explains a lot.

Women were excluded from this sleeporexia, we  were expected to rest and sleep. It was definitely a thing for women. We were not as strong physically or emotionally. Not enough sleep made us crazy and hysterical. Something surely was!

About the only aspect (other than the clothes) of pre-modern gender roles I can get behind.

The history of sleep is interesting! Yet another facet of our lives that are at the same time different and identical to the lives of our ancestors.

So embrace the cold and dark. Nest away! Discard your “I love to sleep” guilt. Those of us who do would have fit right in back in the day.

The writer would like to thank:,,, and those who post their pictures freely on the internet.

Replies for “Vintage Sleep

  • Susan Zollinger

    Great article! I’ve heard about the ancient sleep habits before and thought they were very logical. Since retirement, I don’t stress if I don’t get to sleep since there is no alarm the next morning — Woot Woot! I just get up, read for awhile and then when I get sleepy go back to bed and sleep until I wake up naturally. What a blessing! Thanks for another great article!


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