Posts Tagged ‘Richard Westhall’

“[They] thrive by sleep, not long but deep”
– Welsh saying*

Recent research shows that until 200 years ago our sleep patterns followed two cycles every night. “Each block of sleep would be around four hours, with most people staying awake for two to four hours in between.” (Sleep in the 1800’s…, 2014).

In many societies interrupted sleep was so common that it was considered normal. The first awakening occurred around midnight, three to four hours after nightfall, when people in Western cultures generally went to bed due to lack of light, for most of the populace did not have the means to afford expensive candles. 

Two decades ago Roger Ekirch, a university distinguished professor in the department of history at Virginia Tech, researched sleep habits in Europe and America. He discovered many references to biphasic sleep in over 500 original sources from centuries past, such as diaries, medical texts, literature, prayer books, and even a crime report: He found descriptions written in English, Italian, French, and Latin. Sleep documentation also existed in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America, with some referring back to Ancient Greece. Ekirch would uncover over 2,000 preindustrial sleep documents in his searches.

According to sources, some individuals took the quiet time of first wakefulness to complete tasks, such as those of housewives or servants, or to write letters, or record their dreams. Others ate a small snack, chatted with a guest or spouse, read, prayed, attended to necessary bathroom needs, or made love. Individuals followed their own nightly rituals, be it alone or with someone else. 

“…it was suggested that fertility among laborers was increased due to the midnight wakefulness; men who came home physically exhausted were more likely to have enjoyment, and successful intercourse, if there was a rest period after the day’s troubles.” – The History of Sleep Before the Industrial Revolution (historycooperative.org)

Although there were many references to segmented sleep in the past, knowledge of this once common phenomenon was largely lost to the modern world. Interrupted or biphasic sleep was not practiced everywhere. The diaries of Samuel Pepys and James Boswell indicate that both men slept uninterrupted. Studies the world over mentioned a variation of sleep patterns and practices. While hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Namibia, and Bolivia slept through the night, a rural society in Madagascar practiced segmented sleep. – (The Atlantic)

The Industrial Revolution changed sleeping patterns for Western Europeans. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lamps filled with whale oil, kerosene, or coal gas lit streets, factories, and homes many hours beyond sunset. This increase in light both outside and inside homes and establishments affected daily habits. 

“Following experiments with coal-gas for lighting in the 1790s, gas lights now illuminate streets, house, factories and commercial properties.” –  P. 42, A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England. 

Sue Wilkes, author of the Visitor’s Guide, discussed an 1817 article in Ackermann’s Repository that mentions improved lights in a variety of city settings, including factories. The new brilliantly lit lamps were used

“for lighting Halls, Staircases, Dining-Rooms, Drawing-Rooms, Counting-Houses, Banking-Houses, Public-Offices, Churches, Chapels, Ball-Rooms, Public Places, etc.” – Wilkes, A Visitor’s Guide,  p 42

Lamp-lit city streets (by 1807 in London and 1820 in Paris) promoted increased travel and crowd participation in nightly entertainments, including operas and gambling clubs. 

Not everyone was so affected. People living in the rural countryside and small villages still scheduled nightly events to coincide with the full moon to guide their way along unlit lanes. When visiting friends in an adjoining village, the gentry and pseudo gentry (like the Austens) would remain as overnight guests after a long event like an assembly ball, rather than to return home in the dark of the night. Thus, sleeping habits changed more slowly in areas with far flung villages – but even the people in these regions would change their bedtime behavior by the mid 19th century. 

For many, sleep transformation was sadly a result of economic necessity. Poor country folk, who were displaced from their common lands and denied access to growing their own food and feeding their animals, flocked to cities where factory owners recruited cheap labor. Their employers found no profit in 8 hour work days, and so laborers returned home after working from 10-14 hours a day, 6 days per week. They stumbled into beds for a few hours of sleep before waking and returning to work. The laborers (which included men, women and children) had no choice but to change their sleep habits. 

Yet was one long, uninterrupted sleep period possible in a factory city? The cheaply built houses (tenements) for the poor, described in excruciating detail by Ian Mortimer in his book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, were located in narrow streets and had thin walls that let in the incessant noise of clattering wagons, loud conversations, and barking dogs. The squalid, overcrowded conditions, overpowering stench of rotting food, putrid effluence of backed up privies, and the constant infestation of lice and bed bugs in uncomfortable beds prevented sound sleep. Most likely these poor factory ‘slaves’ stumbled out of beds still tired. 

Sleep patterns for aristocrats and the very rich varied vastly, for these groups had the luxury of choice. For them, the cost of candles did not factor as a deterrence against staying up at all hours. They could choose to go to bed early or to stay up until dawn and sleep uninterrupted into the afternoon. Their comfortable and very expensive beds and beddings contributed to a sound night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the servants suffered. They remained at their stations to prepare their employers for bed at a moment’s notice, and arose early to anticipate their every need when they awakened. 

According to Ekirch, by the mid-1800s, prolonged uninterrupted sleep and early rising was practiced in England and America. The second leisurely sleep was now reduced to stealing a few extra minutes of shut eye before getting ready for the day. 

Jane Austen fans and scholars know that she and her sister Cassandra were practically inseparable. Anna Lefroy wrote that the two sisters shared a small sitting room that

“Opened into a smaller chamber in which my two aunts slept. I remember a common-looking carpet with its chocolate ground, and painted press with shelves above for books, and Jane’s piano…but the charm of the room…must have been…the flow of native wit, with all the fun and nonsense of a large and clever family.” (W.& R.A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, 1913.

I wonder if in rural Steventon, Jane and Cassandra experienced biphasic sleep. If so, I imagine them awakening at midnight, chatting and giggling, or discussing Jane’s progress in writing, before falling asleep again. In Chawton Cottage, where the Austen women finally settled down after years of moving from house to house after Rev. Austen’s death, the two women shared a cramped bedroom. They must have been happy, for Jane’s writing blossomed. 

There’s something magical about that first awakening in the stillness of the night. At times, when this happens to me, I go to the computer and write a few lines for this blog, or read before dropping off to sleep again. Perhaps our ancestors knew something that we’ve lost over time.


*(‘They’ substituted for ‘men’)


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