Sunday, November 25, 2007

As if we didn't have enough to worry about The Sleep-Industrial Complex
The story of our ruined sleep, in virtually every telling I’ve heard, begins with Thomas Edison: electric light destroyed the sanctity of night. Given more to do and more opportunity to do it, we gave sleep shorter and shorter shrift. But the sleep that we’re now trying to reclaim may never have been ours to begin with. “It’s a myth,” A. Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, told me. “And it’s a myth that even some sleep experts today have bought into.”

Ekirch’s 2005 book, “At Day’s Close,” described just how frenetic night in preindustrial times was. People slept, or tried to, in poorly insulated buildings that let in the weather and noise. Livestock huffed and mewled and stank just outside — if not inside. Generally, you slept beside a chamber pot of your own excrement, staggering across the room every few hours to keep your fire alive. With physical health comparatively poor, night was when people simmered most acutely in their discomfort. In 1750, one writer described London between the hours of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. as a ghastly encampment of “sick and lame people meditating and languishing on their several disorders, and praying for daylight.”

Much of the (long) article regards the effects of modern sleep medications and the mattress industry (the history of which is fascinating in and of itself) but some historical stuff begins on p.5 or so, including the excerpted passage. I've not come across much ethnographic research on sleep -- not that there isn't any, I've just not seen it or been interested enough to go looking for it -- but it seems like it would be a fascinating topic, especially comparative analyses among different socio-economic systems. The article probably generalizes too much (duh), but I've seen some of it written about before, notably the "first sleep, second sleep" concept.

Among various other things, we modern folks would be appalled at sleeping arrangements from even a hundred years ago. I recall being mortified when I first visited the Wade House and discovered that travelers -- strangers! -- would often share a bed with one, maybe two, others. Eek! 'Tis one of the dangers of getting one's ideas about history almost solely from movies.