The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Sleep Well?

Most of us have been hearing since we were kids about the importance of a good night’s sleep. The ideal, according to many experts ,is seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. But the idea that we need to sleep through the night is a new one in human history. Roger Ekirch, a historian at Virginia Tech who’s written a book about how night has changed through the ages, described for us what a good night’s sleep meant to people in the 18th century:


“Around Midnight,” 1906. Library of Congress.

“Typically, people went to bed between 9:00 and 10:00 PM. They would then sleep for several hours until some time shortly past midnight, whereupon they would awaken from what was widely termed first sleep. They would then remain awake, up and about for up to an hour or more.”

People didn’t just lay around in bed when they woke up in the night, says Ekirch. They could be just as active as they were during daylight hours – sometimes even more so. Being awake at night was an accepted part of life’s rhythms.

“They typically meditated, prayed, made love, not necessarily in that order. They pondered dreams, from whence they often had just awoken. Some visited neighbors, still others plundered a neighbor’s orchard.”

Afterwards, most people went back to bed for their “second sleep”, which normally lasted until around 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.

So, what happened to make us sleep so differently today (or tonight)? Our schedules during the day.

The industrial revolution brought with it a time consciousness and focus on efficiency and productivity that spelled doom for this practice. A reform movement sprang up promoting early rising that, when combined with new technologies, proved unstoppable.

Nocturnal visitors are now frowned upon. Image of the second Grinnell expedition, 1856

Nocturnal visitors are now frowned upon. Image of the second Grinnell expedition, 1856

“By now, owing in part to the prevalence of artificial lighting, people were going to bed later, so we’re not talking about getting up after the first sleep, immediately after midnight. But they were urged to forsake their second sleep, which increasingly was regarded as being unhealthy, unproductive, and a temptation to immoral nocturnal visions.”

The early rising movement had just as large a following as did the temperance movement of the same era. But while the temperance movement was directed outwards, producing public protests and government actions, the early rising movement, with its emphasis on self-discipline, was active on a much more individual level. So, despite its popularity and success, the early rising movement has faded from our collective memory.

Even so, we still live with its legacies. The forefathers of today’s alarm clocks became popular at around this time as an aid for people whose internal clocks hadn’t quite caught up with the new culture around sleep. The 1851 World’s Fair even showcased a “bed alarm clock” whose front legs folded underneath when the alarm rang, forcing the sleeper to a rude awakening

More than that, though, is the impact the movement had on what we think of as a good night’s sleep. Today, in the 21st century, sleeping through the night is so widely accepted that we call what was the norm in the 18th century a medical disorder. Here’s Roger Ekirch:

“Only in the early 20th century does the variety of insomnia that we refer to today as middle of the night insomnia, quite widespread, is that perceived as a medical problem. No one in the pre-industrial age referred to being awakened naturally in the middle of the night as a problem. No medical text referred to it in that vein. It was thought to be utterly natural.”


Sleep on that.

 This story is from our episode on the history of time. Listen to the full episode here.

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