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Sleep is a natural part of being. Making the history of sleep seemingly slip our minds. But, taking a look back in time may help us understand how certain things came to be. And maybe even give us some insight into the future of sleep too.
Good sleep has always been a human goal. But for our distant ancestors, finding a spot that was warm and safe, even if not the most comfortable, was likely their top priority. After an exhausting day of stalking wooly mammoths, hunters needed to avoid becoming some other animal’s midnight snack. Archeologists tell us that even those early humans – very early humans – did their best create comfortable sleep.
Scientists recently discovered Stone Age “mattresses,” made of woven grasses, that carbon-date to 77,000 years ago. Remains of one of them measured 22 square feet – roomy enough for entire family. Evidence shows its occupants periodically burned and reconstructed it. I think we can all understand the motivation; our insect friends have been with us from the beginning.
Other Stone Age bedding likely consisted leaves, branches and other vegetation. Than covered by animal skins. But, the best bedding was probably the family. Sleeping in a pile would have provided warmth and comfort.
Ever seen a stone-age carving of an idealized goddess? In 21st Century terminology we’d refer to them as, “Plus Sized.” Women with similar dimensions were probably popular as warm and comfortable sleep accessories. (I know that sounds sexist, but political correctness wasn’t with us back then).
Once humans started raising food crops, more elaborate dwellings became common. This allowed for safer sleeping. Though mattresses were not much improved – again a pile of straw, or other dry vegetation. Still covered with an animal skin, and maybe more animal pelts drawn over the sleepers.
The desire for warmth and comfort probably meant most families still slept together in a pile. The warmest possible arrangement, and one that probably eliminated the need for future “birds and bees” talks with the kids.
Domestication of animals was another advance in the history of good sleep. Know the band “Three Dog Night? The group launched in the 1960s (they’re still touring as geezers). The band’s name refers to the (possibly apocryphal) practice of Australian aborigines sleeping with Dingo dogs to keep warm. On the coldest nights they needed three dingos for a good sleep.
Much more recently, Europeans built houses in which the first level was occupied by livestock, the second level by people. The heat generated by the animals provided the humans above them with some of the warmth necessary for good sleep.
The Middle East was the site of the first true cities, and the region is also known as the Cradle of Civilization. Think about that word, “cradle.” We associate it with a place of safety and good sleep. The history of civilization is closely associate with history of sleep. And in those cities, better-off people took time to make their beds permanent and their bedding more comfortable.
In Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (circa 3000 BC), most common people still slept on reed mats on the ground, or on the floor. Though in dry-season hot weather, they place the mats on the flat roofs of their mud homes. It was in this time when the wealthy pursued good sleep on raised platform beds, supported by wooden legs.
Having an open space between the sleeper and the ground provided better air circulation. As well as made it more likely that mice and other creatures would crawl under under the bed. Rather than onto the sleeper. The mattresses of the better-off were usually a web of string or reeds, topped by wool cushions or other soft materials. It was also the time of the first linen sheets – and presumably also the first inflated “thread count” claims by unscrupulous merchants.
Interestingly, those Early Dynasty beds were almost always inclined and required footboards to prevent the sleepers from sliding onto the floor. The reasoning for the slanted design is not clear. However, there is still an audience for inclined beds today. Many modern companies offer inclined options. Today’s consumers enjoy inclined beds for different reasons ranging from ease of watching TV in bed, assistance getting in/out of bed, to heartburn prevention.
Advocates of the practice point to other species of mammals prefer to sleep on a head-higher-than-tail- incline that indicates it is a natural-world confirmation of the benefits. I don’t know about the analogy to human health. I once had a dog who liked eating horse poop, but I never saw him as a model for healthy living.
Learn More About Inclined Sleeping and other wacky sleep methods in Uncle CT’s blog: Untraditional Sleeping
The 4000 years after the First Egyptian Dynasty saw technical advances in many areas of life, especially in Classical Greece and Rome, but few meaningful changes in the instruments of good sleep – beds and bedding. Poor classes still slept on beds not much better than other poor people slept on for thousands of years – floor mats, or possibly on a few raised boards covered by a sheep hide or rough fabric. But, starting in Middle Age and Renaissance Europe, things began to change, at least for the well-off.
Merchants and other relatively wealthy folks began building homes with separate bed chambers, spaces that often became the centerpieces of those homes. The curtained bed was the ultimate luxury and was a featured attraction of royal and upper-class families.
The addition of heavy surrounding curtains made those beds even more private spaces for good sleep – separate enclosures within the bedchamber that allowed the occupants to muffle noise, reduce light and eliminate intrusive observation by servants. Some voyeurism, however, was sanctioned, even mandatory on occasions of royal wedding ceremonies.
Beyond being the best available environments for good sleep, curtained beds were also the center of daily life. With the curtains open, beds were where royals and other upper-crusters spent much of their time receiving guests, transacting business, eating and drinking and otherwise entertaining themselves – all the while lounging on beds accessorized by the best available feather mattresses and pillows.
In the post-Renaissance West, advances in the technology of good sleep were mostly minor. Then, in 1871, a major step forward. A German inventor, Heinrich Westphal, patented the first innerspring mattress and it remains our most popular sleep surface today. Those mattresses became even more comfortable in the 1920s and 1930s when manufacturers began sewing the springs into separate linked bags.
This caused each coil unit to compress separately from the others and supported the sleeper more evenly. Around this time, Dunlop, now known primarily as an automobile tire company, developed another innovation – the latex suitable for mattress construction. This made possible a new innovative foam that could be used for bedding. Not only does this foam come from a sustainable resource, but its natural benefit are ideal for sleeping.
Learn more about our top rated latex and latex hybrid mattresses HERE!
And, finally, in the other 20th Century sleep innovation – the waterbed. (Harrods of London introduced a “waterbed” in 1895, but it was essentially a giant hot water bottle. It did not sell well) The modern waterbed debuted in the 1960s, the product of an industrial design student’s master’s degree thesis. Early marketing campaigns for waterbeds were not entirely focused on good sleep. One ad read, “There are two things that are better on a waterbed – one of them is sleep.”
But there were drawbacks, one being that early models were not well compartmentalized. And that the wave sensation did not work well for some people. Other downsides were that waterbeds were a pain to set up and take down. And that a child with a sharp knife could cause a flood damage claim, not to mention a very angry landlord. The introduction of better baffles reduced the “at sea” feeling of waterbeds, but it was not enough to sustain the industry. Today, waterbed sales are close to non-existent, largely replace by foam mattresses.
Memory foam and gel mattresses now occupy much of the sales niche once owned by waterbeds. For many, foam offers the yielding and body-responsive feel of a waterbed. But eliminates the excess motion and possible damage claims. Another advantage of foam mattresses is that companies can now deliver them to your door. Eliminating the problem of getting your mattress from a store to your home. Unbox it, let it swell to full size, sleep on it. Pretty nice.
Electricity was obviously a great advance, but not necessarily for sleep. Most of us cannot imagine a world without artificial light, but up until the age of the electric light bulb night was very dark – both inside and out. Many city dwellers have never experienced being outdoors in total darkness. On a cloudy night, even if there is no artificial light within several miles, there is now reflected light from more distant towns and cities.
Inside spaces, both homes and businesses were also much darker than they are today. There were no “night shifts” possible in most workplaces. Lack of light even limited domestic work. It was hard to darn clothes, mend socks or feed the cows by candlelight – and candles were expensive to begin with. When night fell, especially in the nights of winter months, the best option was bed. Those long nights of darkness probably encouraged healthy sleep – and likely helped fill the nursery with children. Technology is not always our friend.
Interested in more about the sleep before and after electricity? Read my next article “Biphasic Sleep: Naturally Preferred” to lean more!
Our Sleep Guide’s outstanding contributing writer, Uncle CT is the writer of this article.