In 1996 while studying mood disorders, pediatrician Ronald E. Dahl decided to dive into the history of sleep and how it affected children. He discovered that there was very little scientific information about how human sleep evolved over time. From sleeping arrangements to the evolution of bedding and linens, Dahl uncovered literature that detailed the history of sleep and how humans sleep.
Sleep in the Neolithic Era
Let’s start our journey of the history of sleep by traveling back in time to the Neolithic era, when humans were hunter-gatherers and roamed in tribes, sleeping wherever large, scary predators weren’t. We didn’t really have a reason to stay in one place until we learned how to farm domesticated animals and grow crops. One of the first beds was discovered in Texas caves, dating back to 8000 BCE. and made of a pit in the ground near cave walls. Several of us would huddle together and stuff soft grass into the pits for comfort.
Sleep Like an Egyptian
Ancient Egyptians really had a thing for sleep, as they believed it was a state close to death. Dreams were revered as messages from the gods, and many hours were spent deciphering and analyzing symbols for deeper meanings. Bedding had pictures of gods known for protection from demons. Wealthy Egyptians had bed frames dipped in the middle, elevating the feet.
Roman Sleep Habits
Fast forward to ancient Roman times where sleep wasn’t always an option, especially for those in power. When they did have time, they slept in rooms called cubiculum that also served as meeting rooms during the day. Beds during that time looked more like modern sofas, and Romans — known for their overindulging and opulence — kept their cubiculum sparsely furnished.
The Middle Ages
Unfortunately, the Middle Ages weren’t the best years when it came to sleep. With the lack of sanitation, rampant illness, and overwhelming filth, these conditions made insomnia seem like a walk in the park. Families often slept in large beds together near fires, and put coals under their mattress to add warmth. Servants for rich families slept on straw mats at the feet of their masters.
The Renaissance and Beyond
It wasn’t until the Renaissance period (surprise, surprise) that people figured out how to make sleeping comfortable and restful. People learned that stringing ropes across bed frames helped to better support their mattress, but these strings needed to be tightened nightly. Some even believed this is where the term “sleep tight” came from. In China, similar things were happening as beds became a more ornate centerpiece of any bedroom. The bed, bedding, and linens were the most expensive of a couple’s belongings. These possessions were among the most valuable items left in any inheritance.
Then the Industrial Revolution hit, and sleep as we know it changed for good. Before the advent of artificial light, humans used to have biphasic sleep patterns in two 4-hour blocks. People would awaken at night to get chores done before heading back for an extended nap. As access to electricity became widespread and factory workers pulled 16 hour shifts, our sleep morphed into one block overnight.
One thing is for sure: as our sleeping habits changed over the years, so have our mattresses! It’s a good thing we have more options aside from cave pits. Stop in to find the right mattress for your cubiculum!