History of Sleep Series: Strange Bedfellows in History

One of my favorite sleep history stories is from American history. Ever heard the phrase “strange bedfellows”? Sure, the phrase really is a metaphor for unlikely partners. However, if your partner and you have different ideas about how to sleep in comfort, it can be a great way to describe your sleeping arrangements at home. For one patriotic duo, it was a quite literal description of a historical event that may have changed the course of our country’s independence.

Autumn 1776

Imagine a crisp September day in the fall of 1776, and the American colonies had established independence from Britain. Weeks earlier, George Washington and his troops, though badly defeated, narrowly escaped from British capture. The Revolutionary War continued to rage,  and a British Admiral and his troops were holed up on Staten Island in New York. The British Admiral urged the Founding Fathers to renounce the Declaration of Independence and come back home to Britain.

A delegation from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia was sent north on a little road trip to negotiate an end to the war. The group of three travelers included Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who was the oldest Congress member at 70, the youngest Congress member Edward Rutledge (he was 27), and John Adams — who was stuck right in the middle at a fresh-faced 41 years old.

After traveling some distance by horseback, the trio decided to take a pit stop at a small New Jersey inn. There were only two rooms left for the three men, and Ben and John shacked up together in accommodations that were only slightly larger than the bed in the room and included a small window. Here’s where things get strange.

To Open or Shut the Window

John, who was a bit of a hypochondriac, believed he needed to sleep with the window closed to avoid catching a cold. Ben, in his old age and extensive wisdom, stated his case: “Don’t shut the window,” he told John, “we shall be suffocated!” Ben (he was a doctor and scientist, after all) explained that it was not the “frowzy corrupt air” filled with dirt that would make them sick should it waft into their small room. He elaborated on the benefits of fresh air and ventilation.

Dr. Ben and John argued back and forth about the pros and cons of sleeping with the window open, until logic prevailed and John decided to sleep with the window open. He hopped in bed — both still mumbling as they drifted off to sleep — and neither caught a cold that night. Unfortunately the peace talks in Long Island lasted a few hours and weren’t successful.  Maybe if the inn’s mattress was memory foam, we would all have a different story to tell about how America came to be…

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