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The history of sleep

Features — Posted 28/02/14

Sleep. We all love getting our eight hours - but it hasn't always been done the same way. Let's take a look back.

While today we’re constantly having the magical eight-hour sleep figure drummed into us, in a pre-industrial world, this wasn’t always the case. 

Historical documents indicate that before the industrial revolution, a segmented sleep pattern was considered the norm. This involved ‘first sleep’ of around four and a half hours, followed by a period of wakefulness of one or two hours before a second period of sleep. 

Iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright followed this school of sleep, explaining to a friend, as documented in Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, that he promptly fell asleep until 4am, before waking until 7am with a clear mind. After coming up with his best ideas for a few hours, he would turn back in for another nap. 

The siesta-filled sleep pattern is another alternative to its continuous counterpart. Taking a nap during the middle of the day is still common practice in many parts of the world as a respite from the heat and to break up the less active part of the day. It typically comprises a one or two hour sleep in the early afternoon, accompanied by a night-time sleep of around six hours. Cities where the siesta ritual is in full swing are ghost towns to explore in the middle of the day as everyone is getting some collective shuteye. 

Beds of the world

In the West we’ve been bedding down on a mattress and pillow for centuries. Let’s take a look at traditions from around the globe...

China

The traditional bed of northern China is the Kang stove-bed, an elevated clay platform that accommodates multiple occupants. A wood or coal fire typically provides the heat, piped through its interior, to help combat the bitterly cold winters. Travellers lodging at hotels throughout northern China can still experience a night on a Kang stove-bed. 

India

The charpai is a traditional Indian and Pakistani woven bed where the sleeper reclines on a suspended hammock of knotted ropes enclosed within a wooden frame. Low to the ground, nothing lies between the ropes and the occupant, making for a breezy, massaging slumber.

Japan

The futon is a soft, padded mattress placed on a tatami floor for sleeping. Rolled up during the day, it’s a simple, comfortable alternative still widely used in Japan today. Requiring a regular beating to keep the padding aired, Japanese use special rake-like bamboo tools for the task. If travelling through Japan, book a night at a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) for the full futon experience. 

Arctic Norway

Try a night sleeping at minus five degrees in an ice hotel in Arctic Norway. Cloaked in furs, sleeping bags, a balaclava, hat and scarf, you can drift off snugly on your frozen platform for the night. Embracing its chilly winters to the full, igloo hotels offer travellers an opportunity to nod off in the true arctic environment. 

Central America

Hammocks have been the bed of choice for Central and South Americans for centuries. Made from fabric, rope, cloth or twine, they’re typically hung between trees or posts for an elevated, gently swinging snooze. Adopted later by sailors because they maximised available space, they’re now frequently used on camping trips.

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