First and Second Sleep

This post is part of the “New Writing Habit” series in which I attempt to write about something for one hour every work day.

I am reading a book now called At Day’s Close by Robert Ekirch. Ekirch is a professor at Virginia Tech and does research on the life of people during the night before the invention of artificial light — i.e. the electric light bulb. What did people do after dark? The chapter I was most interested in reading was called “Sleep we Have Lost: Rhythms and Revelations.” This chapter talks about a very interesting aspect of Ekirch’s research: the fact that before artificial light, people would go to sleep soon after dark then awake a few hours later around midnight. At this point, they would get up to do some work around the house, read, have sex, talk to family members, and even visit friends. They then would go back to sleep and sleep until daybreak. This segmented sleep pattern is what Ekirch claims we have lost. The “first sleep” and the “second sleep” are a pattern that we no longer follow thanks to the electric lights we can keep on late into the night. I am not far enough along to have read any conclusions Ekrich draws about whether or not this is good or bad, but it’s just very interesting to me.

Another very interesting thing is the spelling that we see in many of the quotations he uses from books, essays, court documents, and diaries. Much of the writing is in very old English. Apparently, spelling of words wasn’t standardized then, so we see a whole range of spellings of, say, “first sleep.” For example, we see “firste sleepe,” “fyrste slepe,” and “ferste sleepe.” These are very interesting spellings. I think people just spelled words phonetically, and only later did certain spellings of words become standardized. At least, that’s what I think I’ve read about it before.

The rest of the book deals with the thoughts and beliefs of these people about nighttime — superstitions they had, how institutions like the church tried to regulate it, and so forth. It’s a very interested bit of research that I would recommend reading.

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