Sleep and Culture Throughout Human History: From Ancient Culture to Now

Posted by Roger A. Sramek on

Having trouble sleeping? Well, you're not alone. Throughout human history, a great deal of effort has gone into improving the way we sleep. As much a part of our basic needs as food, water, and safety, the science of sleep has fascinated humans for centuries.


Why Must We Sleep?

While many ancient cultures feared sleep, seeing it as akin to death, they nonetheless understood its importance. Egyptians thought dreams offered a way to communicate with higher powers, decorating their bedchambers with images of their preferred deities and seeking to interpretation divine messages in dreams.

Observing that animals, and even plants, seemed to spend the evening hours at rest, Greek philosophers sought to unravel the mystery of sleep and studied sleeping bodies in an attempt to understand the function of sleep in physical life. In his essay On Sleep and Sleeplessness, Aristotle concluded that sleep was “a seizure of the primary sense-organ; arising of necessity… for the sake of its conservation.”

Sleep and Culture

Shakespeare too understood the value of sleep to health, and many of his tragic characters are tortured by a lack of “that innocent sleep/Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.”

A true man of leisure, King Louis XIV owned more than 400 beds and often held court while reclining in one of them.

Even the ever-regimented Napoleon Bonaparte knew the importance of sleep (though His Imperial Majesty was known to take frequent naps…). 

 Six hours sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool. - Napoleon Bonaparte

The Development of Sleep Technology

Of course long before anyone began to think or write about the importance of sleep, people still slept. While early humans may not have understood the connection between sleep and health (and were probably just tired of sharing the bed with insects), attempts to improve sleep technology have been ongoing since the Neolithic period—when raised beds first began to replace straw heaps in cave dwellings.

Though they generally saw sleep as a waste of time, the Romans were the first to construct mattresses, filling crude cloth bags with reeds, hay, wool, and (for the wealthy) feathers. During the Renaissance, Europeans covered rough cotton mattresses with velvet and silk brocades in an attempt to make sleeping more comfortable. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that mattresses, usually stuffed with straw or down, were specifically designed to fit in wooden frames.

In the early nineteenth century, coil springs were first introduced as supports in chair seats. In 1871, Heinrich Westphal transferred this technology to the bedroom, creating the world’s first innerspring mattress. Since that time, various sleep fads have come and gone—adjustable mattresses, futons, and water beds among them—and the materials used in mattress construction have changed—artificial fillers, foam rubber, and latex are now frequently employed—but Westphal’s basic design remains far and away the most common type of mattress used today.

Roman Bed - Pompeii Exhibit

Roman bed - Pompeii Exhibit Ranch Acres History Museum, Singapore Roman bed | by Amsk 

How We Sleep Now

Throughout the twentieth century, the study of sleep has become a growing field of interest for scientists. Numerous sleep disorders have been diagnosed and codified, and the importance of a good night’s sleep has taken on new dimensions in scientific and popular culture. We now have apps on our phones that can measure how well we sleep, access to a large suite of prescription and over-the-counter drugs to aid sleep, even medical centers devoted entirely to enriching our understanding of sleep.

In recent years the sleep industry has also begun to change. Web-based companies have introduced new designs aimed at reducing the cost and increasing the comfort of mattresses. Various foams and gels have been introduced as alternatives to spring-based designs.

Yet, despite these developments, numerous studies show that Americans are not sleeping better. According to a 2014 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, fewer than one third of Americans get “excellent” or “very good” quality sleep on a regular basis.

Humans have been obsessed with sleep for ages and today we are more keenly aware of the need for quality sleep than ever before. We have the science and technology to help ourselves sleep better, so isn’t it time we started to use it more effectively?