02 January 2008

Even Dr. Google has his limitations....

Background info: Curious Girl loves John and Abigail Adams. and last night, when she couldn't sleep, and she got into a fit of giggles with Politica around midnight, I asked what was so funny and she said, "The presidents!! They slept sitting up! John Adams slept sitting up!"

So at dinner, Curious Girl is looking at her placemat o' presidents, and says, "these ones (pointing to the top row) slept sitting up. John Adams! John Adams! Last night, I almost slept sitting up!" Politica had remembered a museum docent somewhere telling us that the reason old beds are so short is not because the people were shorter (although they were, a bit), but because people used to believe it was healthier to sleep sitting up. So we all got to wondering which presidents slept sitting up and which would have been of the era when the thinking about sleep changed and people would begin to sleep laying down.

Politica says, "Let's ask Dr. Google," and moves over to the conveniently located laptop. Curious Girl, who'd been on the way to the bathroom to wash her hands, runs back in the room. "Dr. Google! Can I see? Is there a picture of him?"

As I'm clearing the dishes, I hear these questions spilling out, as Politica is googling various things, calling out to me "what about this phrase?" "how about this one?" to try to find an answer to our question (I'm hoping this is the sort of little detail Trillwing might have encountered in her seems-to-me-incredibly-cool-program, or my favorite librarian readers might have a tip). All the while CG is keeping up a patter:
Does Dr. Google know everything?
Does he know about me?
Why don't you ask "why do cows have black spots?"
Can we go visit him?
Does he know about lions?
Reference librarians will never go out of business.


Magpie said...

I love that - it's like a demented little poem there!

Vivian Mahoney said...

Of course I had to try to Google this, and couldn't find an answer. Did you eventually find out more about this?

Thanks for joining in the Challenge! Here's to a great 2008 to you and your family!

elswhere said...

Aah, you got me! I can't resist a reference question like this.

You know, I'm not sure I believe that museum docent; I haven't found anything that corroborates the sleeping-sitting-up story you relate here (I mean, granted, I only searched around for 20 minutes or so, but still, you'd think something would show up. Also, it's not a professional response or anything, but my own sense is that why on earth would people sit up to sleep when they could lie down? It seems to defy common sense).

I did find several articles that discussed the apparently widespread pre-Industrial practice of "broken sleep"-- apparently, people used to pack it in around sunset, then wake up in the middle of the night to just hang out for an hour or two before going back to sleep. Maybe the short beds facilitated propping themselves up in the middle of the night to write in their journals or chat?

Here's the best article I found:
There's another one that looks intriguing, but it's on JSTOR and you have to pay to see the whole thing:

I didn't find anything about bed length, alas, and now I have to cut my search short so I can go and get some unbroken sleep lying down!

Anonymous said...

I heard that once, too, in a museum, but I can't remember where--Gettysburg, maybe? I love CG's free verse.

Bardiac said...

Wow, I never thought about that. Or even considered it. I wonder if it's really so, or if it's one of those weird things people just say (like using Juliet being 14 in R&J to claim that everyone married at 14 in early modern England).

Leslie M-B said...

Hilarious. I'm afraid I can't help you with the sleeping-sitting-up thing. Maybe people were just more phleghmy then, or more prone to acid reflux because of their diet. Or maybe their mattresses really sucked and gave them back pain.

This article references someone sleeping upright because of asthma.

Paging John Hodgman. . .

elswhere said...

I found a little more on the topic today (slow morning at the reference desk):

[& search on page for “sitting up”]
Aha! Key word to look for is “jack-bed”

Which led me to:


“Fascinating Facts from American History” by Bill Lawrence. P. 23.
in which he writes: “Oddly, it would seem today, it was common practice to sleep in a half-reclining posture, with head and neck propped up on goose-feather pillows. That’s why many colonial beds that can be seen today are shorter than ours.”
Citations (in general for chapter, not for this specific fact):
Colonial Living, by Edwin Tunis
Everyday Things in American Life, 1607-1776
Customs and Fashions in Old New England
Home Life in Colonial Days
(None of these are in my library, because, you know, Canada; but maybe a New England reader could track them down)

And, last but not least:
-- Justin and Elliott,5th graders at the Solomon Schechter Day School, don’t cite their sources, so it’s hard to tell from whence their information came. They do, however, introduce the intriguing concept that the cause/effect relation is different than I supposed earlier: perhaps people didn’t build short beds because they preferred to sleep sitting up; they slept sitting up because there wasn’t enough room to have a full-sized bed. So possibly when people's circumstances permitted them to build roomier houses, they started sleeping lying down again?

You'd expect a President's family wouldn't be in that situation, though, so basically I'm still stumped.

And that concludes tonight's reference session!

Repressed Librarian said...

I didn't find anything better than what elswhere came up with, but since I'm not currently working in a library, my resources are limited.

Very intriguing question though.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Roger Ekirch, _At Day's Close_, might have something on this - he's the main source of the "broken sleep" argument that elswhere mentions. I'll take a look and see if he mentions it.

Unknown said...

I was told during a tour of an 1850s stagecoach inn, that Americans (specifically) slept sitting up to avoid TB. Whether this was death by active TB, progression of TB into active TB, or catching TB at all, I don't know. I know from a first-hand account that Dutch people slept sitting up many generations ago. I can think of several diseases that would make it uncomfortable to sleep lying down... cardio-related, any disease that increases fluid in or around the lungs or heart, lung infections, asthma, TB certainly, and upset stomach or reflux. My husband snores less when he sits up. I'm looking into gettin' a short bed.