The black darkness of night — before electric lights – is hard for us to imagine today. We assume life simply stopped as our ancestors awaited day’s return, though historical research suggests it did not. People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and even visited neighbors in the dead of night. In one instance, George Washington wrote John Hancock, saying “From the hours allotted to Sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress.” Night did not necessarily mean sleep for early Americans.
Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found substantial documentary evidence that, before the Industrial Revolution, people “experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.” This ‘segmented sleep’ was referred to as first sleep, watch or watching, and second or morning sleep. It seems that people of the 18th century did not immediately go to bed with the onset of darkness. They waited until about two hours after dusk. Once they went to bed, they slept for four hours but, not long after midnight, they awoke and remained awake for an hour or two. Eventually, they fell back asleep, slept for about four more hours, and awoke around dawn.
The idea of segmented sleep has been supported by some scientific studies, the most notable of which was conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the study, Wehr removed electric light from people’s lives. After a four-week adjustment period, the study’s subjects moved away from sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours and actually reverted to sleeping for four hours, being awake for one or two, and then sleeping for four more hours. How many of us who suffer with ‘insomnia’ might simply be hanging on to an older sleeping pattern altered by the relatively new technology of electric light?
Segmented sleep, however, may not even be the oldest human sleeping pattern. Research published in Current Biology in 2015 raises the possibility that, in actuality, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an even older sleeping pattern than segmented sleep. Scientists studied some of Earth’s last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers and found that all three groups slept for 7 to 8.5 hours per night without a period of wakefulness. The study’s primary author, Jerome Siegel of UCLA, “doesn’t dispute Ekirch’s analysis; he just thinks that the old two-block pattern was preceded by an even older single-block one.” Siegel speculates that segmented sleep arose when humans moved away from the equator into latitudes with longer periods of darkness.
So during the many centuries that humans followed the segmented sleep pattern, what did people do during watch, that time in the middle of the night between first and second sleeps? The short answer is almost anything! Most people seem to have simply remained quietly in bed, perhaps pondering their dreams or even praying. They may have talked with their bedmate, who was not just a spouse but could have have been another servant in the household or another traveler overnighting at the tavern. Beds were often used to full capacity, even if that meant sleeping with a stranger.
If people rose from bed during watch, it might have been to use the chamber pot or privy.
Work took place too, since fires might need tending or the next day’s baking started. The ancient Roman poet Virgil even mentions women servants spinning yarn during watch.
On farms, a full moon could practically turn night into day. Work schedules changed to take advantage of the light. “For several nights every September,” writes Ekirch, “light from the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is more prolonged than usual because of the small angle of the moon’s orbit. Well known in England as the ‘harvest moon’ . . . farmers on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from the moonlight to gather crops. ‘Sometimes,’ Jasper Charlton wrote in 1735, ‘the harvest people work all night at their hay or corn.’ Nearly as useful was the ‘hunter’s moon’ in October, when a full moon next appeared. ‘The moon of September,’ declared a writer, ‘shortens the night. The moon of October is hunter’s delight.’”
If there was no moon or work to do, night brought a respite from the hard routine and strict rules of the workday for laborers, tradesmen, servants and slaves. Enslaved people especially relished night as a time to run away, to sneak away and visit family on other plantations, to gather together for celebrations, to earn money through extra work, or simply to do whatever personal chores had piled up while working for master or mistress.
The darkness of watch afford ne’er-do-wells opportunity to steal and poach. Even Washington noted how night was a time for thieving when he complained about slaves using dogs to “aid them in their night robberies” of his sheep.
Because of segmented sleep, night, at least in George Washington’s day, seems to have been a surprisingly active time. People were awake for a couple of hours each night and during that time did almost anything imaginable from personal errands and household chores to farm labor and crime to prayer and meditation. The 18th century may have literally been a darker time but it was not necessarily a time for more sleep.
This Saturday, September 14, experience an 18th century night during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore! Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm. After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider. The event will take place rain or shine.
$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manager of Educational Programs
 A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.
 Ekirch, 171.