George Washington Slept Here… Twice!

Watching the Fire

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.[1]  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.’”[2]

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.

Hogarth's Night

“Night” by William Hograth, one painting from his Four Times of the Day series completed in 1736, depicts “disorderly activities under the cover of night” on Charing Cross Road in London. For the fascinating details about what is happening in the painting, visit Four Times of the Day on Wikipedia. Public domain.

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 events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.

[2] Ekirch, 171.

“A time to be born… a time to plant”: Timing Labor in the Washington Family

Recently I was contemplating Augustine and Mary Washington’s family bible. Like many families at the time, the Washingtons recorded the births of their children on their bible’s end pages. As I casually perused the handwritten notes that I had read so many times, I discovered something that I had never noticed before: each of Mother Washington’s labors, while carefully recorded, was only done so to the nearest hour.  No minutes, no “…quarter after…,” no “…5:38…” were detailed. I quickly realized two things at once: 1) the Washingtons owned a timepiece, and, 2) that timepiece only possessed only one hand for determining the hour.

washingtonbiblefrommv

Page in the Washington family bible listing births and deaths.

These times were clearly not chronicled using a sundial, given the arrival of George’s younger brother Samuel Washington on November 16 at three in the morning.  Clearly, at 3 am, there was no sunlight from which to read the early-hours culmination of Mary’s labor on a sundial! The timepiece used to record these births had to be a pocket watch, case clock, table-clock, or a wall clock.

johnandmarysarrettfamilybible-freepages-genealogy-rootsweb-ancestry-com

Page from the Sarrett family bible

Compare the Washington family’s biblical records with that of the Sarrett family.  John and Mary Sarrett recorded deliveries in their mid-eighteenth century bible as well.  However, recording the specific time was not deemed important during these happy occasions, or was perhaps not possible because they may not have owned a timepiece.

ann-kings-birth-wicked-bible

Page from the Kings family bible

In Worcestershire, England, the mid-eighteenth century Kings family did record birth times. Carefully written
among the pages of their New Testament, the deliveries of their children were noted, with the day, month, date, and the nearest hour of their birth.  Sometimes, if the birth was not especially close to an hour, they improvised: daughter Anne was delivered “…between 4 and 5 in the afternoon….”

Solar Time Versus Clock Time

Luxuries such as watches became popular in England starting at the end of the seventeenth century, when advancements in manufacturing and technology made timepieces smaller and more accurate. A social climate that fostered the ownership of such elegant accessories and scientific instruments (such as sundials, compasses, scales, barometers, and clocks) evolved and thrived at this time (Priestley 2000:7; Shackel 1987:156-165). Their high cost, luxurious status, and the knowledge needed to read and understand scientific instruments limited their ownership to well-off, educated consumers. This began to change during the mid-1700s.

With their increased accuracy, consumers of these timepieces soon realized that standardized time did not match solar time: due to the earth’s tilted axis and elliptical orbit the days were not of equal length throughout the year. At the height of winter, the solar day is almost a quarter hour slower than the clock, but by mid-December the clock is that much faster than the solar day.

Some one-handed timepieces featured incremental marks that allowed minutes to be recorded with some degree of precision. Though the mechanical clock had existed for several centuries (Stephens 2002:20), most colonists had little need for measuring time to the nearest hour, much less to the minute. People organized the activities of their day according to the rising and setting of the sun and around the exigencies of weather and light that favored some tasks over others. In the United States today, we continue to tell time in relation to the middle of the day, noting whether the hour is a.m. – ante meridiem (before the middle of the day)- or p.m. – post meridiem (after the middle of the day). Since daylight provided the best conditions to do most tasks in an era when expensive candlelight, ethereal firelight, or moonlight provided the only other options, it made sense to arrange one’s tasks according to this crucial reference point. (That said, people in the 18th century were surprisingly active at night as we explored in this blog post last year.)

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Although from the 1500s instead of the 1700s, this tambour cased timepiece from Germany is a fine example of a pocket watch with only a single hour hand. Credit: British Museum, (No. 1958, 1201.2203)

At Monticello, Jefferson installed a clock at the entrance to the mansion house.  It was simultaneously visible from both the yard and the entrance hall with one significant difference: from the yard, the clock had a single, hour hand but the interior, household face featured three hands. This interior clock allowed time to be segmented to the nearest hour, minute, and second. While outdoor tasks were sufficiently general that timing to the hour was appropriate, indoor tasks could be scrutinized to the nearest second.

Augustine Washington’s Pocket Watch

There was no a wall clock, table clock, or a case clock like Jefferson’s in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory. Either the probate assessor missed the clock during his survey, or the times noted in the Washington family bible reflect the use of a pocket watch. Pocket watches were especially popular among those who invested in timepieces, outselling furniture, or ‘case,’ clocks throughout the 1700s.

Indeed, a splendid watch was noted in Father Washington’s probate inventory under the heading “plate.” The “plate’’ category represented items plated in silver, and included things such as teaspoons, soup spoons, and a sword. At £5, Augustine’s watch represented the single most expensive item of plate recorded in their home: over four-and-a-half times more expensive than Father Washington’s sword!

Augustine’s pocket watch allowed him to check the time and document the births of his and Mary’s children’s to the hour. By checking the time, he demonstrated his pride in the ownership of a timepiece and in the esoteric knowledge needed to properly read it..

George may have taken this very timepiece with him in the late winter/early spring of 1748 when he joined a team of surveyors hired by Fairfax to transform parts of the Shenandoah Valley into farm-sized lots (Flexner 1965:34-38). During his March travels, Washington noted:

Tuesday 15th. …It clearing about one oClock & our time being too Precious to Loose we a second time ventured out and worked hard till Night….
Wednesday 16th. We set out early & finish’d about one oClock….
Thursday 17th.  Rain’d till Ten oClock….
Wednesday 23d.  Rain’d till about two oClock….

George recorded all of the times only to the nearest hour, indicating a single-handed timepiece. I considered that he used a pocket sundial. However, since some of the times were recorded during rain events, and given the nature of backwoods surveying, it had to be a pocket watch: no member of the surveying team could have carried a bulky case clock around the valley and across swiftly-flowing rivers.

There’s a good chance that this pocket watch was the same elegant, silver-plated timepiece that his father proudly used to record George’s own birth. Surely George enjoyed showcasing his graceful, refined pocket watch amongst the more experienced backwoodsmen and surveyors with whom he traveled in 1748. It otherwise seems difficult to justify recording such trivial details to the nearest hour. The piercing gleam of the weak winter sun against his magnificent silver-plated pocket watch distinguished George as a sophisticated gentleman, despite the rustic conditions in which he was surrounded.

With their watches and clocks, Augustine, George, and others living in the 18th century now measured the fruits of their labors in greater detail and that labor became commodified, helping to usher in the modern era.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Dixon, Simon
2015 Who Owned the Wicked Bible?  University of Leicester Library Special Collections Staff Blog, October 23. http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2015/10/23/who-owned-the-wicked-bible/

Flexner, James Thomas
1965 George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775). Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Priestley, Philip T.
2000 Early Watch Case Makers of England 1631-1720.  National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc, Cornerstone Printing Services, Lititz, Pennsylvania.

Shackel, Paul A.
1987  A Historical Archaeology of Personal Discipline.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of New York at Buffalo.

Stephens, Carlene E.
2002 On Time: How America has Learned to Live by the Clock.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

Photos: Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore

This past Friday, November 13, visitors enjoyed “Night in Washington’s Day,” a special evening event at Historic Kenmore that explored the history of nighttime in the 18th century.  Night was an active time 200 years ago. People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and visited neighbors at night. Darkness inspired scientists to make incredible discoveries that led to centuries of exploration and different cultures composed epic narratives inspired by the stars.  You can read information similar to that presented during “Night in Washington’s Day” here and here.

George Washington Slept Here… Twice!

Watching the Fire

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.[1]  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 famous 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. Brand new research published last month in Current Biology 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 of 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.’”[2]

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.

Hogarth's Night

“Night” by William Hograth, one painting from his Four Times of the Day series completed in 1736, depicts “disorderly activities under the cover of night” on Charing Cross Road in London. For the fascinating details about what is happening in the painting, visit Four Times of the Day on Wikipedia. Public domain.

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.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.

[2] Ekirch, 171.