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November 22, 2017
In honor of Thanksgiving, we thought it would be fun to look back at the sleep habits of our ancestors. When the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in 1620, the ship was crowded, and they didn’t have many comforts of home. As you learn about how they had to sleep, you may be inspired to give thanks for your own comfortable bed!
The Mayflower was nothing like the multi-story cruise ships that sail the oceans today. The Pilgrims didn’t even have cabins for privacy as they crossed the Atlantic. Instead, all the passengers were stuffed into the space between decks. This was basically one large, open room, divided only by a few curtains to offer a bit of privacy.
When it was time to sleep, passengers could choose between sleeping on the floor or in ad hoc bunks. These may have been wooden pallets attached to the ship’s walls or cloth hammocks. A few may have even slept in the shallop — the small ship used to get from the Mayflower to shore upon landing.
Once the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they quickly built shelters for the winter. It took a few months to finish building, and when they did, it’s likely that the Englishmen and women kept up their traditional sleep habits the best they could. At first each house held six to eight people. Houses were built for families, but there were also many single men who needed shelter. These men were placed with families for the winter and often slept on the floor. Most houses had only one room that served as kitchen, work space and bedroom all in one.
Beds in Plymouth were typically rudimentary mattresses filled with straw. The straw would eventually decay, so they needed to be emptied and refilled several times per year. Once families were more well off, they may have had a secondary mattress filled with feathers that acted like a duvet to help keep them warm. By contrast, the Wampanoags — native people already living in Massachusetts in 1620 — slept in wetus, or domed houses. Instead of mattresses, they piled up plush layers of animal skins for both warmth and comfort.
The Puritans who landed in Massachusetts kept excellent written records of their new colony, but they didn’t think to write down much about bedtime — probably because the daily habits of ordinary people didn’t seem very important when they were struggling just to survive. What we do know about sleep in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution is that people didn’t typically sleep for a solid eight hours. Instead, sleep fell into two segments, with a wakeful hour in the middle of the night, probably around midnight. During this time, monks would pray, shepherds would check on their flocks, and ordinary folks would enjoy an hour’s quiet joy in deep thoughts or (ahem) marital bliss. Once light bulbs and alarm clocks were invented that all changed, but it’s a fair assumption that the Pilgrims went to bed shortly after sundown, woke in the middle of the night for a time, then fell back to sleep until dawn.
Would you have wanted to be a Pilgrim on the Mayflower? Even after arriving in North America, it hardly sounds like they enjoyed the plush comforts we have come to expect in our modern bedrooms — so don’t forget to give thanks for what you’ve got!