Myth # 108: People slept sitting up for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

Stuff02_R1

First refer to Myth #8 about short beds.

This week, we’ll deal with the sitting up part. This myth (which, I blush to disclose, I remember spreading back in the ’70s), often cites bad air as the reason for the belief that sleeping sitting up was healthier than lying down. Supposedly, bad air was heavier than fresh air, so sleeping with your head elevated kept your nose that much farther above the bad air.

Robin Kipps, supervisor of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary in Williamsburg and an expert in early American medical issues, spent hours searching through volumes of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century medical books before reporting, “There isn’t any evidence that [they thought] bad air was heavier or that they slept with their heads raised due to bad air. There is evidence that people slept with their heads elevated for medical reasons. If patients had an upper respiratory condition such as asthma or were recovering from a specific type of surgery, it was suggested that they sleep with their head elevated. Note it is not sitting up sleeping, it merely says with head raised.” Sharon Cotner, senior medical history interpreter at the Apothecary who has studied medical history for thirty years, found published medical information of the period suggested that “under normal conditions, people should sleep on their side, with knees bent and head raised. Not sitting up.”

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6 Responses to Myth # 108: People slept sitting up for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

  1. Pam says:

    I would love to hear more on this — it makes me wonder how one explains the “sleeping box” (not sure this is a real term, just my description) one can see at a site like Crailo State Historic Site in Renselear, NY (which recreates a 17th-C New Netherland room) The dimensions of this sleeping cubicle would not permit a reclining pose for sleep, and the height of the box suggests that, rather than curling up on its floor, the sleeper would have his/her back against the side of the box.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m afraid I can’t oblige–I know very little about Dutch customs. I, too, have seen the compartment beds built against the wall, not in the NY museum you mention but on visits to Holland. It was my assumption that this construction was for warmth, to deep out drafts.

  2. Daud Alzayer says:

    The bit about good air and bad air doesn’t sound right to me, but I had thought there was a practice of sleeping propped up for health.

    In fact, I even had a particular quote in mind, but going back and reading it realize that I was misunderstanding it. A newspaper described a man found dead in bed and said that, “It was supposed by the easy position which he lay he had no fit but an entire stagnation of the fluids.” Maybe the key here is that he was laying peacefully and therefore had no fit, vs my previous reading which was that his easy position caused the stagnation.

  3. Bob Giles says:

    We visited Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Charlottesville, VA and they discussed this issue. Can’t remember the details, but
    Maybe they can add to your presentation.

  4. Mike Shoop says:

    Stonewall Jackson, who was very health conscious, believed that sitting up in bed to sleep aligned his organs properly and created better overall health. I remember relaying that story as a docent at his Lexington home in the late 70′s, and am fairly certain they still tell it. The researchers there had found evidence that he believed this practice to be beneficial, just as he believed an ice cold bath each morning was also a good health practice.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Many people believed the cold bath theory, including George Wythe of Williamsburg. Hot water was widely believed dangerous to your health. The debate usually was between tepid water, cool water, and cold. Brrrr!! ANd I’ve heard that Jackson also rode his horse with one arm raised above his head for health reasons. Not sure if it’s a myth or not. I’ll touch base with the historian at the Stonewall Jackson House and see what he/she has to say.

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