The Second Sleep, 1829
In the past few years I seem to have been reading more and more about the idea of “segmented sleep” – the concept of a night’s sleep being broken into first and second sleeps of around 4 hours each, with a gap of 1 or 2 hours in the middle. The gap being known in French as the dorveille, or wakesleep. It’s claimed by some to have been an absolutely widespread concept throughout history, and the natural form of human sleep. People were supposed to have done all manner of things during the wakesleep period – read, eat, visit neighbours, as well as it being considered a fruitful time to attempt to conceive.
However, the practice of segmented sleep was said to be permanently disrupted by Edison and his lightbulbs, which lit up the night as never before.
I’m very interested in the concept, although having had a version of this when my son was little and woke up in the middle of the night every night, I found 1-2 hours wakefulness at around 2am anything but restful. Mainly though, I’ve found it difficult to believe that such a supposedly common and well-known practice could have fallen so completely from general knowledge. There are mentions in literature, but not that many, and not conclusively so, I would say. So I decided to trawl the British Newspaper Archive and see what mentions I could find on the idea of the second sleep. And specifically, the timings of it.
In 1829, this article gave an idea of sleep patterns of the time. Recommended levels being 8 hours for labourers, 6 hours for fops. The fops, however, were keen to sleep a lot longer than that. Power napping worked for seamen. Interestingly, the author states that “I have known persons who have never indulged in a second sleep”, springing out of bed as soon as they awake rather than nodding off again. What seems to be implied here is what I found to be implied in other articles – that rather than a wakeful period in the extreme early hours followed by another half-night’s sleep, the second sleep is more a falling asleep after waking up near dawn. It seems to me to be more the equivalent of hitting the snooze button for a couple of hours than the middle of the night activity I have read of.
Here’s an 1846 article stating that moving position during sleep being important for the body. Mr Schub, a surgeon, changed position for “his short second sleep” and found it refreshed him much more than if he didn’t. The mention of the second sleep being short again matches the idea that this could be a shorter snooze around dawn.
The Duke of Wellington was against the idea of a second sleep, according to this article from 1853. Again, the wording doesn’t sound like it was in the middle of the night – “snatch a second sleep” would be a peculiar description of 4 hours sleeping from 2am or so. Unless the Duke followed the Maggie Thatcher school of sleep deprivation. She famously slept for only 4 hours a night, which might explain a lot.
This 1860 article, however, is gratifyingly more specific and matches the articles I have read, “…about 6 in the morning, when all the people are deep in their second sleep…”
During a criminal case in 1861, a Prefect of Police in Jersey was “…probably entering on his second sleep,” at almost 5am.
This description of life of a farm labourer offers more insight. The farmer’s wife is starting her day at around the time that others are embarking on a second sleep – around 4am.
Here in 1889, though, there’s reference to the second sleep being more of a morning snooze. “It appears that we all need that second sleep of a morning which lazy maidens call their beauty sleep……The French army doctors declare that the most refreshing sleep is enjoyed at or after dawn, and that this second but less profound slumber is absolutely necessary if the troops are to be kept up to their work.”
Beauty sleep! That’s a good one that I will have to remember next time I want a lie-in, although I feel it’s always asking for a sarcastic reply.
Sluggards, read this! Having children has sadly curtailed my sluggardly tendencies (although my brilliant other half admittedly lets me sleep in far more than he does). If anyone had told me that waking up at 8am is an actual lie in on a Sunday I would not have believed it. This article must be talking to the serious sluggard, though, with its advice to get up 10 minutes earlier every day for 2 weeks until you’re used to getting up more than two hours earlier every day. I feel quite faint at the thought of a 4.30am wake up call.
The article quotes 18th century surgeon John Abernethy on the subject of the second sleep, which again appears to me to be essentially pressing the snooze button at dawn. “I always caution patients against sleeping too much; waking from sleep indicates that the bodily powers are refreshed; many persons upon first waking feel alert and disposed to rise, when upon taking a second sleep they become lethargic, can scarcely be awakened, and feel oppressed and indisposed to exertion for some time after they have risen.”
The cycling enthusiast of the late Victorian age apparently “rise at an early hour, and are on the road to the countryside ere most folks have had their second sleep.”
A 1901 column on Household Hints offers advice in sleeping – “Sleep is deepest during the first hour. Then from hour to hour it diminishes till we wake spontaneously when nature bids us rise. A second sleep, therefore, is comparatively unrefreshing.”
Again, this doesn’t sound like it’s recommending 4 hours sleep in total for the night. “When nature bids us rise” sounds like it refers to a full night’s sleep in one go, and the second sleep is nodding off again afterwards.
How not to neglect your chickens during “the worst month of the whole year” – November. “Before retiring for the night put that alarm clock of yours on to an hour or so before your usual time. The hour should be at daybreak, and when the ringing of the alarm awakes you from your dreams, do not yawn and turn over on your other side and go off to sleep again. This second sleep does you no good whatever, and does infinite harm to your birds.”
The latest reference I found to the second sleep was in 1939. A scouts trip took place “on Sunday morning when all good Scouts are turning over for a second sleep, the boys arrived at the Scout Hut…” I can’t see this as being any earlier than 6am. This is the time that Baden-Powell used to like to be out and about, and for which he invented the word “goom”. The goom being the time just before daybreak before people got up and the day started. “Good morning. The goom is over.”
So….what do I think?
Well, it appears to me that I’ve found less to suggest the night’s sleep being cut into two chunks of 4 hours, with a gap for activities in the middle, than the “second sleep” being used as a term to refer to lying in bed post-daybreak. Of course, the time of daybreak differs wildly across the year, especially in the days before daylight savings.
One of the reasons I’ve seen given in articles on the subject as to why there are relatively few references to segmented sleep in history is that it was so well-known and commonplace as to barely warrant a mention. Certainly, there were few references overall in the Newspaper Archive, but as this stretches from the 18th century to the 1950s, the high point of segmented sleep was in all likelihood earlier in history. I can imagine that the upright Victorian mind would consider the sluggard as a sinner, and perhaps the term changed to refer to morning snoozing instead. But it looks like the truth is still out there.