In September 1776, fearing illness from night air, John Adams asked Benjamin Franklin to close the window of their room in a New Jersey inn. “I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds,” Franklin responded, launching into “a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration” in favor of leaving windows open. “I was so much amused,” Adams wrote in his journal, “that I soon fell asleep and left him and his philosophy together.”
In August 2018 data scientist David Bamman examined how authors recently interviewed in the New York Times’ By the Book column answered the question “What’s on your nightstand?” Women mentioned male and female authors almost equally; men mentioned male authors more than 79 percent of the time. “Don’t read in bed,” advised Fran Lebowitz. “It’s too stimulating. Watch TV instead. It’s boring.”
When a boat of carousing European sailors on the Bosporus awoke the sleeping Sultan Selim III one night in 1790, the Ottoman leader issued an emergency order to his administration against night revelers: “Warn all ambassadors and Europeans never to perform this shameless act again. I will mercilessly kill whoever does it.”
Into the early modern period, the word bug referred to a phantom in the dark; a 1535 translation of the Bible made for Henry VIII came to be known as the Bug Bible for its rendering of Psalm 91:5 as “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed of eny bugges by night.” The word was changed to terrors in later editions, but the original sense still colors the common bedtime warning against letting bedbugs bite.
Emily and Charlotte Brontë, insomniacs both, would walk together in circles around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep. When Emily died and Charlotte suffered alone, her insomnia worsened; she added to her route, often wandering down neighborhood streets and into the cemetery until daybreak.
Annoyed by a prohibition against nocturnal work in late medieval France—enacted because candles provided insufficient light for quality performance—employers complained to Louis XI that workers occupied themselves from “four or five o’clock until the next day with various games and dissipations, and hardly want to apply themselves to do well.” In the winter of 1467, they received permission to extend working hours to ten pm.
Poet Edward Fairfax kept a 1621 account of his daughter Helen’s terrible nightmares, describing an incident in which she complained about a demonic white cat that “has been long upon me and drawn my breath.” The cat, she said, “has left in my mouth and throat so filthy a smell that it does poison me.”
In 2005 the British Cheese Board attempted to dispel the idea that eating cheese before bed causes nightmares. No evidence of this “evil myth” was reported among two hundred volunteers, though eating Stilton was found to lead to “crazy” dreams, while eating cheddar often led to dreams of celebrities. “We hope that people will think positively about eating cheese before bed,” said the board secretary.
The practice of yobai, “night crawling,” was common in rural communities in medieval Japan, and continued into the twentieth century. A young man would visit a young woman’s house after dark, disguising his features with a cloth to avoid embarrassment should his advances be rejected. These premarital liaisons could become formal if a child were conceived.
“Considering how seldom people think of looking for sunset at all, and how seldom, if they do, they are in a position from which it can be fully seen,” it’s rare to witness an excellent one, John Ruskin argued in 1843. Evelyn Waugh saw a radiant pink sunset behind a shadow-gray Mount Etna in 1929. “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature,” he wrote, “was quite so revolting.”
“The difference between us is very marked,” wrote Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman in 1868. “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night.”