“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.”
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.
“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.”
“Darkness has come upon me,” a hymn in the Rig Veda laments. “O Dawn, banish it like a debt.” The morning light is here asked, suggested translator Wendy Doniger, to act as a collection agency—to “make good what darkness had incurred or ‘exact’ the darkness from night as one would exact money.”
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.
A longtime practice of European peasants was to bring cows and sheep inside for the night. If one could ignore “the nastiness of their excrements,” a late seventeenth-century visitor to Ireland opined, “the sweetness of their breath” and “the pleasing noise they made in ruminating or chewing the cud” might lull a person to sleep. A visitor to the Hebrides noted, however, that while urine was regularly collected and discarded, the dung was removed only once a year.
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.
Neo-Confucian philosopher Fujiwara Seika visited a friend on the night of the Han mid-autumn festival in 1606. As the moon appeared, the men climbed onto the roof. “The guest felt in his heart the endlessness of space,” wrote Seika’s student Hayashi Razan, “but the host seemed not to notice this, so the guest also acted as if he had not either.” Drunk on wine just before dawn, the pair began asking questions of the moon. No answers came, Razan wrote: “What could the moon say?”
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.”
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.
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.”
A study of sixty-two mammalian species found that animals around the world have shifted into more nocturnal lives. “Humans are now this ubiquitous, terrifying force on the planet,” said lead author Kaitlyn Gaynor, “and we are driving all the other mammals back into the night-time.” The Southeast Asian sun bear, formerly diurnal, now spends as much as 70 percent more time awake at night to avoid humans.