We’ve come far from sleeping on the floor and sharing beds for warmth and life before electricity, but as we look back at the past 150 years, we can see just how much sleep has changed.
Technology has helped and hindered sleep, from allowing us to control aspects early man could not, such as temperature and light, to the increase in blue light technology and the growing urge to be ‘present’ online with the fear of missing out and constant scrolling.
We’ve looked at the popularity of old wives tales, seeing which of the sleep myths are most popular - but are they effective?
The introduction of electricity within our homes affected the time we fell asleep. This became later and later due to light in homes beyond dusk as well as the introduction of more electronics keeping us entertained well into the night. In the Victorian era the public would typically fall asleep at 7pm when the sun disappeared, however this dramatically moved to 10pm in the Edwardian era, finally settling at 12pm in the modern age.
Although our bedtime has become later throughout the years, we’ve continued to wake up around a similar time. The time we rise in the morning has tended to drift around the 6am-7am mark for the past 150 years, likely due to 9-5 working hours being the norm, meaning we’d have to wake up in time for work.
During the pandemic many found themselves working from home and doing less daily activity with a maximum of just one hour of outside exercise a day. Our social lives also took a hit, with summer evenings at the pub replaced with zoom quizzes and other at home activities. All this taking a toll on the way we sleep by distributing our circadian rhythm and the cues that would typically aid sleep.
Interestingly, the pandemic has seen us wake up later than usual, at 7:30am rather than the 7am of the Modern Age. With people working from home and no longer having to commute to work, we most likely decided to use the extra time in the morning to sleep in.
Although we slept longer, the public also found their sleep more disrupted than normal. In a study by the NCBI, almost 1 in 3 individuals reported worse quality of sleep during lockdown than under normal conditions. With people worrying about financial security, their health and spending more time indoors than before, it’s no surprise that their quality of sleep suffered.
1837 - 1901 Victorian Era
Within the first 100 years of the Victorian Era in 1870, Holland & Barrett was formed. At this point, Alfred Slapps Barrett and Major William Holland sold groceries and clothing before we became a health and wellness retailer.
Although electricity was invented it wasn’t common within homes, Liverpool became the first city to light its streets in 1979 with the Liverpool Electric Lighting Act. Gas lanterns and candles were still the norm, so this meant people had limited vision once it got dark.
Victorians would typically sleep for around five hours then wake back up and use their time for cleaning, reading or relaxing before settling down for the second round of sleep, otherwise known as a biphasic sleep pattern. This habit consists of sleeping in two segments during the day, often including one long sleep of 5-6 hours, then a shorter nap.
1901 - 1910 Edwardian Era
Ruled by King Edward VII, Britain saw an era of peace and with a preference for leisure over entrepreneurship among the elite. With this, came the spread of electricity for residents and a move away from the biphasic sleep schedule.
As more awareness around the concept of time became relevant, a need to be more efficient during waking hours saw growth, with doctors recommending a single or monophasic sleep pattern.
The monophasic sleep pattern is what is most commonly used today, with one long restful period allowing for improved memory function as well as better rem to deep sleep patterns.
1914 - 1939 - Modern
As we move into the 1900s and what is known currently as the modern era, radios became a popular source of evening activity, alongside dances, giving people a reason to stay up later. This rapid time for change also introducing the 8-hour workday, thanks to Henry Ford. Creating a new standard of living a structure to the day that supports sleep patterns.
1939 - 1945 - WWII
With World War II in full swing from 1939 to 1945, sleep was the least of peoples’ worries - with the fear of being bombed during the night as well as frequent air raid sirens keeping people continuously on alert.
Families often slept in shelters in cities, or brick built shelters in cold, damp and difficult conditions alongside other families. This made it difficult to rest, never mind getting a decent night's sleep.
This was just at home - imagine trying to get some shut-eye on the front line, with a lack of beds, comfort and quiet, it was a case of simply sleeping where there was space.
1945 - 2000 - Modern 2
In the lead up to the millennium, the sleep industry saw a wave of new inventions, from foam mattresses in 1966 to weighted blankets in 1998.
More and more electrical items were made commonplace in the home too, the digital alarm clock was invented in 1957 and by the 1970s 93% of homes had a TV. Although things like the digital alarm clock were meant to aid sleeping progress with the assurance of waking on time, the diversion of their lit screens often hindered sleep.
With screens beginning to take up more and more time, there were plenty of reasons to put off a good night's sleep.
2000-2019 - Modern Age
With the introduction of smartphones in 2000 and the first iPhone released in 2007, more and more of free time was spent scrolling on phones, taking in more blue light and continuously changing routines, people waking their brains when they should have been trying to rest it.
This time also saw the introduction of zero-hour contracts, another factor making it more difficult to form consistency and routines. Possibly adding to the gap in the market for sleep apps, with their introduction in 2008 and the creation of the popular app Headspace in 2010. Although there is irony in using mobile phones to help us sleep, the growing app abilities is not only helping people fall asleep but also monitoring how long for and its quality.
2020-2021 - Coronavirus pandemic
The unprecedented times of 2020 saw a global pandemic change the world's way of working. In the UK the trend for working from home saw the lines of work and relaxation blurred. This paired with the reduction in activity, movement and day to day life leaving people less tired and struggling to sleep due to the increasing worry about the unknown.
This unusual situation affected the entire country, causing global sleep changes, from restless sleeping to vivid dreams and the frequently trending #3am club on Twitter.
History may have changed sleep, but old wives tales have stayed the same.
‘Beauty sleep’ a term originating in the Victorian era saw the highest search volumes of 198,000 over the past 12 months, with the idea continuing that your body uses the sleep hours for regeneration. But ‘wearing socks’ is the old wives' tale that saw the highest increase in interest, with a 463% rise in searches thanks to the hack trending on TikTok. The idea of wearing socks is that this improves blood circulation, helping blood flow and reducing your core body temperature faster - a process that is integral to falling asleep.
‘Lavender’ also proved popular, with the plant's relaxing powers used as early as the ancient Egyptians and Romans and now gaining 9720 searches in the past year and a 104% increase in the past year. The natural sleep saver helps reduce stress, relax muscles and kickstart the sleeping process. Interestingly, this is followed by ‘read yourself a bedtime story,’ with a 97% increase in searches following the demand for sleep apps, aiding sleep through a guided meditation or a soothing story.
Avoiding cheese for a good night’s sleep is the 5th most popular hack of the past 12 months with 3,300 searches on Google. Although this myth has done the rounds, proving more popular the younger you are, there’s actually no scientific evidence that cheese would give you nightmares. However, eating cheese too close to bedtime can give you indigestion, which may be the source of the myth.
When it comes to aiding sleep, throughout time natural remedies are favoured. From lavender to a hot tea or a warm bath we’re here to help you find the easiest way to help you nod off.
This delicious smooth and serene blend combining camomile, passionflowers, apple and vanilla flavourings is smooth and warming, making it the perfect part of your bedtime routine. Take your last sip and sink your head into a soft pillow.
Badger sleep balm is a dreamy, night balm that will not make you sleepy, rather it’s a calming, soothing blend of essential oils to help ease you into a relaxed state of mind so sleep can come naturally.
Apply anywhere—your lips, chest, temples or hands—and inhale the aromatic smell of a wonderful night’s sleep. Rosemary promotes clear thinking, Bergamot is mentally uplifting, and Balsam Fir is refreshing, like a walk in the woods, while Lavender is relaxing. The perfect balm for the nights when you need to quiet your mind and get to sleep.
BetterYou Magnesium Flakes are a cost-effective way to indulge in the many benefits of magnesium chloride baths. These flakes are a highly concentrated form of 100% natural, pharmaceutical grade magnesium chloride. Soaking in magnesium flakes as a bath, or a foot soak, helps treat skin conditions, replaces the body's levels of magnesium and provides a relaxing home treatment.
Nerina Ramlakhan, physiologist and sleep therapist, and author of The Little Book of Sleep:
“Seven or eight hours a night is good to aim for, but we’re all unique. I encourage people to listen to how they feel”, says Nerina Ramlakhan. We all have our ‘Achilles heel’ when we get run down, whether it’s cold sores, a sore throat or migraines – pay attention to what happens to you when you’re not getting enough sleep, and you’ll start to become more attuned to how much you really need.”
“Waking up during the night is completely normal. Some research shows that we’re biphasic, so we sleep, then wake up in the early hours to check whether it’s safe to go back to sleep. What isn’t normal is to then look at your phone, check the time, check the share prices, dive into your social media - all of that stops you getting back to sleep.”
Has the history of sleep got you thinking about your own restlessness? Check out our natural sleep remedies for a helping hand in getting enough sleep.
Our timeline of the history of sleep pulled together information from a range of sources found below. This allowed us to discover how people slept throughout history, from when Holland and Barrett was formed in 1870 all the way to present day.
We also looked at the popularity of old wives tales in the present day to discover which ones have stood the test of time. We used Google search data to discover which tales are most searched for in the past 12 months and ranked these. Old wives tales taken from this article using Google search volumes to analyse their popularity.