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Dangerously Sleepy

Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness

By Alan Derickson
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Dangerously Sleepy by Alan Derickson

Dangerously Sleepy (2014) shines a light on one of the oft-ignored yet highly relevant legacies of the industrial revolution: lack of sleep. The nineteenth century brought us many innovations, such as electricity, railroads and modern machinery, but it also led to exploited workers and the idea that sleep is for the weak – a luxury that Americans can’t afford.

Key idea 1 of 8

Benjamin Franklin was one of the first Americans to theorize about sleep, but he left a poor legacy.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Such sayings are emblematic of a common American attitude – that sleep is for chumps, for the lazy masses who have nothing better to do. But when did this unhealthy attitude start?

To find that out, we’ll have to rewind back to the eighteenth century, when one of the nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, gave the subject some serious consideration.

Before he was a politician, Benjamin Franklin was a prototypical polymath whose long list of professions included inventor, newspaper printer and author. One of his publications was the yearly Poor Richard’s Almanack, which included poems, proverbs, astrology and useful advice for the early settlers of the 1730s.

One of his most famous sayings from the almanac, a saying still bandied about today, is “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” In 1735, when Franklin published this advice, he warned people that getting up late would only leave them scrambling and trying in vain to catch up on lost time.

Franklin’s own sleep habits were relatively normal, and perhaps surprisingly economical. He would end every day at 10:00 p.m. and wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m.

But as time went on, Franklin’s attitude began to change, and sleep became ever more undesirable.

During the 1740s, in other writings under his “Poor Richard” pen name, Franklin took on a more judgmental view toward sleep. His maxims now implored people to get up, to stop wasting their lives; he even started telling people that there would be time enough for sleep once they were six feet under.

Franklin’s anti-sleep attitude may well have been spurred to life by John Calvin. Franklin deeply admired the Protestant reformer, a man known for his aversion to sleep. When Calvin died at the relatively young age of 55, Franklin noted in his eulogy that he’d actually lived much longer than most, since he’d wasted so little time on sleep and sloth.

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