Sleeping through the Ulster Folk Museum

In which I introduce some Scots words, examine underfloor heating, Irish country style, and go off on a digression about the joys of an open air museum.

On a trip to the Ulster Folk Museum this summer I came across a nineteenth-century farmhouse that had been cleverly desinged to keep the family warm at night.

Continuing our theme of the history of bedrooms and bedsharing, I took the chance to take a few snaps.

The Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra, County Down, Northern Ireland

The digression ….

If you ever get an opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, the Ulster Folk Museum should be top of your list of things to see. This is an open air museum set in over 150 acres of rolling countryside in County Down.

Potato farls cooking on a griddle

This is the best museum I have ever been to (and I’ve been to a lot of museums!). I spent many happy days here as a child, poking about in the small homesteads, and sitting on the wooden benches at the National School. The 1920s picture house, showing Charlie Chaplin films, wasn’t there then. Nor was the corner shop selling sweets from jars by the quarter. This is now my daughter’s favourite part of the town.

The museum was founded in the 1960s by my next-door-neighbour, George Thompson. The buildings (some dating from the 1600s) were moved stone by stone from locations all around the nine counties of Ulster to the museum site.

What I love most about the Ulster Folk Museum is that it is a working museum, where crops are grown, machines are operated and turf fires burn in the open hearths.  In the early 1990s I came here to pick potatoes as part of a school trip.  Sheep can be seen grazing in the fields along the country walk, and chickens roam lose around the farmyards.

Depending on the day, you can see the shuttle fly along the Jacquard loom in the weaver’s workshop, posters inked on the presses at the print shop, or soda ‘farls’ cooking on a griddle on an open fire in the Rectory kitchen (‘farl’ means a quarter in Ulster Scots).

Scots words and weather ….

upstairs bedroom in Tea Lane
"Ye'll sleep far better, mam.  Tak' my advice;
The nicht blaws snell - the sheets are cauld as ice;
I'll fetch ye up a fine, warm, cosy pig:
I'll mak' sae comfortable and trig,
W' coortains, blankets, every kind o hap,
And warrant ye to sleep as sound's a tap.
As for the fylin' o the sheets - dear me,
The pig's as clean outside as pig can be.
A weel-closed mouth's eueuch for ither folk,
But if ye like, I'll put it in a poke."

"But, Effie - that's your name, I think you said;
Do you yourself now take a pig to bed?"
"Eh! Na, mam, pigs are only for the great
Wha lie in feather beds, and sit up late;
Feathers and pigs are no for puir riff-raff;
Me and my neibor lassie lie on cauff."

Robert Leighton, 'Scotch Words', 1870

Ulster is the most northern province of Ireland. It is very close to Scotland, and many of the settlers in Ulster originally came from Scotland. Like Scotland, the weather is cold and wet, so staying dry and warm at night was a priority.

In the comic poem “Scotch Words” an English lady visiting an inn in Scotland is offered a hot water bottle by the maid, who worries that she will be too cold to sleep.

The lady misunderstands the well-meaning young woman’s Scots dialect, in which ‘pig’ means an earthenware pot or jar (see the picture below), and ‘cauff’ is the husks of oats (chaff) commonly used to stuff mattresses at this time. She goes home and tells her friends that Scottish people sleep with pigs and calves in their beds.

Hot water bottle ‘pigs’, for hire to wealthier costumers at the Picture House to keep their toes warm.

The underfloor heating bit ….

The family who lived at Cruckaclady farmhouse in county Tyrone, built in the early 1800s, really were kept warm at night by the heat coming from their livestock – but they didn’t sleep with them in their beds! More hygienically, the bedroom was situated above the byre, where the cows slept, so that the heat from the sleeping animals rose up through the floorboards.

The house has a thatched roof and only two rooms. The positioning of the byre was made possible because the house was built on a steep slope, with the front door higher up the slope and the byre on a lower level. The bedroom can be reached from a few wooden steps from the main living area, and the byre is accessed from a door at the back of the house.

Steps to the bedroom abover the byre.
The back of the house with a door into the byre. The small window lets light into the bedroom.
To make even better use of the space, an alcove bed has been built into the wall by the fireplace – another warm part of the building.

More sleeping places …

The Folk Museum is a good place to get an insight into how people fitted sleep around their lives and work over a hundred years ago.

A metal bedframe almost fills the whole room in the tiny upstairs bedrooms in the labourers’ houses on Tea Lane. A baby’s cradle sits in a cosy corner by the hearth in the shoemaker’s kitchen. The bedroom in the weaver’s cottage doubles as a sewing room.

The large open-plan sleeping area in the rectory attic accommodates three beds, a baby’s cradle and a bathtub. The banker’s family can afford separate bedrooms, including a nursery complete with rocking horse and a children’s bookcase.

Back in the countryside, cattle and people live together in a sparesly furnished one-roomed house (Magheragallan Byre-dwelling). The Meenagarrah Cottier’s house is typical of the kind of one-bed cabins whole families lived in across Ireland before the Great Faminine in the 1840s.

Drumnahunshin Farmhouse

Bed Sharing – Pros and Cons. Part 2: Britain

Watch this short video produced by the Victoria and Albert Museum to learn the history of Britain’s most famous bed, shared by hundreds of travellers over three centuries.

Bed sharing has its problems. Your bed partner might snore, hog the covers or wake you up too early.

But it also has its benefits – warmth, intimacy, protection. Most practically, it saves space. For these reasons, bed sharing has been practised and highly valued in many cultures.

These two posts compare attitudes to bed sharing in Japan and in Britain.

Home and Away

Painting of two sisters sleeping (Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen, 1851) Public Domain

In Western culture having a bed to yourself in your own bedroom is considered desirable, if not essential to health and well-being. But it hasn’t always been this way.

A great number of people living in Britain over the past 500 years could only dream of such luxury. Finding an affordable space to sleep at all could be a challenge, and beds were very often shared with family members or even strangers.

Gin Lane, 1751. This engraving by William Hogarth depicts the desolation of a slum in Bloomsbury, London.
British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housing was so overcrowded in English cities in the 1600s and 1700s that many families shared one room. People rented space in a bed (leased at two pennies a night), with entire families sleeping in one bed. Some lodgers shared beds with strangers.

These were people that were lucky enough to have a place to sleep. The homeless slept on the streets – a situation that continued into the 1800s.

Sketch of a tenament building in Bethnal Green, London, 1848. Beds are crammed into the upstairs rooms and a crib lies in the cellar. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Illustration of children sleeping rough, 1867. Mary Evans Picture Library.
In this 1841 cartoon from Punch magazine Mr Punch, having just been shown round the very fine stables of a country estate, visits a cottage housing tenant farmers. The building is cold, damp and draughty, and the occupants are sleeping in one room.

The caption below the cartoon reads: Mr. Puch (To the Landlord): “Your stable arrangements are excellent! Suppose you try something of the sort here! Eh?”
Children sharing a bed in a slum in Bethnal Green, London, c. 1900-1910 © Museum of London

The better off shared beds for companionship and convenience. Children, especially brothers or sisters, commonly slept together. It was not unusual even for very wealthy people to share a bed with a friend, family member or servant when away from home.

The Great Bed at Ware (which can be seen in the video at the top of this page) could fit four couples comfortably. This large, ornate Elizabethan bed was crafted as a novelty to attract customers to one of the coaching inns in the town of Ware.

Bed partners were generally of the same sex and age. Conduct books advised that servants should show respect to their betters by giving up the best side of the bed.

Two friends share a bed in a guest house in the film “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)

Blanket Fair

     To pig: to sleep with one or more people in a bed
     Bed-faggot: a troublesome bed partner (East Anglia)
     Curtain lecture: a scolding delivered by an unhappy wife at bedtime
     Blanket fair: a euphemism for bed (Sheffield)

The intimacy and vulnerability of bed sharing brought both dangers and opportunities.

A seventeenth-century print depicting a curtain lecture.

Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sleepers were vulnerable to theft and violence, so it was important to have a good relationship with a bed partner. A stocking-maker from Derbyshire, called Samuel Smith, discovered this rather too late. He woke up in the night to find that his girlfriend had cut off his penis! – revenge for breaking his promise to marry her.

Most of the time bed partners were simply a nuisance rather than criminal. They might snore, especially after a heavy night of drinking, or else annoy their fellow with disagreeable conversation. An unfortunate husband might be subjected to a “curtain lecture”, if their wife took the opportunity of getting something off her chest.

Old Tinker was not to be pumped by this little cross-questioner; and signifying to her that bed was a place for sleeping, not conversation, set up in her corner of the bed such a snore as only the nose of innocence can produce.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Many people enjoyed the company of their bedfellow. In the hours between nightfall and sleep, people let down their guard and cast away convention. Sisters confided secrets, work colleagues shared jokes, a lady and her maid had a farting competition!

The fun had with a good companion at bed time may be the origin of the term “blanket fair” – as in the nursery rhyme:

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
  Down sheet lane to blanket fair!

Bedfellowship played an important role in keeping sleepers safe during the night. This applied to high and low alike. Elizabeth I had a number of trusted women who searched her bedchamber at night and slept in her bed to keep her safe from assasination attempts. In one-room cottages in Ireland the women slept nearest the wall and the men near the door, so that they could protect the house from intruders.

Franz Nadorp, murder of the sons of Edward IV, 1836. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-53) by Hablot Browne (Phiz). A young woman nurses her sick maid servant.
Illustration of a mother tucking her children into bed. Shown on the cover of the Literary Digest, 29 January, 1921
Norman Rockwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Married Love

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Photograph of a couple sleeping in twin beds, circa. 1950

Between 1850 and 1950 bed sharing was regarded as unhealthy, even for married couples. Victorian doctors and health campaigners warned that the weaker companion would drain the health and vitality of the stronger.

Modern, forward thinking couples ditched their double beds for twin beds. It was only in the 1940s that sleeping in separate beds came to be seen as a sign of a failing marriage. Marie Stopes, author of Married Love, called twin beds “an invention of the Devil, jealous of married bliss”.

The problems of bed sharing haven’t gone away. For many couples married bliss involves waking up with no covers or sleeping on the very edge of the bed. In 2020 an article in Good Housekeeping suggested a clever solution – one bed, two separate duvets.



Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (2013) Political intrigue, sexual scandal and assasination plots at the court of Elizabeth I, told through the history of the Queen’s bed and those who shared it.

Hilary Hinds, A Cultural History of Twin Beds (2019) Hygiene, modernity and the battle over the marriage bed – the history of twin beds between 1870 and 1970. A short article about the history of twin bed was published in the Guardian in August 2019.

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (2016) A riveting look at sleep c. 1600-1800.  Find stories about beds, bed sheets and bedfellows.  Available from Waterstones and Amazon

Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (2008) Not about sleep specifically, but vividly portrays the overcrowded, delapidated, and disease-ridden conditions of preindustrial cities.

Bed Sharing – Pros and Cons. Part 1: Japan

Bed sharing has its problems. Your bed partner might snore, hog the covers or wake you up too early.

But it also brings benefits in terms of intimacy, warmth, protection and space saving. For these reasons, bed sharing has been practised and highly valued in many cultures.

These two posts compare attitudes to bed sharing in Japan and in Britain.


Soine (co-sleeping) is a common practice in Japanse families, with parents sharing sleeping spaces with children until around the age of ten.

When explaining what soine means to them, families emphasise the importance of anshinkan. Anshinkan refers to the feelings of contentment and security that come from the intimacy of soine.

A mother and baby son lie on pillows on a tatami floor.  The mother is watching her son sleep.
A recently widowed mother watches her son sleep in the Japanese film Twilight: Saya in Sasara (2014)

soine (co-sleeping)

kawa no ji (child between the parents)

anshinkan (feelings of contentment, relief, security)

jiritsu (independence/interdependence)


Traditionally co-sleeping in Japan is in the form of kawa no ji, with the child sleeping in between the parents.

Diana Tahhan, Touch Intimacy

It is sometimes used as a solution to lack of space in a household, or so that parents and babies experience less sleep disturbance as they do not have to get up in the night to tend to the baby.  It also means that parents are close to children in an emergency, like an earthquake.

The main reason for co-sleeping is to foster feelings of connection and security within families.  Through the sensations of soine the warmth of bodily intimacy, the touch of skin and the feel of the futon and the floor on which it is placed – the members of the family develop a deep connection with one another and with the shared living-space.

These feelings of warmth, comfort, security, connection and wholeness are summed up in the word anshinkan

Connected via futon

The flexibility of the futon (the traditional Japanese bed) is important in developing anshinkan.

A little boy wakes up a sleeping man with noisy banging of a drum; the boy sleeps and the man swats flies away from him with a fan. Colour process print, 1909. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Although western-style beds are common in modern Japanese households, the futon is generally used for soine. The futon is quite different from a bedframe and mattress, which is rooted in one room and generally associated exclusively with an individual or individual couple (“my room”, “my bed”).

As the family gets larger, futons can be placed side-by-side to create more space to sleep.  If an older child becomes unsettled, a futon can be moved into their bedroom temporarily for a parent to sleep on, recreating a sense of soine for a short time.

This flexibility, and blurring of ownership aids in developing the intimate connections between family members, and between family and home that make up anshinkan

This family living in Australia recreated soine by placing two large matresses together under a mosquito net.


The child moves to their own room around the age of ten and becomes jiritsuJiritsu is often translated as ‘independence’, but the sociologist Diana Tahhan argues that this should be more properly understood as ‘interdependence’.  Although the family has lost the physical closeness of soine, they retain the feelings of anshinkan.

Tatami mats hanging on balconies to air.

The intimacy of the room becomes our intimacy. And correlatively, intimate space has become so quiet, so simple, that all the quietude of the room, it is in us. We no longer see it. It no longer limits us, because we are in the very ultimate depth of its repose, in the repose that it has conferred upon us. And all our former rooms come and fit into this one. How simple everything is!

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1964), quoted in Diana Adis Tahhan, ‘Sensuous Connections in Sleep’

Separate bedrooms?

During an interview with the anthropologist Inge Daniels in 2002-3, Mr Togo, an architect born in 1952 living in Tokyo, explained that his generation aspired to be able to provide their children with private bedrooms, “because it is something we could never have ourselves”.

However, in the twenty-first century it is not uncommon for different generations of the one family to sleep together, and most children below the age of elementary school sleep with their parents.

In 2006 Daniels interviewed a family with elementary school aged children who had decided against giving their daughter her own room, and remained sleeping together as a family on futons.

“Until a few years ago it was considered good to have a children’s room just like people in Europe.  But recently, cases in which families cannot create smooth internal relationships have increased.  That is why the view that it is good to be [sleep] together as a family is re-gaining popularity.”

A Japanese girl shows us her bedroom, which she shares with her younger brother.



Visit Susan Andrews (photographer) gallery of images from homes in Japan.  The third photograph shows futons folded in the corner of a tatami room.


Diana Adis Tahhan, The Japanese Family: Touch, Intimacy and Feeling (2014)

Privacy – A History of Western Bedrooms

Sleep in a bed in a sealed-off, noise-free space. Do it alone, or with, at most, one other consenting partner … these features are taken as natural or normal ways to sleep, not one of them seems to have been in force any time anywhere before around 1800 in Europe and North America.

Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights
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The bedroom of Louis Pasteur, 1888-1895

How did the idea of the bedroom develop?

In modern Britain today people expect to sleep in their own bed in their own room. The Housing Act of 1985 defines “overcrowding” as a house where children of the opposite sex, over the age of 10, are sharing a room.

Our ancestors did not have these expectations. While middle and upper-class people took pride in their decorated beds and private rooms, many families couldn’t afford separate bedrooms. They lived in a one-roomed cottage or a single room in a crowded tenament.

‘Civilized’ Sleep?

The idea that sleep should be private is less than five hundred years old. In 1939 the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about the history of bedrooms in The History of Manners. This was first volume of The Civilizing Process, in which Elias tells the story of how Western ideas about proper behaviour and good government developed.

In medieval times it was common for many people to sleep in one room, with only a curtain around the bed to provide privacy. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries being naked in front of other people in the bedroom began to be seen as indecent – like spitting or eating with your hands.

Illustration of a medieval interior with bed. The curtains offer some privacy. Public domain.

Over the next two hundred years, a private space within the household for the purposes of sleeping, washing and dressing became the ideal in middle and upper-class households.

How natural is ‘normal’ sleep?

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Illustration of sleeping in the forest during an expedition to the West coast of South Africa, 1813.

For many people around the world sleeping in a bed in a private room is a foreign concept, or it is simply not affordable.

Benjam Reiss, author of Wild Nights, thinks that our Western ideas about what ‘normal’ sleep should look like are misleading, and to some extent based on class and race stereotypes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ideas about ‘civilized’ sleeping arrangements were a way for wealthy people living in the West to distinguish themselves from those who were less well off.

Scenes of naked ‘savages’ lying on communal sleeping mats … African slaves bundled in the holds of slave ships, or poor urban whites sleeping ten or twelve to a room in rickety tenements came to represent all that an ideal white European or American should not be.

Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights

Reiss argues (controversially) that the rules around sleep in the West are unnatural. Far from promoting better sleep, they are actually the cause of many of our sleep problems today.

A Room of One’s Own

Is a private bedrom really nothing more than a status symbol? A bedroom, or even simply a bed of your own, can offer the comfort of a familiar and personalised space. James Mollison’s photographs of children from around the world show how they collect their possessions in the place where they sleep.

In England in the 1500s many beds were still located in multi-functional rooms, such as hallways, parlours and kitchens. In the 1600s and 1700s, many more houses were built with separate rooms for sleeping upstairs.

At this time, sleeping became not just a more private, but a more personalised experience, as people took pride in their beds and bedding. Beds were hung with heavily embroidered curtains, women decorated pillowcases and night clothes with the owner’s initials in delicate whitework stitching, and made intricate patchwork quilts to celebrate a marriage or the birth of a child.

Coverlet, Ann West, Wiltshire, 1820. The embroidered panels show scenes from the Bible and from life, with the Garden of Eden at the centre.
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Bedrooms were also a place for spiritual reflection. Images of the cross were hung over the bed, verses or scenes from scripture decorated the walls or curtains, and framed religious prints or icons were placed around the room. Bedrooms might also contain a Bible or other religious books for edifying bed-time reading.

How The ‘Other Half’ Slept

Beds and private bedrooms were a luxury few people could afford before modern times. Until the twentieth century, the poor still lived much as they had in medieval times, when people slept on straw mattresses in the same room where they cooked and worked during the day.

Reconstruction of the interior of a medieval fisherman’s cottage, c. 1465, Belgium. CC BY-SA 3.0

In Scotland and Ireland in the 1600s whole families slept on earthen floors strewn with straw and rushes, with only a single blanket or their clothes to cover them. Even better-off households could only afford one mattress stuffed with rags, which was used by the husband and wife. In the 1840s, at the time of the Great Faminine, many Irish families were still living in one-room cottages.

At night the small living space became very full. Visitors would bed down with the family when darkness and bad weather made travelling home impossible. Farm animals, such as cows and pigs, were often brought indoors at night too. This kept them safe from thieves, and also generated extra warmth on cold nights.

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A mother with seven young children in a one-room dwelling in a London slum. The ironic caption reads ‘Home Sweet Home’. Illustrated London News, 1883.

In cities in Europe and America overcrowded living conditions meant families slept, cooked, worked and ate in one room. This continued well into the twentieth century.

Sleeping Away From Home

Away from home, private rooms are expensive. When people have to leave home for work, education, travel or because of wars and emergencies, it is common for people to share a room together.

This can be a chance to form new friendships. It also has its hazards. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was partly spread by large numbers of troops serving in World War I travelling and sleeping together.

In 2020/21, following government guidance, all youth hostels in England and Wales closed when lockdown measures were put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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People of all walks of life sleep away from home for many reasons: work, travel, education, homelessness and war. These images show: Men at a homeless shelter in London, c. 1868; British troops sleeping in trenches during World War I; school girls evacuated during World War II; the dormitory at Benenden School, attended by Princess Anne in 1963; young people sharing a room at a youth hostel.



Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (2017)

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (2016). Written under the working title “Bedroom Stories”, Sasha Handley tells the story of the transformation of sleeping areas in houses in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the beds photographed can be seen in museums or heritage sites around England.


The Ulster Folk Museum, Holywood, Northern Ireland

Here you can see inside the houses where farmers, labourers, and fishermen lived with their families in Ulster over a hundred years ago. Buildings include a one-roomed cottage of the kind that many Irish families lived in at the time of the Great Famine (1840s).

Victoria and Albert Musuem, quilting and patchwork collection, London (or online).

The quilt pictured above can be seen at the Victoria and Albert museum, online or at their site in London.

The Pasteur Museum, Paris

The bedroom pictured at the top of this page can be seen at the Pasteur Museum in Paris, in the apartment where Pasteur spent the last seven years of his life.

Sleepwalkers: Witches, Troubled Souls and Killers

Maximilian Pirner, Sleepwalker, 1878

Sleepwalking is when somebody gets up out of bed and starts walking around even though they are still asleep.  Some people talk, shout, eat, start moving furniture around, undress, or even get into a car and drive away.  Others bolt from the bed and run from some imagined danger, and some people become violent, attacking bed partners or people who try to wake them.

Sleepwalking raises a number of medical, moral and spiritual questions.  What causes sleepwalking?  Is it an entirely natural disease?  Are people responsible for the things they do while fast asleep?

Uncanny Sleepers

John Everett Millais, The Somnambuilst, 1871. The Delaware Art Museum

There is something otherworldly about a person walking in their sleep. The eyes stare straight ahead with a ‘glassy’ look.

It is difficult to wake the sleeper, and when they do wake up they have no memory of what happened.

You can read about sleepwalking at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website,

Despite its uncanny nature, sleepwalking has generally been seen as a strange, but entirely natural illness.

The Greek physician Galen (129-200 CE.) records an experience of sleepwalking in his work on muscular motion.  He walked about all night and woke up when he tripped over a stone.

Galen drew the conclusion from sleepwalking that the animal spirits within the body remain active during sleep.

Witches and Ghosts

Sleepwalkers have been mistaken for ghosts or people afflicted by demons.

An example of this is the infamous witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of Witches’). This fifteenth-century disquisition warned that a dangerous cult of devil worshippers was active in Europe, who flew at night to attend black sabbath rituals and possessed diabolical powers to cause harm to their neighbours.

The Malleus also claimed that the same demonic powers that enabled witches to fly were the cause of sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers were led by demons to walk over high rooftops in the dead of night.

If the sleepwalker was called by his or her Christian name the power of the demon would be broken and the sleepwalker would suddenly fall down.

Walter Snackenberg, The Sleepwalker, 1956

The famous English doctor Thoms Willis, who live in the 1600s, believed that sleepwalking was an entirely natural disease. But a sleepwalker could be mistaken for a ghost.

I knew a certain man who was wont after this manner to walk a-Nights like a Spectre.

Thomas Willis

In the 1600s a large house in England was thought to be haunted. Nobody dared sleep in the ‘haunted’ room. One night a guest stayed in the room and discovered that the ‘ghost’ was the family’s daughter, who walked in her sleep.

Marvellous Tales and a Romantic Experiment

There have been many amazing stories told about sleepwalkers.

The Wonders of the Little World, a popular book of marvels published in the seventeenth century by a clergyman called Nathaniel Wanley, included a number of astonishing accounts of sleepwalkers.

A sleepwalker falls to her death. Illustration from a nineteenth-century London newspaper.

There was a man who could write poetry in his sleep. There was a man who, dreaming that he was riding a horse, would get up in the night, put on his spurs and straddle the windowsill with one foot hanging out, smiting the walls.

One story told of a man who climbed down a well in his sleep. Another popular story involved a student who climbed up to the top of the high turret of a castle and robbed a magpie’s nest, all while asleep.

The poet Percy Shelley, an habitual sleepwalker, could supposedly recite poems in Italian while asleep.

To enhance his creative output he encouraged his wife to use the technique of magnetism (a type of hypnotism) in order to prompt him to walk in his sleep.

She had to stop when he tried to jump out of a window!

Troubled Souls

Sleepwalking has featured in a number of famous plays and novels over the centuries, which explore the relationship between distubed sleep and spiritual troubles.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth unconsciously betrays her guilty collusion in the murder of King Duncan and Lady MacDuff while walking and talking in her sleep.

Henry Fuseli, The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, 1781-1784 (public domain)

In the Swiss children’s novel Heidi (1881), the orphaned Heidi is sent away from her home on the Alp mountains to live in the city of Frankfurt.

Suffering from homesickness, she becomes troubled and begins walking in her sleep. She is sent back to the mountains to recover.

Her sleepwalking is portrayed in the story as a symptom of the soul trouble that results from exchanging the simple and healthy environment of the mountains for the sophistocated life of the city.

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess’ estranged husband Angel Clare appears in her room during a sleepwalking episode. While still fast asleep, he lifts her from the bed and carries her across a narrow foot-bridge over a fast flowing river.

She saw the door of her bedroom open, and the figure of her husband crossed the stream of moonlight with a curiously careful tread. He was in his shirt and trousers only, and her first flush of joy died when she perceived that his eyes were fixed in an unnatural stare of vacancy.

Thoms Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891

Clare’s actions show the power of the unconscious mind and body, which is able to perform amazing feats during sleep. It also shows his love for his wife, unacknowledged during waking hours.

Sleep Murders

Some people become violent during episodes of sleepwalking. In rare cases sleepwalkers have carried out murders. Can sleepwalkers be legally regarded as responsible for their crimes?

The murder of Maria Bickford, National Police Gazette, 1846

In 1312 the Church Canon Si Furiosis (the case of madness) stated that ‘if a madman, a child, or a sleeper mutilates or kills a man, he incurs no penalty for this.’

The first surviving documented case of sleep murder in England was the trial of Colonel Cheyney Culpepper in 1686. An habitual sleepwalker, Culpepper shot an officer of the guard and his horse in his sleep. He was pardoned by King James II.

The sleepwalking defence was first used successfully in America at the trial of Albert Jackson Tirrell in 1846.

In a crime that shocked Boston society, Tirrell brutally murdered his mistress Maria Bickford, cutting her throat so violently that her head was almost severed from her body.

His attorney managed to convince the jury to acquit Tirrell on the grounds that he was an habitual sleepwalker and had no motive to murder Maria.

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Kenneth Parks leaving court, Toronto, May 1988.

The most infamous case of sleep murder in the twentieth century took place in Canada in 1987. Kenneth Parks drove 14 miles in the middle of the night to his parent-in-laws’ home where he bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death with a tyre iron and attempted to strangle his father-in-law.

Parks’ explanation – that he didn’t remember the incident because he was asleep the whole time – seemed highly unlikely. But when EEG readings (which measure electrical activity in the brain), corroborated his story, the jury acquitted him.

Sleep Violence in Film

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Conrad Veidt as ‘Cesare’, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1921

Sleep violence has been the subject of a number of films. The 1920’s German silent horror film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) features a sleepwalker named Cesare.  Dr. Caligari, an asylum director, is able to control Cesare through hypnotism.  He uses him to commit a series of murders while asleep.

In the 2013 psychological thriller, Side Effects, a wife kills her husband during an episode of sleepwalking while under the effects of an anti-depressant drug. She escapes prison by pleading insanity and is confined to a psychiatric unit, while the psychiatrist who prescribed the drug fights to regain his reputation. 

The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and stared Rooney Mara and Jude Law.



Nathaniel Wanley, The Wonders of the Little World, Or, A General History of Man (1673) is available as a free ebook. The chapter on sleepwalking begins on p. 386 (chapter 23).

Johanna Spyri, Heidi (1881). Heidi was translated into English in 1919 by Elisabeth P. Stork. You can buy it in kindle or paperback version from Amazon. Or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1881) is available to buy in kindle or paperback. Or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.


There have been many versions of Macbeth. You can watch interpretations of the sleepwalking scene with Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood and Marion Cottilard. A film was released in 2015, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottilard.

A restored version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in 2014. You can watch the trailer at the IMDb web page. You can buy the whole film on DVD (German with optional English subtitles) from Eureka! The DVD also includes a booklet and documentary about the early history of horror film.

The film Side Effects is available on DVD from Amazon.

Moon-rays and Beach Pyjamas – A History of Night Clothes

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Did you know that there are people who sleep with absolutely nothing on at all?

Princess Ann, played by Audrey Hepburn

Princess Ann’s wish to do away with convention in this 1952 film reflects changes in women’s fashion, and in attitudes to clothes worn in bed.  Whereas in previous centuries men and women slept in their underwear, in the twentieth century the distinction between outerwear and clothes for sleeping became blurred.  Pyjamas (previously worn only by men) became a fashion statement for women.  Models and high-society women were photographed relaxing at home in silk lounge pyjamas, or wearing the popular “beach-pyjamas” at public resorts.

Fashion and Freedom

In the film Roman Holiday (1952) the young Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) complains that her nightdresses are frumpy.  She longs for fun, fashion and freedom.   

Princess Ann: I hate this nightgown. I hate all my nightgowns, and I hate all my underwear too.

Countess: My dear, you have lovely things.

Princess Ann: But I’m not two hundred years old.  Why can’t I sleep in pyjamas?

Countess: Pyjamas?

Princess Ann: Just the top part. Did you know that there are people who sleep with absolutely nothing on at all?

Countess: I rejoice to say I do not.

The princess gets her wish when a reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), finds her asleep on a bench in the middle of the night.  Unable to wake her, Bradley takes her back to his apartment where he lends her a pair of his pyjamas.

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Audrey Hepburn stars in Roman Holiday, 1953, Paramount Pictures.

Dressing for Bed

Pyjamas were not worn in bed by men or women until the nineteenth century. Before that time, people went to bed wearing their underwear, or something similar.

Richard Brathwaite. Ar’t asleepe husband? London, 1640.
Call #: STC 3555. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This picture of a husband and wife in bed was printed in the 1600s. It is comic because the wife is giving a “lecture” while the husband is pretending to sleep!

It also gives us an idea of what people wore in bed four hundred years ago. The wife is wearing a “night rayle” – a kind of shawl that tied at the neck to keep women warm as they sat up in bed. Both have their heads covered. The husband is wearing a nightcap, the wife a kind of head covering called a coif.

Confusingly, clothes called “night clothes”, such as nightcaps and nightgowns, did not always refer to clothes worn in bed. They could refer to an informal type of dress that men and women wore at home in the evening after they had taken off their day clothes.

Wealthy men and women wore nightcaps and gowns elaborately embroidered with silk thread. These fashionable and expensive garments were intended to be seen by visitors, unlike the plain clothes worn in bed.

Covering the head

Until as recently as the 1960s men and women always covered their heads in public. In the past people also covered their heads at home to protect from cold and diseases.

Covering the head was thought to be particularly important when asleep in bed to protect the brain from the cold and the rays of the moon. Nightcaps and coifs for wearing in bed were plainer in style. They were made of linen, checked fabric or a coarse cotton fabric called calico.

Colorful hand drawing: Cute sleeping moon in striped nightcap

One of the reasons for covering the head while sleeping was that the rays of the moon were believed to cause diseases.

Patterns for ladies’ caps from an early nineteenth-century workbook. Figure 20 and figure 25 show nightcaps, worked in a plain and loose style.
A man’s silk nightcap, early 1800s
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A woman’s smock, 1600s. Smocks were worn both as undergarments during the day and in bed at night.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
With bugs and diseases a nightly risk, the cleanliness of nightclothes was a first priority.
A woman pulling open her nightgown as she searches for fleas. Lithograph, 1857, Paris.
Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Royal night clothes

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Young Victoria receives the news that she has become Queen after her uncle’s death in 1832.  The news is so unexpected that she is still in her nightgown.

Most of the examples of night-clothes or undergarments that have survived from previous centuries were kept by families because they had some kind of sentimental value or had been worn by an important person – including some thought to have been worn by royalty.

Queen Victoria gifted her nightwear and underwear to members of the royal household. These sometimes come up for auction, embroidered with the Queen’s cipher VR (Victoria Regina). The Museum of London and Dunster Castle in Somerset each own one of Queen Victoria’s nightdresses.

The nightcap liner below, now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum, has a letter ‘C’ embroidered inside the rim. It was owed by the Chafyn-Grove family of Wiltshire, who were strong Royalists during the English Civil War. According to family tradition, the nightcap liner had been worn by Charles I, who stayed at their house before his execution.

The nightcap liner thought to have been worn by Charles I
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A nightdress that may have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I
Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
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1 Queen Victoria’s nightdress 2 Queen Victoria’s silk stockings with the cipher VR.  Both held in the Museum of London.

Indoor and Outdoor Pyjamas

Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.

Coco Chanel
10th March 1931: Portrait of French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883 – 1971) posing in her suite at the Hotel Pierre during her first visit to New York City. She wears a white silk jacket and pants with pearls. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)

In the early twentieth century women’s fashion, both day-wear and night-wear, was transformed by French designer Coco Chanel. Chanel held that clothes should be elegant, comfortable and functional.

High-class women stripped off tight-fitting corsets and long cotton nightdresses. Models and film stars were photographed lounging in silk pyjamas, or at the beach in wide-legged beach pyjamas. Both were designs introduced by Chanel.

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Models pictured in beach and lounge pyjamas, 1920s and 1930s.

Films also helped to make women’s pyjamas popular. Here Claudette Colbert wears pyjamas in a famous scene from the romantic comedy It Happened On Night.

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Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, It Happened One Night, 1934.  Directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Pictures.



You can see nightcaps and nightgowns, including some of the ones pictured in this post, in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Or browse the collections online here.


Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (2016)

A riveting look at sleep c. 1600-1800.  Find stories and pictures of bedrooms, bed sheets, nightcaps, insomnia treatments and much more.  Available from Waterstones and Amazon.

Coco Chanel

Many books have been written about Coco Chanel.  See, for instance, Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History and the recent photographic biography Living with Coco Chanel: The Homes and Landscapes that Shaped the Designer.


Knit your very own Victorian nightcap. Download this free pattern based on an 1830s design.reproduction nightcap pattern

Babies, Siestas and Pre-Industrial Sleeping Patterns: Segmented Sleep

There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep … had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as mankind.

A. Roger Ekirch
Photo by Viswanath Sai from Pexels

The common advice to get eight hours of sleep at night may not be a natural way of sleeping. Some historians and scientists believe that it is only in the modern day that people began sleeping this way.

Photo by Pixabay on

In 2014 Valerie Robin, a student in Atlanta, embarked on an experiment. She went to bed when it got dark and woke up with the morning light. This might not seem particularly unusual, except that Valerie went to bed early so that she could wake up in the middle of the night to read, write in her journal and talk on the phone with friends in other time zones.

Far from being sleep-deprived by this unusual life-style choice, she reported feeling calm, rested and energised. She concluded that this was a healthier way of sleeping than the recommended eight-hour sleep. [You can read about Valerie’s experiment here]

Valerie began her experiment after reading about a way of sleeping that historians and sleep scientists call biphasic sleep. Instead of sleeping for one eight-hour stretch through the night, a person sleeps for a shorter period (called ‘first sleep’), wakes up in the middle of the night to quiet contemplation or to get on with some task, and then falls asleep again until morning (the ‘second sleep’).

Sleep experts now believe that this is an entirely natural sleep pattern. It was how our ancestors slept before the Industrial Revolution.

Segmented Sleep

Segmented sleep is a pattern of sleep that is broken up into sections throughout the day or night.

We have all experienced segmented sleep at some point in our lives. Babies sleep in short phases throughout the day and night. As we age, we return to something like this broken up form of sleep.

A newborn baby sleeps in four-hour cycles throughout the day and night. On average she is awake for two hours, sleeps for two hours, and then wakes again wanting to feed. This is known as polyphasic sleep.

A four-year-old will sleep through the night, but will want to nap in the afternoon – biphasic sleep.

This kind of two-phase sleep (night-time sleep with the addition of a nap) is also traditional in countries where people take a nap in the early afternoon called a siesta. The siesta was popular in countries where it is very hot in the middle of the day, although the practice is becoming less common with globalisation.

Gustav Courbet, The Hammock, 1844
Shows a young woman taking a siesta.

For most of our later childhood and adult life we sleep during the night for around six to ten hours and are awake during the day. Unless we have to work a night shift or suffer from a sleep disorder, we expect to sleep through the night and wake up when the alarm goes off in the morning.

This is called monophasic sleep.

This diagram shows how our sleep patterns change as we grow older

Sleep We Have Lost

What if broken sleep is normal? Today segmented sleep is viewed as unhealthy, except in young children and the elderly. However, the historian A. Roger Ekirch has uncovered evidence that our ancestors expected to wake in the night.

They experienced a form of biphasic sleep in which they slept for a few hour and then woke up for an hour or more in the middle of the night before going back to sleep again until morning. The first period of sleep was called ‘first sleep’ and the period of sleep in the morning was called ‘second sleep’.

Jan Saenredam, Night
In this seventeenth-century print of a night-time scene a wife has woken and pulls the cover over her husband. A maid dozes in a chair beside a cradle, waiting to tend to the infant when it wakes in the night. She has been working by the light of a candle, which is still lit.

This period of quiet wakefulness was not seen as abnormal of unhealthy. In fact, it could be quite productive. People used this time for quiet contemplation, spiritual devotion, to respond to a call of nature, smoke a pipe or even get on with chores.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that the the darkness of the night was a good time to turn over original ideas in the mind. More mundanely, a servant called Jane Addison got up in the middle of the night to brew ale.

The Wehr Experiment

Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.

Charles A. Czeisler, chronobiologist
Photo by Pixabay on

Why did our sleeping patterns change? An experiment by the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr may provide a clue.

In the 1990s a group of volunteers spent some weeks in an environment that recreated the long winter day before modern electric light. For ten hours each day the volunteers were exposed to both artificial light and daylight, but for fourteen hours during the night they were submerged in darkness.

Wehr’s findings on observing the sleeping patterns of his volunteers are striking. They each slept for a period of three to four hours before waking in the night to spend some time in quiet wakefulness. They then fell asleep again for a ‘second sleep’ towards the morning.

As Valerie found during her experiment, the volunteers described this period of wakefulness as like a kind of meditation, free from the stress normally associated with insomnia.

Sleep experts have concluded from Wehr’s experiment that exposure to powerful modern lighting, which turns night into day, has altered the way in which we sleep.

My thanks to Richard Horner for kindly providing the diagram on sleep patterns across the lifespan.


Richard Horner, The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained (2014)

A view of sleep from a neurobiologist.  You can read more about segmented sleep in chapter seven.

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime (2005)

A history of night-time activity in Europe before the Industrial Revolution.  Ekirch explains his theory of ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep in chapter twelve (Sleep We Have Lost: Rhythms and Revelations).Ekirch

Minimalist Sleep: the Japanese Tatami Mat

Two Japanese Girls Sleeping in Bedroom, Circa 1880

Is a bed frame necessary or a space-consuming inconvenience? The Japanese tatami is not a bed in the Western sense. It is a floor mat with a top layer of rushes, which creates a springy surface for sleeping or sitting. A cotton futon mattress is then rolled out on top of the mat to create a surface to sleep on. This creates a very flexible living space. Futons have been gaining popularity in the West as the concept of minimalist living has become fashionable.

Tatami history

In the late nineteenth century American born Edward S. Morse set out to understand the way of life in Japan. This is his view of Japanese living in wealthy households. He saw much merit in the flexible way of layering the floor with tatami mats.

In regard to the bed and its arrangements, the Japanese have reduced this affair to its simplest expression. The whole floor, the whole house indeed, is a bed, and one can fling himself down on the soft mats, in the draught or out of it, upstairs or down, and find a smooth, firm, and level surface upon which to sleep, – no creaking springs, hard bunches or awkward hollows awaiting him, but a bed-surface as wide as the room itself, and comfortable to the last degree.

Edward S. Morse, Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (New York, 1889), p. 198.

In pre-modern Japan the houses of the elite were fitted with tatami mats throughout.  There was no central corridor.  Rooms opened onto each other, separated by paper screen doors.  The most important room was the yashiki (guest room), situated in the south-facing part of the house overlooking an ornamental garden.  This is where the master of the house entertained guests, displayed antiques, kept his study and slept.  The rest of the family slept in the multi-functional family rooms in the darker, northern-facing part of the house.  This also contained the servants’ rooms, kitchen, toilet and bath.

Photo by Pixabay on
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

Making a tatami mat

making-tamamitamami f]

A tatami mat is comprised of three parts: the doko (base), omote (cover) and heri (border). The thickest part is the base, which is made of rice-straw. The top layer is made from igsu (candle rush). Rush has a sponge-like pith under a hard surface, and fine hollow capillaries that both absorb and release moisture. These properties make it ideal as a mat covering, creating a springy surface that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Common rush (juncus effusus) or Candle rush growing on wetland

Tatami in the modern Japanese home

During the twentieth century a revolution took place in Japanese family life, which is reflected in the architecture of the Japanese home.  During the 1960’s the LDK (Living Dining Kitchen) layout became the standard plan for the Japanese home.  Based around the ideal of the happy, affectionate nuclear family, the traditional yashiki was replaced in the LDK layout with a Western-style living room containing sofas and coffee tables.  Food was prepared and eaten in a Western-style dining-kitchen area, and the family ate together sitting on chairs at a dining table.

In the LDK plan, instead of multi-functional rooms, a private room was provided for the married couple.  Ideally, the children were also provided with separate bedrooms.

In reality, many Japanese families have not entirely adopted Western-style living.  Most homes contain a tamami room, used for relaxing and napping.  Whether couples sleep together, or separately, in a Western-style bed or a futon on the floor, depends upon personal taste.

Photo by Pixabay on

The Teahouse

Risa. Kyoto, Japan

This is fifteen-year-old Risa. She is shown pictured here by the photographer James Mollison for his project Where Children Sleep. She sleeps in the corner of a room in a teahouse in Kyoto (second picture). She shares this room with five other women. It is used as a dining room and tea room, as well as a place to sleep.

At the time that the photograph was taken, Risa was the youngest maiko in Japan. A maiko is a young woman who has been accepted to train as a geisha (hostess). She is learning the traditional arts of tea-making, dancing, singing and playing the Japanese drums to entertain the guests who come to the teahouse.

The life of Risa is not typical, but it is one example of how the tradition of sleeping on the floor continues in modern-day Japan. Eating, entertaining and sleeping in the one space, a style of living that the visitors come to flavour, is made possible by the tatami mat flooring.

Healthier sleep?

The futon has become popular in some Western households for quite different reasons.

Futons are marketed in the West as healthier and more convenient than beds on a frame. As property prices rise in many cities and space is at a premium, the minimalist style of furnishing a flat has become popular. Futons made in the traditional way using 100% cotton is seen as natural and healthier than synthetic mattresses. In this Youtube video an American woman explains her reasons for sleeping on the floor.


Inge Daniels, The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home (2010), with photography by Susan Andrews.

This study of modern Japanese living was the subject of an exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the home in London.  The collaboration between Inge Daniels and Susan Andrews has produced a fascinating study of the values represented by use of space and architecture in Japan, with beautiful photography.

Available from Amazon.  Also available to readers at the British Library.

Edward S. Morse, Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (New York, 1889)

This nineteenth-century study of Japanese architecture is available as a free ebook provided by the Gutenberg Project.

Japan House, London

A gallery, restaurant and exhibition area presenting Japanese art, design and technology.  Located on Kensington Hight Street, London.  Discover the history of the Japanese home from their website.

Where Children Sleep

For me, the project became a vehicle to think about issues of poverty and wealth, about the relationship of children to personal possessions, and the power of children – or lack of it – to make decisions about their lives.

James Mollison, 2010
Jivan. Brooklyn, New York

Everyone sleeps, and everyone needs a place to sleep. One of the first things we consider when a baby is born is where she or he will sleep. The sleeping environment people provide for their children is dependent on where in the world they live and their financial circumstances. In this series of pictures from photographer James Mollison’s collection Where Children Sleep we are given a glimpse into the widely diverse circumstances in which children live.

In framing the photographs, Mollison captures more than the stark contrast in material circumstances. Sleeping environments are determined by a number of factors: climate, socio-economic background, culture and personality. Providing warmth, shelter and comfort, sleeping areas are multi-functional. They are used also as places to sit, work, play, cook, entertain guests, do homework, watch TV, raise animals for food or as pets, store toys and display treasured possessions and prizes. For some they are private spaces; for others they are shared with family, school mates, colleagues or livestock. Simply looking at someone’s sleeping environment can tell a lot about their values and priorities, as well as their circumstances.

In the photograph at the top of this page a modern bedroom has been especially created for four-year-old Divan by his mother, an interior designer. Here her priorities are to make good use of space in their New York skyscraper flat and to provide a stimulating environment for her son to develop his creativity.

Rush mats on the mud floor of a twig-roofed hut in the Nepali countryside make a mattress for Jyoti and her sister to sleep on. The open fire provides warmth at night and is used for cooking during the day.

Jyoti. Makwanpur, Napal

For eight-year-old Roathy, who lives in a dump in Cambodia, his bed is made out of whatever his family can re-use from amongst the decomposing rubbish. His mattress has been made out of old tires.

Roathy. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Risa. Kyoto, Japan

This picture is of fifteen-year-old Risa, the youngest maiko in Japan, who lives in a teahouse in Kyoto. The room she shares with five other women is also used as a dining room and tea room. A maiko is a young woman who has been accepted to train as a geisha (hostess). She is learning the traditional arts of tea-making, dancing, singing and playing the Japanese drums to entertain the wealthy male guests who come to the teahouse.

A child’s bedroom in Japan

The picture above shows a floor covered by Japanese tatami mats. This is a floor mat made from a layer of compressed rice straw covered with woven rushes. It provides a surface for exercise and sleep. A thin mattress called a futon is laid on top of the tamami mat and rolled away the next day. In this video from the YouTube site Life Where I’m From, a Japanese girl shows us insider her bedroom.


The rest of Mollison’s collection can be viewed here. His book, Where Children Sleep, is available on Amazon here.

Sleeping Beauties: Tales of Rape, Immortality and Space Travel

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1899 watercolour painting captures the moment just before the famous kiss

For centuries the tale of a beautiful young woman who falls into a enchanted sleep and is awoken one hundred years later has captured the imagination of story tellers, artists and illustrators.  Readers familiar with Grimm’s fairytales and the Walt Disney 1959 movie may be surprised to learn of the violent details of rape and cannibalism that feature in medieval versions of the tale, and of an eerie version from China featuring ghosts. The questions of time travel, immortality, powerlessness and consent that the tale raises are timeless.

Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

The young woman awoken by a kiss has become an icon of fairy tales, but it is a relatively recent addition to the tale. The brothers Grimm included it in “Dornröschen” (Briar Rose), one of the stories in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, 1812-15). In the original French story, “La Belle au Bois Dormant” (Sleeping Beauty in the Woods), the prince kneels by the bedside and the princess awakes. This was first published in Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories and Tales of Times Past), probably better known as the Mother Goose tales.

The Grimm brothers made other changes to the Perrault’s tale, deleting the entire second half. The tale as told in most children’s picture books ends, as the German version does, with the marriage of Beauty and the Prince. The French tale carries on with a gruesome story of how the Prince’s mother, an ogress, plans to eat her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, but is foiled by the cook who deceives her with dishes of young lamb, goat and hind.  Perrault delightedly describes the sauces prepared for the supposedly cannibalistic meal.

Read the Grimms’ version of the tale (“Briar Rose”).

Read Perrault’s version of the tale (“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”).

Illustrating the kiss

Many illustrators have captured the moment the prince stoops to kiss the sleeping girl. The most famous is Walt Disney’s version, used on much of the publicity for the 1959 film. Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustrations dramatically show both the kiss and the awkening.

She looked so beautiful that he could not take his eyes off her, so he stooped down and gave her a kiss

“Briar Rose”, Grimms’ Household Tales

Gustave Doré’s engraving for Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, which does not include the kiss, depicts the prince kneeling. Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for the 1910 English edition of fairy tales based on Perrault’s version shows the moment the prince first sees the princess.

Medieval Sleeping Beauty

Two earlier versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale, one French and one Italian, contain distinctly adult themes that are not in Perrault’s version.

Troylus and Zellandine (France, c. 1300s)

The French romance Le Roman de Perceforest, first published around 1500, contains the story of Troylus and Zellandine.  This is thought to be a thirteenth-century tale.  In this version Troylus and Zellandine are already in love before the curse takes effect.  Troylus searches everywhere for Zellandine before finding her sleeping in a tower.  When he can’t wake her up he sleeps with her, exchanges rings and leaves.  Zellandine wakes up to discover that she is a mother when the baby she has given birth to sucks the piece of flax from her finger that has caused the deep sleep.

Although Zellandine eventually returns to live with Troylus in his kingdom, the tale is more morally complex than the fairy-tale romance.  Troylus does not impregnate Zellandine without an internal struggle.  He knows that it is wrong to sleep with her without her knowledge or consent, and their happily-ever-after is darkened by Zellandine’s sense of violation.

Sun, Moon and Talia (Italy, 1630s)

The Italian tale “Sole, Luna e Talia” (Sun, Moon and Talia), which appears in The Pentamerone (1634-6) by Giambattista Basile follows a similar plot line with Talia falling asleep after pricking her finger on some flax.

Believing her to be dead, Talia’s father places her in a velvet seat under a canopy and abandons the palace.  A king passing by on a hunting trip discovers her while looking for his falcon that has flown in at a window of the palace.  When he cannot wake her, Giambattista tells us, “after admiring her beauty awhile” he returns to his kingdom.  It is unclear, then, how Talia ends up pregnant with twins (Sun and Moon).  The twins are cared for by fairies until one of them suckles on her finger, removing the flax, and she awakes.

While the storyteller may be coy, the king’s wife, when she discovers that that King is visiting Talia, Sun and Moon in the palace, has no doubts about what has happened. You can read this story of adultery and revenge online here.

Sleeping Beauty in Space

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers (2016)

In the 2016 film Passengers, a malfunction in a hibernation pod causes a passenger on a spaceship travelling to a far-away colony to wake up 90 years before reaching his destination.  Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) then battles with the dilemma of whether to wake up Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful young woman he notices when walking among the pods, or to live out the rest of his life alone on the spaceship.

The issues of consent and trust in the film echo those of the original medieval tale of Troylus and Zellandine.

A Ghost tale from ninth-century China

A Chinese tale similar to sleeping beauty dates from the ninth century.  A young woman Zhang Yunrong is destined to die young.  She is helped by a Daoist master Shen (a Daoist is the Chinese equivalent of an alchemist), who reveals to her the secret of immortality.  He gives her a magic pill called ‘scarlet snow’, which, when ingested, prevents the body from corrupting after death.  He also instructs her to place a piece of jade in her mouth to prevent her soul from flying to heaven.  In one hundred years, if she meets a living man and exchanges seminal energy with him, she will achieve immortality.  She follows his instructions and dies soon after.

Zhao Chun, Sleeping Beauty

A hundred years later a banished official named Xue Zhao discovers Yunrong’s soul in an abandoned palace deep in a forest.  The two marry and after a few nights spent together Yunrong tells Xue Zhao that her body is alive again.  Upon opening the coffin he discovers that this is the case.  Both achieve immortality, and continue to live together, their bodies showing no sign of age.

The tale of Zhang Yunrong is thought to have been influenced by a now lost version of the European tale of Sleeping Beauty, brought to China through trading networks.


Heidi Anne Heiner, Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales from Around the World. Surlalune Fairy Tale series (2010)

Heidi Heiner’s anthology includes “Sun, Moon and Talia”, “Troylus and Zellandine”. With an introduction to the history and interpretation of the tales.