The Importance of Proper Sleep and Clothing | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


      Of Sleep

      SLEEP, as well as diet, ought to be duly regulated. Too little sleep weakens the nerves, exhausts the spirits, and occasions diseases; and too much renders the mind dull, the body gross, and disposes to apoplexies, lethargies and other complaints of a similar nature. A medium ought therefore to be observed; but this is not easy to fix. Children require more sleep than grown persons, the laborious than the idle, and such as eat and drink freely, than those who live abstemiously. Besides, the real quantity of sleep cannot be measured by time; as one person will be more refreshed by five or six hours sleep, than another by eight or ten.

      CHILDREN may always be allowed to take as much sleep as they please; but, for adults, six or seven hours is certainly sufficient, and no one ought to exceed eight. Those who lie a-bed more than eight hours may slumber, but they can be hardly said to sleep; such generally toss and dream away the fore-part of the night, sink the rest towards morning, and dose till noon. The best way to make sleep sound and refreshing is to rise betimes. The custom of lying a-bed for nine or ten hours, not only makes the sleep less refreshing, but relaxes the solids, and greatly weakens the constitution.

      NATURE points out night as the proper season for sleep. Nothing more certainly destroys the constitution than night-watching. It is great pity that a practice so destructive to health should be so much in fashion. How quickly the want of rest in due season will blast the most blooming complexion, or ruin the best constitution, is evident from the ghastly countenances of those who, as the phrase is, turn day into night, and night into day.

      To make sleep refreshing, the following things are requisite: First, to take sufficient exercise in the open air; to avoid strong tea or coffee; next, to eat a light supper; and lastly, to lie down with a mind as cheerful and serene as possible.

      IT is certain that too much exercise will prevent sleep, as well as too little. We seldom however hear the active and laborious complain of restless nights. It is the indolent and slothful who generally have these complaints. Is it any wonder that a bed of down should not be refreshing to a person who sits all day in an easy chair? A great part of the pleasure of life consists in alternate rest and motion; but they who neglect the latter can never relish the former. The labourer enjoys more true luxury in plain food and sound sleep, than is to be found in sumptuous tables and downy pillows, where exercise is wanting.

      THAT light suppers cause sound sleep, is true even to a proverb. Many persons, if they exceed the least at that meal, are sure to have uneasy nights; and, if they fall asleep, the load and oppression on their stomach and spirits occasion frightful dreams, broken and disturbed repose, the night-mare, &c. Were the same persons to go to bed with a light supper, or sit up till that meal was pretty well digested, they would enjoy sound sleep, and rise refreshed and cheerful. There are indeed some people who cannot sleep unless they have eat some solid food at night, but this does not imply the necessity of a heavy supper; besides, these are generally persons who have accustomed themselves to this method, and who do not take a sufficient quantity of solid food and exercise.

      NOTHING more certainly disturbs our repose than anxiety. When the mind is not at ease, one seldom enjoys sound sleep. That greatest of human blessings flies the wretched, and visits the happy, the cheerful, and the gay. This is a sufficient reason why every man should endeavour to be as easy in his mind as possible when he goes to rest. Many, by indulging grief and anxious thought, have banished sound sleep so long, that they could never afterwards enjoy it.

      SLEEP, when taken in the fore-part of the night, is generally reckoned most refreshing. Whether this be the effect of habit or not, is hard to say; but as most people are accustomed to go early to bed when young, it may be presumed that sleep, at this season, will prove most refreshing to them ever after. Whether the fore-part of the night be best for sleep or not; surely the fore-part of the day is fittest both for business and amusement. I hardly ever knew an early riser who did not enjoy a good state of health. Men of every occupation, and in every situation of life, have lived to a good old age; nay, some have enjoyed this blessing whose plan of living was by no means regular: but it consists with observation, that all very old men have been early risers. This is the only circumstance attending longevity, to which I never knew an exception.

      Of Clothing

      THE clothing ought to be suited to the climate. Custom has no doubt a very great influence in this article; but no custom can ever change the nature of things so far as to render the same clothing fit for an inhabitant of Nova Zembla and the island of Jamaica. It is not indeed necessary to observe an exact proportion twixt the quantity of clothes we wear, and the degree of latitude which we inhabit; but, at the same time, proper attention ought to be paid to it, as well as to the openness of the country, the frequency and violence of storms, &c.

      IN youth, while the blood is hot and the perspiration free, it is less necessary to cover the body with a great quantity of clothes; but, in the decline of life, when the skin becomes rigid and the humours more cool, the clothing should be increased. Many diseases in the latter period of life proceed from a defect of perspiration; these may, in some measure, be prevented by a suitable addition to the clothing, or by wearing such as are better calculated for promoting the discharge from the skin, as clothes made of cotton, flannel, &c.

      THE clothing ought likewise to be suited to the season of the year. Clothing may be warm enough for summer, which is by no means sufficient for winter. The greatest caution, however, is necessary in making these changes. We ought neither to put off our winter clothes too soon, nor to wear our summer ones too long. In this country, the winter often sets in very early with great rigour, and we have frequently cold weather even after the commencement of the summer months. It would likewise be prudent not to make the change all at once, but to do it gradually; and indeed the changes of apparel in this climate ought to be very inconsiderable, especially among those who have passed the meridian of life. That colds kill more than plagues, is an old observation; and, with regard to this country, it holds strictly true. Every person of discernment, however, will perceive, that most of the colds which prove so destructive to the inhabitants of Britain are owing to their imprudence in changing clothes. A few warm days in March or April induce them to throw off their winter garments without considering that our most penetrating colds generally happen in May.

      CLOTHES often become hurtful by their being made subservient to the purposes of pride or vanity. Mankind in all ages seem to have considered clothes in this view; accordingly their fashion and figure have been continually varying, with very little regard either to health, the climate or conveniency: A farthingale, for example, may be very necessary in hot southern climates, but surely nothing can be more ridiculous in the cold regions of the north.

      EVEN the human shape is often attempted to be mended by dress, and those who know no better believe that mankind would be monsters without its assistance. All attempts of this nature are highly pernicious. The most destructive of them in this country is that of squeezing the stomach and bowels into as narrow a compass as possible, to procure, what is falsely called, a fine shape. By this practice the action of the stomach and bowels, the motion of the heart and lungs, and almost all the vital functions, are obstructed. Hence proceed indigestions, syncopes, or fainting fits, coughs, consumptions of the lungs, &c.

      THE feet likewise often suffer by pressure. How a small foot came to be reckoned genteel, I will not pretend to say; but certain it is, that this notion has made many persons lame. Almost nine-tenths of mankind are troubled with corns: a disease that is seldom or never occasioned but by strait shoes. Corns are not only very troublesome, but by rendering people unable to walk, they may likewise be considered as the remote cause of other diseases. We often see persons who are rendered quite lame by the nails of their toes having grown into the flesh, and frequently hear of mortifications proceeding from this cause. All these, and many other inconveniencies attending the feet, must be imputed solely to the use of short and strait shoes.

      THE size and figure of the shoe ought certainly to be adapted to the foot. In children the feet are as well shaped as the hands, and the motion of the toes as free and easy as that of the fingers; yet few persons in the advanced periods of life are able to make any use of their toes. They are generally, by narrow shoes, squeezed all of a heap, and often laid over one another such as to be rendered altogether incapable of motion. Nor is the high heel less hurtful than the narrow toe. A lady may seem taller for walking on her tiptoes, but she will never walk well in this manner. It strains her joints, distorts her limbs, makes her stoop, and utterly destroys all her ease and gracefulness of motion: It is entirely owing to shoes with high heels and narrow toes, that not one female in ten can be said to walk well.

      IN fixing on the clothes, due care should be taken to avoid all tight bandages. Garters, buckles, &c. when drawn too tight, not only prevent the free motion and use of the parts about which they are bound, but likewise obstruct the circulation of the blood, which prevents the equal nourishment and growth of these parts, and occasions various diseases. Tight bandages about the neck, as stocks, cravats, necklaces, &c. are extremely dangerous. They obstruct the blood in its course from the brain, by which means headachs, vertigos, apoplexies, and other fatal diseases are often occasioned.

      THE perfection of dress is to be easy and clean. Nothing can be more ridiculous, than for any one to make himself a slave to fine clothes. Such a one, and many such there are, would rather remain as fixt as a statue from morning till night, than discompose a single hair or alter the position of a pin. Were we to recommend any particular pattern for dress, it would be that which is worn by the people called Quakers. They are always neat, clean, and often elegant, without any thing superfluous. What others lay out upon tawdry laces, ruffles, and ribbands, they bestow upon superior cleanliness. Finery is only the affectation of dress, and very often covers a great deal of dirt.

      WE shall only add, with regard to clothing, that it ought not only to be suited to the climate, the season of the year, and the period of life; but likewise to the temperature and constitution. Robust persons are able to endure either cold or heat better than the delicate; and consequently may be less attentive to their clothing. But the precise quantity of clothes necessary for any person cannot be determined by reasoning. It is entirely a matter of experience, and every man is best judge for himself what quantity of clothes is necessary to keep him warm. The celebrated Boerhaave used to say, that no body suffered by cold save fools and beggars; the latter not being able to procure clothes, and the former not having sense to wear them. Be this as it may, I can with the strictest truth declare, that in many cases where the powers of medicine had been tried in vain, I have cured the patient by recommending thick shoes, a flannel waistcoat, a pair of under stockings, or a flannel petticoat to be worn during the cold season at least.

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