Sleep Clothing in the Georgian Era to Preserve Health

Sleep clothing was important in the Georgian Era because Georgians frequently thought about how to best achieve a good night’s rest. That was because in the Georgian Era doctors claimed that a lack of sleep weakened the constitution and therefore people wanted to get a good night’s rest. Part of the way they could achieve that was by avoiding colds, which were supposedly brought on by an “imprudence in changing clothes.”[1] One long time observation claimed that “colds kill more than plagues,”[2] and, so, to avoid colds and to sleep well, Georgians were given several suggestions about how to choose the appropriate nighttime wear to maintain their health and get a good night’s rest.

sleep clothing - Mrs. Wheatly in her nightcap

Mrs. Wheatly in her nightcap by Francis Wheatly. Public domain.

One of the first pieces of advice related to sleep clothing was that nighttime choices needed to suit the climate. That meant that Inhabitants of Jamaica were supposed to wear something different from inhabitants of London and it also meant that if you lived the cooler areas of England you might wear something different from those who lived in the southern regions. In addition, when dressing for sleep a person was to pay proper attention “to the openness of the country, [and] the frequency and violence of storms.”[3]

Age was another consideration when it came to picking sleep clothing. Supposedly, less clothing was required “in youth, while the blood [was] hot and the perspiration free.”[4] However, elderly persons were claimed to frequently suffer from a “defect of perspiration,” meaning they did not sweat enough. To remedy this problem, which was believed to cause colds and disease, the elderly were admonished to properly sweat. Sweating was to be achieved by an older person wearing cotton, flannel, or some other suitable fabric that would assist in “promoting the discharge from the skin.”[5] Nightcaps might also be warranted and everybody from Jane Austen to Eliza de Feuillide and Napoleon Bonaparte wore them.

sleep clothing - nightcap

Nightcap from 1801. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Children were usually advised to wear sleep clothing that was different from that worn by adults. Christian August Struve, an expert on children, advised that “children should not sleep in their clothes, which heat the body and occasion distortions.”[6] He asserted that even in winter children should be dressed in something loose and light. He also suggested infants wear a thin nightcap, although nightcaps were to be discontinued as the infant aged. Not everyone agreed with his suggestion as some people thought it wiser for children to wear nightcaps all time because supposedly children were more likely to develop otitis if they slept in cold rooms. Struve advised:

“The cradles of beds of children ought not to be placed near the stove or chimney, nor close to a wall which is cold or damp. The contiguity of windows is likewise objectionable.”[7]

Similar advice was also given by Erasmus Darwin, a leading intellectual of the eighteenth century who wrote about the laws of organic life. He stated:

“Inflammation and consequent suppuration of some membranes of the internal ear frequently occur in children, who sleep in cold rooms, or near a cold wall, without a night-cap.”[8]

When not arguing over whether to wear nightcaps, people also had to consider their physical shape when selecting sleep clothing. Sleepers were advised that it was detrimental to wear something that squeezed “the stomach and bowels into as narrow a compass as possible, to procure, what is falsely called, a fine shape.”[8] Wearing something too tight was alleged to obstruct vital functions, which then produced “indgestions, syncopes, or fainting fits, coughs, consumptions of the lungs, and other complaints.”[9]

The season of the year also made a difference as to the sleep clothing that a person chose to wear to bed. The same clothing worn in the summer was often considered insufficient for wintertime. It was also suggested that a person should not “put off winter clothes too soon, nor … wear … summer ones too long.”[10] Moreover, nighttime clothing changes between the seasons was to be done gradually so as not to shock a person’s system, and this advice particularly applied to those who  were older and had “passed the meridian of life.”[11]

sleep clothing - nightshirt

Typical type of nightshirt that might be worn in the Georgian Era. Courtesy of Wikipedia and drawn by David Ring.

A person’s temperature and constitution were also to be considered when selecting sleep clothing. This meant a person with a robust constitution could better “endure either cold or heat … than the delicate,”[12] and should therefore adjust his or her nighttime wear accordingly. However, one Georgian physician claimed he found people often needed to dress warmer and noted that where medicine had failed he had been able to cure a patient just by “recommending thick shoes, a flannel waistcoat and drawers, a pair of under stockings, or a flannel petticoat to be worn during the [winter] season.”[13]

Interestingly, despite all the advice on nighttime wear, Scottish physician William Buchan who had the most to say about nightwear summed what he actually thought saying that selecting the appropriate sleep clothing should not be based on any of the above reasons. He stated:

“It is entirely a matter of experience, and every man is the best judge for himself what quantity of clothes is necessary to keep him warm.”[14]

William Buchan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Buchan, William, Domestic Medicine, 1790, p. 91.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 90.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Struve, Christian August, A Familiar View of the Domestic Education of Children During the Early Period of Their Lives, 1802 p. 287 
  • [7] Ibid., p. 198.
  • [8] Darwin, Erasmus, Zoonomia, Or, The Laws of Organic Life, 1796, p. 263.
  • [8] Buchan, William, p. 91.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 90.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 93.
  • [13] Ibid.

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