Tag Archives: history
Groucho Marx once joked, “Anything that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all.” You might think he was referring to sleeping and sex. But humans, at one time or another, have done just about everything in bed.
And yet, despite the fact that we spend one-third of our lives in bed, they’re more of an afterthought.
I certainly didn’t think much about beds until I found myself talking about their history with the executives of a mattress company. These humble artifacts, I learned, had a big story to tell – one that’s 77,000 years old.
That’s when, according to archaeologist Lynn Wadley, our early African ancestors started to sleep in hollows dug out of cave floors – the first beds. They wrapped themselves in insect-repelling grasses to avoid bed bugs as persistent as those of today’s seedy motels.
Much about our beds have remained unchanged for centuries. But one aspect of the bed has undergone a dramatic shift.
Today, we usually sleep in bedrooms with the door shut firmly behind us. They’re the ultimate realm of privacy. No one else is allowed in them, aside from a spouse or lover.
But as I show in my forthcoming book, “What We did in Bed,” it wasn’t always this way.
Beds full of ‘buck and babble’
The structure of the bed has remained remarkably consistent: We know that raised frames with mattresses were being used in Malta and Egypt by 3000 B.C., which means that people have been using them for over 5,000 years.
Early Egyptian beds were little more than rectangular wooden frames with legs and leather or fabric sleeping platforms. The upper end was often angled slightly upwards. Grass, hay and straw stuffed into sacks or cloth bags served as a scratchy mattress for centuries.
But one thing that has changed is who has occupied the bed. For most of human history, people thought nothing of crowding family members or friends into the same bed.
The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys often slept with male friends and rated their conversation skills. One of his favorites was the “merry Mr. Creed,” who provided “excellent company.” In September 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin famously shared a bed in a New Jersey inn with only one small window. Adams kept it shut, but Franklin wanted it open, complaining that he would suffocate without fresh air. Adams won the battle.
Travelers often slept with strangers. In China and Mongolia, kangs – heated stone platforms – were used in inns as early as 5000 B.C. Guests supplied the bedding and slept with fellow tourists.
Bedding down with strangers could lead to some awkwardness. The 16th-century English poet Andrew Buckley complained of bedmates who “buck and babble, some commeth drunk to bed.”
Then there was the Great Bed of Ware – a massive bed kept in an inn in a small town in entral England. Built with richly decorated oak around 1590, the four-post bed is about the size of two modern double beds. Twenty-six butchers and their wives – a total of 52 people – are said to have spent a night in the Great Bed in 1689.
While regular people crammed into beds, royalty often slept alone or with their spouse. But their bedrooms were hardly bastions of privacy.
The ceremonial bedding of newlyweds was a public spectacle for a royal court. After a royal wedding, a form of symbolic intercourse often occurred in front of numerous witnesses.
After the feast, the bride was undressed by her ladies and put to bed. The groom would then arrive in his nightshirt, sometimes accompanied by musicians. The bed curtains were then drawn, yet the guests sometimes wouldn’t leave until they saw the couple’s naked legs touching, or heard suggestive noises. The following morning, the stained bed linen was displayed as proof of consummation.
And why go to an office when you can rule from the bedroom? Each morning, Louis XIV of France would sit in his bed, bolstered by pillows, and preside over elaborate gatherings. Surrounded by courtiers like the gossipy Lord Saint-Simon, he composed decrees and consulted with high officials.
From public to private
During the 19th century, beds and bedrooms gradually became private spheres. A major impetus was rapid urbanization during the Industrial Revolution. In cities, compact row houses were constructed with small rooms, each with a specific purpose, one of which was sleeping.
Another reason was religion. The Victorian era was a devout age, and Evangelical Christianity was pervasive by the 1830s. Such beliefs placed great emphasis on marriage, chastity, the family, and the bond between parent and child; allowing strangers or friends under the covers was no longer kosher. By 1875, Architect magazine had published an essay declaring that a bedroom used for anything other than sleeping was unwholesome and immoral.
Bedrooms reserved for adults and children became commonplace in affluent 19th century homes. Husbands and wives sometimes even had separate bedrooms, perhaps connected by a door, each with their own adjoining dressing rooms.
Self-help books advised Victorian housewives about how to decorate their bedrooms. In 1888, writer and interior decorator Jane Ellen Panton recommended bright colors, washstands, chamber pots and, above all, a “long chair,” where a wife could rest when overwhelmed.
Tech knocks down the door
Today, bedrooms are still considered sanctuaries – a calming place to recuperate from the chaos of everyday life. Portable technology, however, has wormed its way under our covers.
A survey from earlier this year found that 80% of teens brought their mobile devices into their bedrooms at night; nearly one-third slept with them.
In a way, technology has reverted the bed to its earlier role: a place to socialize – chatting with friends, maybe even strangers – late into the night. And we can only wonder how many tweets President Trump has composed while burrowed under his blankets.
But in some ways, the effects of these glowing bedmates seem to be a bit more pernicious. One study surveyed couples who brought their smartphones to bed with them; more than half said the devices caused them to miss out on quality time with their partner. In another study, participants who banished smartphones from the bedroom reported being happier and having a better quality of life. Maybe that’s because these devices eat into our sleep.
Then again, I’m not so sure my sleep would be much better if I were to bed down with drunk strangers, as Andrew Buckley did.
Nadia Durrani is a contributing author of this article.
Some 1,000 kilometres inland from Sydney, over the Blue Mountains, past the trees that drink the tributaries of the Darling River, there stands a little, red mosque. It marks where the desert begins.
The mosque was built from corrugated iron in around 1887 in the town of Broken Hill. Its green interiors feature simple arabesque and its shelves house stories once precious to people from across the Indian Ocean. Today it is a peaceful place of retreat from the gritty dust storms and brilliant sunlight that assault travellers at this gateway to Australia’s deserts.
By a rocky hill that winds had “polished black”, the town of Broken Hill was founded on the country of Wiljakali people. In June 1885, an Aboriginal man whom prospectors called “Harry” led them to a silver-streaked boulder of ironstone and Europeans declared the discovery of a “jeweller’s shop”.
Soon, leading strings of camels, South Asian merchants and drivers began arriving in greater numbers at the silver mines, camel transportation operating as a crucial adjunct to colonial industries throughout Australian deserts. The town grew with the fortunes of the nascent firm Broken Hill Propriety Limited (BHP) — a parent company of one of the largest mining conglomerates in the world today, BHP-Billiton.
As mining firms funnelled lead, iron ore and silver from Wiljakali lands to Indian Ocean ports and British markets, Broken Hill became a busy industrial node in the geography of the British Empire. The numbers of camel merchants and drivers fluctuated with the arrival and departure of goods, and by the turn of the 20th century an estimated 400 South Asians were living in Broken Hill. They built two mosques. Only one remains.
In the 1960s, long after the end of the era of camel transportation, when members of the Broken Hill Historical Society were restoring the mosque on the corner of William Street and Buck Street, they found a book in the yard, its “pages blowing in the red dust” in the words of historian Christine Stevens. Dusting the book free of sand, they placed it inside the mosque, labelling it as “The Holy Koran”. In 1989, Stevens reproduced a photo of the book in her history of the “Afghan cameldrivers” .
I travelled to Broken Hill in July 2009. As I searched the shelves of the mosque for the book, a winter dust storm was underway outside. Among letters, a peacock feather fan and bottles of scent from Delhi, the large book lay, bearing a handwritten English label: “The Holy Koran”.
Turning the first few pages revealed it was not a Quran, but a 500-page volume of Bengali Sufi poetry.
Sitting on the floor, I set out to decipher Bengali characters I had not read for years. The book was titled Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets). Printed in Calcutta, it was a compendium of eight volumes published separately between 1861 and 1895. It was a book of books. Every story began by naming the tempo at which it should be performed, for these poems were written to be sung out loud to audiences.
As I strained to parse unfamiliar Persian, Hindi and Arabic words, woven into a tapestry of 19th-century Bengali grammar, I slowly started to glimpse the shimmering imagery of the poetry.
Creation began with a pen, wrote Munshi Rezaulla, the first of the three poets of Kasasol Ambia. As a concealed pen inscribed words onto a tablet, he narrates, seven heavens and seven lands came into being, and “Adam Sufi” was sculpted from clay. Over the 500 pages of verse that follow, Adam meets Purusha, Alexander the Great searches for immortal Khidr, and married Zulekha falls hopelessly in love with Yusuf.
As Rezaulla tells us, it was his Sufi guide who instructed him to translate Persian and Hindi stories into Bengali. Overwhelmed by the task, Rezaulla asked, “I am so ignorant, in what form will I write poetry?”
In search of answers, the poet wrote, “I leapt into the sea. Searching for pearls, I began threading a chain.” Here the imagery of the poet’s body immersed in a sea evokes a pen dipped in ink stringing together line after line of poetry. As Rezaulla wrote, “Stories of the Prophets (Kasasol Ambia) I name this chain.”
Its pages stringing together motif after motif from narratives that have long circulated the Indian Ocean, Kasasol Ambia described events spanning thousands of years, ending in the sixth year of the Muslim Hijri calendar. Cocooned from the winds raging outside, I realised I was reading a Bengali book of popular history.
Challenging Australian history
In the time since Broken Hill locals dusted Kasasol Ambia of sand in the 1960s, why had four Australian historians mislabelled the book? Why did the history books accompanying South Asian travellers to the West play no role in the histories that are written about them?
Moreover, as Christine Stevens writes, the people who built the mosque in North Broken Hill came from “Afghanistan and North-Western India”. How, then, did a book published in Bengal find its way to an inland Australian mining town?
Captivated by this last enigma, I began looking for clues. First, I turned to the records of the Broken Hill Historical Society. Looking for fragments of Bengali words in archival collections across Australia, I sought glimpses of a traveller who might be able to connect 19th-century Calcutta to Broken Hill.
As I searched for South Asian characters through a constellation of desert towns and Australian ports once linked by camels, I encountered a vast wealth of non-English-language sources that Australian historians systematically sidestep.
A seafarer’s travelogue narrated in Urdu in Lahore continues to circulate today in South Asia and in Australia, while Urdu, Persian and Arabic dream texts from across the Indian Ocean left ample traces in Australian newspapers.
One of the most surprising discoveries was that the richest accounts of South Asians were in some of the Aboriginal languages spoken in Australian desert parts. In histories that Aboriginal people told in Wangkangurru, Kuyani, Arabunna and Dhirari about the upheaval, violence and new encounters that occurred in the wake of British colonisation, there appear startlingly detailed accounts of South Asians.
Central to the history of encounter between South Asians and Aboriginal people in the era of British colonisation were a number of industries in which non-white labour was crucial: steam shipping industries, sugar farming, railway construction, pastoral industries, and camel transportation. Camels, in particular, loom large in the history of South Asians in Australia.
From the 1860s, camel lines became central to transportation in Australian desert interiors, colonising many of the long-distance Indigenous trade routes that crisscross Aboriginal land. The animals arrived from British Indian ports accompanied by South Asian camel owners and drivers, who came to be known by the umbrella term of “Afghans” in settler nomenclature.
The so-called Afghans were so ubiquitous through Australian deserts that when the two ends of the transcontinental north-south railway met in Central Australia in 1929, settlers rejoiced in the arrival of the “Afghan Express”. Camels remained central to interior transportation until they were replaced by motor transportation from the 1920s. Today the transcontinental railway is still known as “the Ghan”.
As a circuitry of camel tracks interlocking with shipping lines and railways threaded together Aboriginal lives and families with those of Indian Ocean travellers, people moving through these networks storied their experiences in their own tongues. Foregrounding these fragments in languages other then English, this book tells a history of South Asian diaspora in Australia.
Asking new questions
I start by reading the copy of Kasasol Ambia that remains in Broken Hill, and interpret the many South Asian- and Aboriginal-language stories I encountered during my search for the reader who brought the Bengali book to the Australian interior. Entry points into rich imaginative landscapes, these are stories that ask us to take seriously the epistemologies of people colonised by the British Empire.
My aim is to challenge the suffocating monolingualism of the field of Australian history. In my new book, Australianama, I do not argue for the simple inclusion of non-English-language texts into existing Australian national history books, perhaps with updated or extended captions.
Instead, I show that non-English-language texts render visible historical storytelling strategies and larger architectures of knowledge that we can use to structure accounts of the past. These have the capacity to radically change the routes readers use to imaginatively travel to the past. Stories in colonised tongues can transform the very grounds from which we view the past, present and future.
In July 2009, when I first encountered Kasasol Ambia, the Bengali book long mislabelled as a Quran made front-page news in Broken Hill. With touching enthusiasm, the journalist announced that I would “begin work on a full translation shortly”.
Overwhelmed by such a task, I began trawling mosque records held by the Broken Hill Historical Society, soon beginning a search through port records, customs documents and government archives. I did not know how to decipher the difficult book, and so in these archival materials I hoped to glimpse, however fleetingly, the skilled 19th-century reader who had once performed its poetry.
Slowly, it dawned on me that I was following the logic that Rezaulla outlines in his schema for translation. For I too had stepped into the imaginative world of the poetry in search of answers to some hard questions: How do we write histories of South Asian diaspora which pay attention to the history books that travelled with them? Who was the unnamed traveller who brought Bengali stories of the prophets to Broken Hill? Can historical storytelling in English do more than simply induct readers into white subjectivities?
Threading together seven narrative motifs that appear in Kasasol Ambia, I began to piece together a history of South Asians in Australia.
This is an edited extract from Australianama by Samia Khatun, UQP, rrp $34.95, out from 6 September.
The unicorn is an enduring image in contemporary society: a symbol of cuteness, magic, and children’s birthday parties.
But while you might dismiss this one-horned creature as just a product for Instagram celebrities and five-year-old girls, we can trace the lineage of the unicorn from the 4th century BCE. It evolved from a bloodthirsty monster, to a tranquil animal bringing peace and serenity (which can only be captured by virgins), to a symbol of God and Christ.
These days the term unicorn can refer to a privately held start-up company valued at over US$1 billion,
a single female interested in meeting other couples, or the characters in My Little Pony.
Over the centuries, the meaning and imagery of the unicorn has shifted and persisted. But how did we get here?
Ferocious beasts and where to create them
The earliest written account of the unicorn comes from the text Indica (398 BCE), by Greek physician Ctesias, where he described beasts in India as large as horses with one horn on the forehead.
Ctesias was most likely describing the Indian Rhinoceros. The unicorn horn, he wrote, was a panacea for those who drink from it regularly.
In the first-century CE, claiming to quote Ctesias, the Roman naturalist Pliny (Natural History, 77 CE), wrote that the unicorn was the fiercest animal in India, with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single horn projecting from the forehead.
Pliny also embellished the animal’s description by adding a trait that became extremely significant to society in the Middle Ages: it was impossible to capture the animal alive.
Just over a century later, the second-century CE Roman scholar Aelian compiled a book about animals based on Pliny. In his On the Nature of Animals, Aelian wrote that the unicorn grows gentle towards the chosen female during mating season.
The unicorn’s tender disposition when near the female became a highly symbolic trait for authors and artists of the Middle Ages, who believed it could only be captured by a virgin.
Despite the authoritative texts of the Greeks and Romans, the unicorn remained mostly unknown in the centuries leading up to the Middle Ages. For the public to become familiar with it, the creature had to come out of the library and develop a role in everyday events and popular culture: ie a role in Christianity.
Lost in translation
It was in the third-century BCE that the unicorn entered religious texts – although only by accident.
Between 300 and 200 BCE, a group of 70 scholars gathered together to create the first translation of the Hebrew Old Testament in Koine Greek. Although the Hebrew term for unicorn is Had-Keren (one horn), in the text commonly known as Septuagint (seventy) the scholars made an error when translating the Hebrew term Re’_em (ox), from Psalms as monokeros. In effect, they changed the word “ox” to “unicorn.”
The unicorn’s inclusion in a text of such magnitude laid the foundation for an obsession with the creature that thrived in both literary and visual arts from the earliest dates of the Middle Ages and continues to the modern day.
By the 12th century, the one-horned animal came to be associated with the allegory provided in the Physiologus, a collection of moralised beast tales on which many medieval bestiaries are based. One of the most widely read books in the Middle Ages, the Physiologus often identifies Christ with the unicorn.
The illustrations that accompany textual references to the unicorn in the Bible and medieval bestiaries often showed the allegorical representation rather than the literal.
So instead of images depicting Christ as a man, the artists drew horses and goats with one large horn protruding from its head. In this medieval legend, the fanciful myth of the one-horned animal became the foundation of the unicorn image that circulated throughout Europe.
Contemporary images of the unicorn have changed very little since the medieval era. The creature in The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny museum in Paris, symbolising various overlapping meanings including chastity and heraldic animals, looks a lot like the My Little Pony characters Rarity and Princess Celestia.
Imagery of the unicorn persisted sporadically in literature, film and television through the 20th century, but the 2010s saw interest boom.
The modern Instagram star
Social media helped lure the magical creature into quotidian life – the one-horned horse looks great as a Facebook emoji and surrounded by rainbows on Instagram. National Unicorn Day (April 9) was first observed in 2015.
Searches for “unicorns” reached an all-time high in April 2017, the same month Starbucks introduced the colour and taste-changing Unicorn Frappuccino, sparking a trend in adding glitter and rainbow colours to any food or beverage.
Now, the unicorn is marketed to children and adults alike on coffee mugs, keychains, stuffed animals, t-shirts. In secular contemporary culture it has become an LGBTI+ icon: a symbol of hope, something “uncatchable.”
The contemporary unicorn is a far cry from Ctesias’ beasts. Social media platforms like Instagram encourage us to project an idealised version of our life: the unicorn is a perfect symbol for this ideal.
If the last decade is anything to go by, its intrigue will only continue to grow.
A sunny afternoon in Paris. An intrepid TV presenter is making his way through the streets asking passersby to smell a bottle he has in his hand. When they smell it they react with disgust. One woman even spits on the floor as a marker of her distaste. What is in the bottle? It holds, we are told, the “pong de paris”, a composition designed to smell like an 18th-century Parisian street.
The interpretation of past scents that we are given on the television, perhaps influenced by Patrick Süskind’s pungent novel Perfume, is frequently dominated by offence.
The one smell that unites these attempts at re-odorising the past: toilets. Viking toilets, a Georgian water closet, and the highly urinous and faecal smell of a Victorian street, all included in the above examples, thread the needle of disgust from the medieval to the modern.
The consequence of such depictions is to portray the past as an odorous prelude, with foul-smelling trades and poor sanitation, to the clean and pleasant land of modernity.
Phew, what a pong
Suggesting that people who are not “us” stink has a long history. It is applied to our forebears just as often as is to other countries, peoples, or cultures. It is not accident that, “Filthy Cities” – an English television program, highlighted the stink of 18th-century France – even in the 18th century the English had associated the French, their absolutist Catholic enemies, with the stink of garlic.
The toilet-training narrative is a simple and seductive story about “our” conquest of stench. But the “pong de paris” misses the point. Too busy turning the past into a circus of disgust for modern noses, it fails to ask how it smelt to those who lived there. New historical work reveals a more complex story about past scents.
A careful examination of the records of urban government, sanitation, and medicine reveal that 18th-century English city-dwellers were not particularly bothered by unsanitary scents. This was partly because people adapted to the smells around them quickly, to the extent that they failed to notice their presence.
But, thanks to 18th-century scientific studies of air and gases, many Georgians also recognised that bad smells were not as dangerous as had previously been thought. In his home laboratory, the polymath Joseph Priestley experimented on mice, while others used scientific instruments to measure the purity of the air on streets and in bedrooms. The conclusion was simple: smell was not a reliable indicator of danger.
Scientist and social reformer Edwin Chadwick famously claimed in 1846 that “all smell… is disease”. But smell had a much more complex place in miasma theory – the idea that diseases were caused by poisonous airs – than has often been assumed. In fact, by the time cholera began to work its morbid magic in the 1830s, a larger number of medical writers held that smell was not a carrier of sickness-inducing atmospheres.
Smells tend to end up in the archive, recorded in the sources historians use, for one of two reasons: either they are unusual (normally offensive) or people decide to pay special attention to them. One scent that appeared in the diaries, letters, magazines, and literature of 18th-century England, however, was tobacco smoke. The 18 century saw the rise of new anxieties about personal space. A preoccupation with politeness in public places would prove a problem for pipe smokers.
Getting sniffy about tobacco
Tobacco had become popular in England during the 17th century. But, by the mid-18th century, qualms began to be raised. Women were said to abhor the smell of tobacco smoke. A satirical poem told the story of a wife who had banned her husband from smoking, only to allow its resumption – she realised that going cold turkey had made him impotent.
New sociable venues proliferated in towns and cities, with the growth of provincial theatres, assembly rooms, and pleasure gardens.
In these sociable spaces, a correspondent to The Monthly Magazine noted in 1798, “smoaking [sic] was a vulgar, beastly, unfashionable, vile thing” and “would not be suffered in any genteel part of the world”. Tobacco smoking was left to alehouses, smoking clubs and private masculine spaces.
Clouds of smoke invaded people’s personal space, subjecting them to atmospheres that were not of their own choosing. Instead, fashionable 18th-century nicotine addicts turned to snuff. Despite the grunting, hawking and spitting it encouraged, snuff could be consumed without enveloping those around you in a cloud of sour smoke.
The 18th century gave birth to modern debates about smoking and public space that are still with us today. The fact that the smell of tobacco smoke stains the archives of the period, metaphorically of course, is a testament to the new ideas of personal space that were developing within it.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of Faber & Faber, the publishing house.
The link below is to an article that takes a brief look at the history of the lobotomy.
No one doubts the job of president of the United States is stressful and demanding. The chief executive deserves downtime.
But how much is enough, and when is it too much?
These questions came into focus after Axios’ release of President Donald Trump’s schedule. The hours blocked off for nebulous “executive time” seem, to many critics, disproportionate to the number of scheduled working hours.
While Trump’s workdays may ultimately prove to be shorter than those of past presidents, he’s not the first to face criticism. For every president praised for his work ethic, there’s one disparaged for sleeping on the job.
Teddy Roosevelt, locomotive president
Before Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1901, the question of how hard a president toiled was of little concern to Americans.
Except in times of national crisis, his predecessors neither labored under the same expectations, nor faced the same level of popular scrutiny. Since the country’s founding, Congress had been the main engine for identifying national problems and outlining legislative solutions. Congressmen were generally more accessible to journalists than the president was.
But when Roosevelt shifted the balance of power from Congress to the White House, he created the expectation that an activist president, consumed by affairs of state, would work endlessly in the best interests of the people.
Roosevelt, whom Sen. Joseph Foraker called a “steam engine in trousers,” personified the hard-working chief executive. He filled his days with official functions and unofficial gatherings. He asserted his personality on policy and stamped the presidency firmly on the nation’s consciousness.
Taft had a tough act to follow
His successor, William Howard Taft, suffered by comparison. While it’s fair to observe that nearly anyone would have looked like a slacker compared with Roosevelt, it didn’t help that Taft weighed 300 pounds, which his contemporaries equated with laziness.
Taft helped neither his cause nor his image when he snored through meetings, at evening entertainments and, as author Jeffrey Rosen noted, “even while standing at public events.” Watching Taft’s eyelids close, Sen. James Watson said to him, “Mr. President, you are the largest audience I ever put entirely to sleep.”
An early biographer called Taft “slow-moving, easy-going if not lazy” with “a placid nature.” Others have suggested that Taft’s obesity caused sleep apnea and daytime drowsiness, a finding not inconsistent with historian Lewis L. Gould’s conclusion that Taft was capable of work “at an intense pace” and “a high rate of efficiency.”
It seems that Taft could work quickly, but in short bursts.
Coolidge the snoozer
Other presidents were more intentional about their daytime sleeping. Calvin Coolidge’s penchant for hourlong naps after lunch earned him amused scorn from contemporaries. But when he missed his nap, he fell asleep at afternoon meetings. He even napped on vacation. Tourists stared in amazement as the president, blissfully unaware, swayed in a hammock on his front porch in Vermont.
This, for many Republicans, wasn’t a problem: The Republican Party of the 1920s was averse to an activist federal government, so the fact that Coolidge wasn’t seen as a hard-charging, incessantly busy president was fine.
Biographer Amity Shlaes wrote that “Coolidge made a virtue of inaction” while simultaneously exhibiting “a ferocious discipline in work.” Political scientist Robert Gilbert argued that after Coolidge’s son died during his first year as president, Coolidge’s “affinity for sleep became more extreme.” Grief, according to Gilbert, explained his growing penchant for slumbering, which expanded into a pre-lunch nap, a two- to four-hour post-lunch snooze and 11 hours of shut-eye nightly.
For Reagan, the jury’s out
Ronald Reagan may have had a tendency to nod off.
“I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of a national emergency – even if I’m in a cabinet meeting,” he joked. Word got out that he napped daily, and historian Michael Schaller wrote in 1994 that Reagan’s staff “released a false daily schedule that showed him working long hours,” labeling his afternoon nap “personal staff time.” But some family members denied that he napped in the White House.
Journalists were divided. Some found him “lazy, passive, stupid or even senile” and “intellectually lazy … without a constant curiosity,” while others claimed he was “a hard worker,” who put in long days and worked over lunch. Perhaps age played a role in Reagan’s naps – if they happened at all.
Clinton crams in the hours
One president not prone to napping was Bill Clinton. Frustrated that he could not find time to think, Clinton ordered a formal study of how he spent his days. His ideal was four hours in the afternoon “to talk to people, to read, to do whatever.” Sometimes he got half that much.
Two years later, a second study found that, during Clinton’s 50-hour workweek, “regularly scheduled meetings” took up 29 percent of his time, “public events, etc.” made up 36 percent of his workday, while “thinking time – phone & office work” constituted 35 percent of his day. Unlike presidents whose somnolence drew sneers, Clinton was disparaged for working too much and driving his staff to exhaustion with all-nighters.
Partisanship at the heart of criticism?
The work of being president of the United States never ends. There is always more to be done. Personal time may be a myth, as whatever the president reads, watches or does can almost certainly be applied to some aspect of the job.
Trump’s “executive time” could be a rational response to the demands of the job or life circumstances. Trump, for example, only seems to get four or five hours of sleep a night, which seems to suggest that he has more time to tackle his daily duties than the rest of us.
But, like his predecessors, the appearance of taking time away from running the country will garner criticism. Though they can sometimes catch 40 winks, presidents can seldom catch a break.