The Slumbering MassesSleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life

The Slumbering MassesSleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780816674749

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press


The book traces the interactions of American allopathic medicine, industrial capitalism, and the human desire for sleep from the late 18th century through the turn of the 21st century. The foundation of contemporary American sleep is laid in the 19th century, when industrial workday demands the coordination and consolidation of sleeping and waking patterns. What was lost in this transition was unconsolidated sleep – instead of two nightly periods of rest, or daily naps supplemented with nightly sleep, one eight hour period of sleep was substituted as a new norm. This norm laid the basis for the emerging field of sleep medicine, which took as its primary concern the eradication of napping and insomnia, and substituting eight regular and consolidated hours of sleep. This invention of consolidated sleep led to the eventual pathologization of many forms of sleep, and provided the basis for contemporary sleep medicine. The present interest in sleep, exemplified by advertising campaigns for “Z drugs” – a new chemical that promotes and consolidates sleep – is not so much new as an intensification of a two hundred year old interest in making “normal” American sleep. In the present, I focus on the lives of physicians, scientists, patients and their families as they deal with the social frictions that sleep disorders are accepted as causing. I argue in the conclusion that by recognizing the human limits of sleep, we can apprehend sleep’s variations as non-pathological, and that with more flexible social institutions and expectations, the medicalization of sleep might be subverted.