Bust Out the Twin Beds: Turns Out ’50s TV Sleep Science Was Sound
The networks’ mores were undeniably chaste, but emulating the evening habits of their stars still makes sense.
There’s not much from iconic TV shows of yore, like I Love Lucy or Leave It To Beaver, that we’d recognize or want to emulate in our modern lives. To wit: Women are fortunately no longer the sole inhabitants of the kitchen; it’s more than okay to use the word “pregnant” on air; and, style-wise, plaid couches and bunny-eared black-and-white televisions have given way to streamlined decor and plasma screens the size of compact cars. And yet, though some aspects of 1950’s TV families’ waking hours are perhaps best left in the pop-culture vault, their sleeping ones are worth a second look. While mattress tech now is more advanced than ever (look no further than tulo’s cooling, multi-layered design), the characters in many retro shows have healthier sleep habits than our own today.
Let’s start with the actual bed. In shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, parents were typically shown underneath the covers…in separate beds! Of course, this was largely a product of television’s prim standards of that day, says pop culture expert, Robert Thompson, PhD, who directs the Bleier Center for Popular Culture & Television at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “The networks didn’t want anything to even hint at the presence of sex–at that moment or later on,” says Thompson. Portraying Mr. and Mrs. in twin beds, separated by a nightstand, as dictated by The Hays Code (a set of rules developed by studios and in effect on TV until the 60s), signaled to American audiences that they could anticipate nothing but snoozing from co-stars when the bedroom light flicked off.
For many couples, sleeping in separate beds regularly or occasionally slipping off to the guest room to escape a snoring partner can be a boon for each partner’s sleep, says Martin Reed, CCSH, a certified sleep health expert and founder of Insomnia Coach. “If one partner has trouble sleeping while the other doesn’t, the good sleeper can be disturbed by a partner who tosses and turns. He or she may end up resenting the partner who falls asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow.” And if one bed partner snores, opting for beds in separate rooms may be the only way for the other to get uninterrupted sleep, says Reed. It doesn't mean you love your mate less if you prioritize quality sleep for your health and well-being, says Brandon Peters, MD, a sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. “In fact, it may make the relationship stronger.”
Even when both halves of a couple are sound sleepers, they may not see eye-to-eye (spine to spine?) about mattress firmness. Of course, this not being the 1950s, the disparity shouldn’t necessitate separate beds–just different mattresses. tulo, for instance offers mattresses in three comfort levels, each with four foam layers to offer comfort and support; you can easily opt for two twins of different density, and align them side-by-side (the edges line up perfectly and invisibly, once topped with your mattress pad and fitted sheet). At the least, having a supportive spare mattress in the guest room—to escape to when your partner’s snoring reaches a dangerously irritating decibel level or you simply want a night on a softer or firmer surface—is a sleep (and sanity) savior.
Another wellness-promoting aspect of the pop-culture mid-century bedroom: not a single screen in scene. Back in the day, the family room was the only one with a television, alarm clocks were mostly analog, devices like iPhones and iPads were many decades away–and we were all the more rested for it. Scientific evidence has shown that viewing screens in the bedroom, particularly in the hour before conking out, wreaks havoc on sleep. “Using electronic devices in the bedroom is generally a bad idea, since whenever we do anything in the bedroom other than sleep, we tell our mind that this is a place for all these activities rather than exclusively for sleep,” says Reed. Nodding off with your phone within reach can spur the urge to check your email, your social feeds, or just the time of night, all with the effect of exacerbating your worries and further disrupting your sleep (not surprisingly, checking your alerts at 3 a.m. makes you, well, alert).
Even if the messages and notifications themselves are benign, the blue light emitted by the screen you’re holding mere inches from your face is not. This light is called blue light, but it’s important to note that it doesn’t look blue to the naked eye; rather, it’s a specific wavelength of light. Research has shown that the type of light emitted by devices with electronic displays can harm sleep by reducing melatonin production and shift the body’s circadian rhythm, says Reed. This will make it harder to fall asleep, and harder to wake up, says Peters, and two studies from 2018 showed such effects. “Yes, it can help to switch these devices to ‘night mode,’ but their stimulating nature may still be disruptive.” Your best bet, says Peters: Leave your devices to charge overnight in the kitchen. Rather than rely on your phone for your wake up, turn it back a few decades rediscover the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned alarm clock.
While watching television before bed may seem to be a more passive–and therefore more relaxing–pursuit than scrolling through your phone, you’re better off going analog and reading a book. Watching your favorite drama may not only be stimulating, but it’s also incredibly hard to stop at one episode. Those who binge-watch TV are 98 percent more likely to sleep poorly, compared to those who don’t, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. (Disable your Netflix auto-play, stat!)
Finally, consider what June, Ward, Lucy, Ricky and the rest were wearing in those bedroom scenes. She retired in a proper nightgown; he typically donned a two-piece pajama set, flannel in winter. Sure, today’s nocturnal fashions may have the thermoregulation benefit of high-tech fabrics, but for many of us, wearing such proper pajamas has gone the way of the top-sheet. Translation: we fall into bed in boxers, a tee shirt, or nothing at all.
Why does this even matter? Well, for starters, turning-in wearing proper pajamas–as opposed to your birthday suit–can help your body regulate its temperature and avoid waking-up shivering or sweating. We tend to sleep best in a fairly cool room, about 65 degrees, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Also helpful in regulating your overnight body temp: a pillow designed for a cooler sleep, like the tulo pillow, which is made with a material that maintains a comfortable temp.
When you consider that slipping into pajamas nightly plays a role in overall good sleep hygiene, the characters of yesteryear were dressed to truly decompress. “Our bodies respond best to routines,” says Peters. “A consistent bedtime routine, including dedicated nightwear, may help to reinforce sleep. Just like children can be eased into sleep with an evening bath, changing into pajamas, reading bedtime stories, and dimming the lights, adults can also benefit from a consistent nighttime routine. Wearing pajamas is another signal to the brain that you are preparing to sleep. This conditioning may help you to sleep better.
So while Beaver Cleaver has long grown up and today’s world teems with infinitely more distractions and decisions, sleep remains one of our few, true incontrovertible needs. If looking to the past can help us log the sleep we need to feel our best, it’s worth considering. When it comes to getting enough rest, perhaps father really did know best.
By Liz Krieger