Nose to Toe: Bed Sharing in Appalachia Back When Getting Sleep Was Work

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Photo from 1910: Six people slept in this one tiny room
Photo from 1910: Six people slept in this one tiny room

Little may we realize, but for those of us who come from the hills and hollers of Appalachia, so much of our daily lives is unique and foreign to many who grew up beyond the Blue Ridge.

From the second our eyes open each morning, to the moment we lay our weary heads down onto our pillows, our existence, customs, memories and histories are uniquely our own and have been shaped by centuries of influence by the rugged mountains we simply know as home — this is especially true when it comes to the essential function of sleeping.

While visiting with my wife’s family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Central Virginia, I found myself lost in conversation with one of her aging relatives who recalled their long-deceased Uncle Dennis who was said to have never spent a single night of his adult life inside a house in a bed.  Instead, Uncle Dennis was an Appalachian mountain man of the highest order and according to my wife’s grandfather, “he felt trapped anytime he was inside for more than five minutes.”

“We’d go to visit them as a kid and at nightfall, Uncle Dennis would tell everyone good night and then begin carrying blankets outside — I’ve seen him sleep outside with a foot of snow on the ground and it still coming down.”

As outlandish as this story may sound, there are dozens of more families from generations past who had their own version of an Uncle Dennis; some of these untamable mountain men even made their beds in hollowed out massive oak trees.

Not only do stories abound of men and women who slept on front porches and inside rotted trees, but for those who remained inside miner’s homes and mountain cabins, catching sleep was often just as much of a harrowing experience and involved true labor.

One reader recently wrote to us inquiring if we had ever written a story on the practice of bed sharing in Appalachia, stating, “When I go back home that’s where we spend half the time… I know this isn’t just my family…”

We reached out to many of our readers with this question and found some pretty fascinating stories:

Hawk Wes wrote, “My dad’s family lived in a one room house and there was ten of them plus some grandkids.  They only had two beds and they slept sideways.  Snow would blow through the cracks and stripe the blankets.”

Another reader stated that her mother would always wash her feet before she got in bed, because she and her sisters slept “head to toe, four to a bed and no one wanted dirty feet in their face all night.”

With beds and floorspace at a premium in yesteryear Appalachia, multiple family members sleeping head to toe was so common that women would often joke, “You won’t know if a man washes his feet before he goes to bed until you married him.”

In the wintertime finding sleep in the mountains was often difficult and despite our romanticizing of the era, there was little comfort to be found.

“I’d go to bed hungry and cold each night and silently beg God that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning,” recalled one son of the Great Depression.

With poor insulation and beds that were often little more than boards and worn out quilts butted together, it would be nothing for children to wake up with a dusting of snow over their blankets.

As difficult as the wintertime was, little relief was found inside many mountain homes during the summer months as the sweltering July heat, cookstoves and thick air concocted together to make a night’s sleep a special version of hell all its own.

To cope with the heat of summertime, sleeping porches were built.  Little more than screened in rooms in the outside, these porches allowed individuals the opportunity to enjoy a cool night’s sleep without the pains of being “et plum up by the skeeters.”

As much as so many of us would desire to return to the good ole days, the truth is that we’re often guilty of glamorizing yesteryear — the reality, however, is that the early families who settled Appalachia were tough as nails and nothing came to them easy, not even getting a restful night’s sleep.

Families have always been precious in the mountains of Appalachia and one can’t help but imagine that bedding down nose to toe five to a bed beneath a winter’s snow may have contributed to this closeness.  Tribulation has taught us two very important lessons in Appalachia: True rest is a gift and a brother is born for adversity.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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