Ask the Past: Insomnia

I've been going through a busy patch at work for the last month, and I've been finding it hard to get to sleep. I have tried all the usual insomnia remedies - warm milk, no screens, counting backwards from 1000 - but nothing is working. I'm all out of ideas - have you got anything else I can try?

Well, the first thing to fix is your warm milk. Most of the books I have looked at recommend a hot drink before bed to help with insomnia, but only the Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia actually recommends warm milk. The Australian Enquiry Book keeps it simple with a cup of hot water. Laurie's Household Encyclopedia prefers home-made lemonade. The Modern Household Encyclopedia recommends a cup of hot cocoa without sugar. Hyleigh's Medical and Stock Book, on the other hand, gives this slightly more elaborate recipe:

Mix one teaspoonful of cocoa, one saltspoonful ground ginger, and one teaspoonful sugar to a paste with a little milk. Pour cup of new milk over it, and bring to the boil. Then drink as hot as possible with a dry biscuit. Excellent for inducing sleep.

There are a few other themes here. Both The Australian Enquiry Book and Hyleigh's Medical and Stock Book recommend a hop pillow (The Australian Enquiry Book says it's particularly good for children who can't sleep). Neither of those books gave instructions for making one, but the 4 November 1913 edition of the Mataura Ensign came through with the following:

The best plan is to get a quantity of dried hops from the chemist and pack a small pillow evenly with the material. This is placed on a large supporting pillow, and a little adjustment will soon make matters quite comfortable.

Most people who have not tried this plan will be surprised how drowsy one becomes after resting one's head upon the hop pillow for about 20 minutes. The smell of the hops is by no means disagreeable.

A great many obstinate cases have yielded to this treatment. To get the best results the pillow should be packed with fresh hops every few months.

The other thing that is very popular is water. Hyleigh's and The Modern Household Encyclopedia both recommend a cold cloth, well wrung out, on the back of the neck, and The Australian Enquiry Book recommends a cold cloth over the eyes.  The Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia goes much further, though:

Wring a sheet out of tepid water, and fold it round the patient; over this roll one or two blankers, and let him lie for half to three-quarters of an hour. Then rub him dry with a warm soft towel.

If you like the idea of being immersed in water, but if lying around in a damp sheet doesn't appeal, then Hyleigh's suggests a hot mustard bath just before bed, with the note that it's particularly good for sleeplessness in old people.

However, if none of these things are really working for you, then you may need to resort to heroic measures. When all else fails, this advice from The Cookery Book of the NZ Women's Institutes, titled "A Most Approved Method to Cause Sleep" and attributed to Lady Arabella How, is sure to do the job:

Bring a live wild rabbit into your chamber and cut off the ears, which presently you must bind to your temples, the smooth side to the skin, at your going to rest, but take them off early in the morning, else they will make you too drowsy.

I'm sure that will help.

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