According to the tribal witch doctors we call weathermen, it’s going to hit 90 degrees today. Yesterday wasn’t too far from that, and where I live it tends to be at least fairly humid most of the time. Plus, I’ve just always dealt better with the cold than with the heat. But this put me in mind of something interesting—why people used to get up so early in the day.
There was a tree that had sprung up in the middle of a large bush and went unnoticed for long enough that its trunk was now about 4 inches around. This is close enough to the neighbor’s house that the tree was growing over the fence and getting in the way of her lawn crew. Both to be a good neighbor and for the sake of the lilac bush it was growing it, it was time for the tree to go.
I don’t own any kind of powered saw; when I remove small trees and thick branches, I do it with my bow saw. It’s not that hard, but it is work, and work creates heat. Generating a lot of heat isn’t much fun on a cold day, and it’s miserable on a hot day, so I decided to saw the weed tree down in the morning, before work, and before the heat of the day settled in. This got me to thinking about why it was that farmers—who for most of history was most of humanity—would get up at the crack of dawn. If you’re going to be doing a lot of manual labor, it’s far preferable to do it early in the morning, before the day has gotten hot. Once the day gets hot it takes a long time to cool off again, and often doesn’t cool much before the sun sets.
Whether or not people actually kept working throughout the day, there would have been basically no way for them to have continued to work at the same level of output as before it got hot. The human capacity for work is dependent on the environment. Of course where it gets really hot people have a tendency to eat a big meal then take a nap during the hottest part of the day. As the saying from tropical regions goes, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Even outside of hot regions, though, it makes sense to take advantage of the times when one can actually put in hard work, rather than just slowly suffer.
This, I think, helps to explain why waking up late is so associated with laziness. If a man who works outside waits to get up until it’s hot, he’s not going to be able to get much nearly as much done in a day. There is, also, the issue of light availability; one does not do much farming by lamplight. I don’t want to entirely discount it, but especially in summer, there is just a ton of daylight available. Outside of farming and other outdoor labors, the issue of heat, in the days before air conditioning, is far more pressing than the issue of light. Even inside of buildings, it gets quite hot on a hot day. It may be delayed by an hour or two from how hot it gets outside, but having put in work inside of an unairconditioned building in summertime, it doesn’t stay cool nearly as long as one would like. Granted, one can still write as quickly in the heat, but many of the other trades still involve moving and pushing and pulling; things that generate heat.
I’ve no way of knowing if this really was it, but it does strike me that someone who waits to get out of bed until one can no longer reasonably expect him to do work would seem very lazy, and indeed might well be very lazy. (Programmers, who always work in air conditioned environments and who move exceedingly little while they do so are notorious for preferring to work at night, rather than during the day. Having a wife and children I’ve mostly adapted to working during normal hours, but it would be very easy to slip back to a more natural way of working…)
[Update: Paul, in the comments, pointed out that I got the phrase about mad dogs and Englishmen. It comes from a 1931 Noel Coward song, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and contains the refrain “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, as well as descriptions of how everyone else is too sensible to go out in the midday sun. You an see Mr. Coward performing the song on YouTube.]