The Maya and other indigenous peoples crafted hammocks out of tree bark or plant fibers. Suspended beds prevented contact with the dirty ground and offered protection from snakes, rodents and other poisonous or simply pesky creatures.
Pero de Magalhães Gandavo, the Portuguese-born chronicler of colonial Brazilian history, wrote in 1570, “Most of the beds in Brazil are hammocks, hung in the house from two cords. This custom they took from the Indians of the land.”
In the mid-16th century, the English and Spanish navies had adopted hammocks as their primary on-deck sleeping apparatuses. It provided more comfortable sleep than a bunk or a berth while at sea since the sleeper always stays well balanced, irrespective on the motion of the vessel. Prior to the adoption of naval hammocks, sailors would often be injured or even killed as they fell off their berths or rolled on the decks on heavy seas. The sides of traditional canvas naval hammocks wrap around the sleeper like a cocoon, making an inadvertent fall virtually impossible.
In the late 19th century, the British prison system attempted to replace cots with hammocks, attaching them to the walls or bars of jail cells with large brass hooks and rings. This arrangement saved space and cut costs but only lasted until inmates discovered the hardware’s value as weapons.
In the United States, meanwhile, by the turn of the century hammocks had caught on both as a leisure item for wealthy families and as a cheap, practical sleeping solution for frontier farmers. The first known mass producer of hammocks opened in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, in 1889. Less than two decades later, the suspended beds became an essential part of army physician William Gorgas’ plan to eradicate yellow fever during the construction of the Panama Canal. Hammocks could easily be enclosed in mosquito netting and also kept sleepers off the wet, insect-ridden ground.
A new study conducted by a team of Swiss researchers and published in the June issue of “Current Biology” has offered a scientific explanation for the longstanding global hammock craze. The team found that a swinging motion synchronizes brain waves, allowing people to doze off faster and attain a deeper state of sleep. Their results also support the ancient—and still very much alive—tradition of rocking children to sleep.
Brazilian hammocks are made from cotton fabric and usually more durable than the string varieties. While Mayan and Nicaraguan hammocks are considered by some to have the potential to be more comfortable, the Brazilian hammock’s comfort is less dependent on its construction and therefore less likely to vary as highly from manufacturer to manufacturer.