In March 1841, Ichabod Cook of Mendon, Mass., a 62-year-old farmer and former member of the state Legislature, wrote down his housekeeper’s dream. He’d been collecting people’s dreams since the mid-1830s, and was convinced that he had a gift for translating them. When his neighbor Cushman told him he’d seen a deceased friend in a vision of the night, for example, and the ghost guaranteed that he would return in three months to “take him back,” Ichabod offered reassurance: “I told him in visions, a day, a week, or a month might mean a year.”
Ichabod’s housekeeper, Anne Maria, was a harder nut to crack. She had already been besieged several times that month. She’d seen a “tall spirit” one night, and was moved to hide “under the feet of an old ox”; she saw a horse grab hold of an innocent girl, then found herself screaming for help, to no avail. This time, “she dreamed somebody told her the world was coming to an end, and she walked out towards a river, and she saw a man coming in a carriage with two red horses, and when he got to the bridge he took the horses out and told them to drive off, and not to be afraid, and they dove down into the water, and brought up three of the beautifulest flowers that she ever saw.”
Long before Sigmund Freud ushered in the age of psychoanalysis with “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1900, Americans were dream enthusiasts. Few dream collectors were as obsessive as Ichabod Cook, but the archives reveal countless examples in unpublished letters and diaries, often recorded by candlelight, before the images had time to dissipate. Several years ago, I began a project to track down these American dreams of the 18th and 19th centuries. My database would ultimately come to include more than 200 dreams from around the country, from equal numbers of men and women. Together, they help us glean just how studiously—and how anxiously—earlier generations approached the secrets that they believed lurked in their nightly visions. They paint a strangely immediate picture of a national dream life both like and unlike ours today.
In the early years of the Republic, a good night’s sleep was defined as dreamless sleep. Thomas Jefferson called dreams “our nightly incoherencies,” and regarded them as insignificant. The less dismissive John Adams found some dreams worth sharing. In one, Adams recorded, he thought he was in France, standing on a “lofty scaffold” near the royal palace of Versailles, giving a political address to an audience of wild animals. All of a sudden, the elephant “pouted his proboscis…in contempt,” and the lion roared. “Frightened out of my wits,” Adams wrote, “I leaped from the stage and made my escape.”
For the first century after American independence, the standard medical explanation for dreams was that they signaled physiological distress, usually indigestion. Persistent dreams constituted a potentially dangerous pathology—incipient madness, some said. But as the 19th century wore on, and readers were influenced by the opiated dreams of Romantic poets, more people shared their dreams with an open heart. They found amusement in the absurdity of images formed in the unconscious mind—that is, when they weren’t worrying that their dreams were a portent of things to come.
For the conventionally religious, angel sightings were common. A heavenly guide generally instructed them to look forward to a reunion with deceased loved ones. Many people dreamed of conflagrations and funeral processions, which prompted them to write nervously to family members, asking whether someone near and dear had died. As one might imagine, farm animals—like those red horses—took on greater significance for these folks. Animals either represented the loss of control (as in Adams’s dream), or they came to the dreamer’s aid.
To an extent that may surprise modern-day dreamers, these older dreams reveal men and women who possessed an intense knowledge of place. A large number of dreamers described the direction of the wind as a brush fire approached or indicated whether they were traveling a road to the east or west. To a remarkable degree, they noted the sounds they were hearing in dreams—especially the trumpets that were typically associated with heavenly music.
Other aspects of these old dreams—their mood and certain universal subject matter—would be more familiar to present-day dreamers. About three in four of the dreams I found are anxious or frightful, and only one in four pleasant or hopeful; according to modern dream researchers, this is the same ratio of anxious to pleasant dreams that people experience today. Men had a higher percentage of bad (compared to hopeful) dreams than women did. The young tended to record dreams about love—sometimes just an indistinct feeling, but just as often the classic abandonment dream of being spurned by a fiance, fiancee, husband, or wife.Continued...