At its core, a hammock is any kind of sling suspended between two points. The simple setup can be used for sleeping, sitting or simply storing things above the ground. The versatility of the hammock is shown in part by the diverse amount of styles and materials it can be made with. Originally developed by the native cultures of the Americas, hammocks are now popular worldwide as both a staple in many people’s backyards as well as a lightweight sleep system for campers.
When used, the way the hammock is suspended is important for how comfortable it will for the user. A higher anchor point is preferred as well as a sufficient length between the two points. With a few exceptions, the ideal angle at which the line should be attached to the anchor is about 30 degrees on each side. Depending on the size of the hammock, one can lie either lengthwise or across the width, but a diagonal position provides the most room and comfort. It provides the user with an almost flat lie more akin to a traditional bed.
Hammocks have become a popular symbol for relaxation, summertime, leisure and an easy going lifestyle. Because of the comfort they provide along with the versatility, small ecological footprint and an abundance of tropical trees, hammocks are are also commonly seen as a staple of island lifestyle. In poorer regions of the world, hammocks provide a very cost effective sleeping structure compared to a bed frame and mattress. A hammock can be easily created using a sheet of old fabric by simply tying the two ends and suspending the fabric. The cheap cost, comfort and ease of use makes them very popular in tropical areas all over the world.
Hammocks were first introduced to the Old World through Spanish colonists who witnessed the indigenous people of Central and South America using them as beds. Woven from bark and other fibers, these hammocks were not just used for comfort and relaxation, but served a practical purpose for the people living in the tropical climate of Mesoamerica. It kept people off the ground when they slept – away from insect stings, harmful animals and certain forms of disease. According to some accounts from early Spanish colonists, people would put hot coals underneath their hammocks for warmth and added protection from airborne insects.
After Christopher Columbus brought numerous examples of the sleeping hammocks of the New World back to Europe, they were quickly adopted for use in naval vessels because of the specific advantages a hanging sleeping structure could provide. On ships, hammocks could be used by sailors to sleep comfortably in cramped spaces while not being disturbed by the movement of the ship. Moving in parallel to the motion of the ship, use of a hammock eliminated the risk of the sailor being thrown off during rough seas, which was likely to happen with fixed bunk beds. Many sailors became so accustomed to sleeping night in and night out on a hammock that they brought their hammocks with them when they were on leave. The hammocks role in the seafaring continues to this very day, with many sailors preferring the comfort of a hammock over a permanent bunk.
In the late 1800s, the style of hammock known as the rope hammock was born in South Carolina. According to local legend, the rope hammock was created by riverboat captain Joshua John Ward, who spent many nights out on the water ferrying rice and other cargo from South Carolina’s plantations to the coast. He created the rope hammock as a response to the muggy heat and humidity that the grass-filled mattresses and canvas hammocks used by sailors only seemed to exacerbate. Made with heavy cotton rope, Ward’s hammocks were durable enough to be used continuously aboard his vessel yet also allowed for breathability. While rope hammocks did exist in the US back then, they were woven poorly and featured many knots all over the body of the hammock tying the rope together. Ward’s hammock used a lattice-like design that interwove the individual ropes together so that the only knots were located on the ends. Ward also invented the spreader bar to hold the hammock bed wide by feeding the rope ends through holes bored through a wooden slat. Ward eventually started a family business selling these hammocks on the roadside of his hometown in Pawleys Island and this shop still exists to this day, making and selling rope hammocks.
In Mexico, the style of hammocks commonly found are colorful handwoven pieces originating from the Yucatan peninsula. It is generally agreed by historians that the hammock was first developed by the native people of Mexico, and quickly spread to other cultures in Central and South America. Also known as Mayan hammocks, these hammocks are made on a loom and hand woven by people using fibers from bark, sisal, and palm fronds. After colonialism brought cotton and hemp to Europe, these new fibers were adopted for use in hammock making alongside the traditional materials. To the people of the Yucatan, hammocks are of considerable cultural importance, most homes having multiple hammock strung on the walls for sitting, sleeping as well as swings for infants.
In addition to the Mayan hammocks of Mexico, hammocks became very popular in Venezuela. Entire villages would raise their families in hammocks. Located in the tropical jungle of South America, the people of Venezuela altered the hammock design to better accommodate their needs. The Venezuelan hammock was always made out of breathable material, necessary to prevent fungal infections in the damp, humid climate, and fine-woven mosquito netting was added to provide complete protection from disease carrying insects. For added protection, a breathable false bottom panel was frequently used to allow airflow to pass, while preventing biting insects from stinging through the hammock. Eventually, waterproof top sheets were added to protect the occupant from the frequent heavy rains, with drip lines added to prevent rainwater from running down the line of the hammock and collecting in the hammock. The Venezuelan hammock became known as the jungle hammock and is the basis for many of the modern camping hammock designs today.
Similarly, hammocks are popular in Brazil, but not only as a sleeping device. The very poorest areas may not have a cemetery or graveyard and hammocks may be used as a low-cost alternative to coffins for transporting the dead to their final resting place. The simple design, ease of use and cultural importance make hammocks an unconventional, yet fitting means for the poor in northeast Brazil to carry their dead to their final resting place.