A Brief History of Time


Did everyone remember to spring forward, last night?

Yes, friends, Daylight Saving Time is upon us, and that perennial question arises again: why the *#@! do we do this? The answer, according to Michael Downing, is: probably not for the reasons you think.

Daylight Saving Time, what Downing calls “the uncanny idea of falsifying the clocks,” first came into existence in the U.S. in 1917. President Wilson thought it a coal-saving measure appropriate to wartime. The notion that DST saves energy remains one of the most common (though bogus) explanations for why we do it. In Congress, many felt it would be a boon to farmers, another thing useful to a nation at war. The major newspapers got behind it in a big way. Before you knew it, it was swept into law on a gust of wartime patriotism and something else, which we’ll come to shortly.

By 1919, the war was ending and people were giving DST a second look. Farmers, in particular, pointed out that they had never actually been for it; that, if you wanted to know the truth, they hated it. Contrary to what had been said in Congress in 1917 — by, it turns out, mostly urban congressmen — the effect of DST was to rob farmers of an hour. Grains, fruits, and vegetables, the farmers pointed out in 1919, when the legislation came up for renewal, could not be worked or harvested until the dew had evaporated; moving the clock forward an hour — moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening — meant it was an hour later in the day before they could start their work. During harvest, they had one less hour to get their crops to market.

Dairy farmers pointed out that cows, many-splendored creatures though they are, can’t read a clock worth a darn. Their milk doesn’t drop an hour earlier just because somebody shoves a pail under them an hour earlier. The effect, they said (the farmers, not the cows), was reduced milk production. Congressional supporters of DST suggested they just ignore DST, and do their milking on the usual schedule. The farmers replied that this would hardly work, since the people consuming their product were getting up an hour earlier, and therefore expected their milk delivery an hour earlier. “Oh, yeah,” the congressmen said. “Huh.”

Some in Congress also started to think more closely about Wilson’s coal-saving argument. DST applied (then) from mid-spring to fall. That is, primarily during the summer. Who burns coal during the summer? The dairy farmers added, on this count, that they actually used more electricity as a result of DST, because it forced them to get up before sunrise and work by artificial light for an hour every morning, all summer, just as they did all winter.

A good many Christians were opposed to the idea, as well. For starters, there was the obvious hinkiness of messing around with time. Time belonged to God. God created the heaven and the earth, God set the period of the Earth’s rotation, and who was Congress to go monkeying around with that? They also didn’t like the fact that the clocks were changed in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Some considered it a violation of the separation of church and state. Some said it was further proof of the federal government’s hostility to religion. (See? There’s nothing new under the sun.)

The entertainment industry hated it, too. Who wants to go sit in a dark theater when the sun is still up? Movie receipts declined, as they did on Broadway and in opera houses.

As it turns out, the only people who had really wanted DST, had benefited from it, and still wanted it, were the retailers and the sports and recreation industry. Retailers used the extra daylight to sell all manner of things, including alarm clocks and a whole new category of clothing — “daylight dining clothes.” The newspapers got behind it because the retailers were their biggest source of advertising dollars. As for the sports and recreation industry, think baseball; think golf; think English-style “country sports”; think barbecue grills.

So, in the summer of 1919, over the objections of Pres. Wilson and the representatives and newspapers of the nation’s urban areas, Daylight Saving Time was repealed, and the nation went back to sun time rather than legislated time. (This is not quite true, as Standard Time had also been legislated, largely thanks to the railroad companies.) DST continued to be observed, off and on, in some cities and local areas, nationwide, and the New York Times did an annual survey to find out who was marking time how, this year.

National DST came back in 1942, with the arrival of WWII. I won’t go into all the details. You can read the book, for that. I’ll just note a couple of interesting twists. For one, it was called “War Time” this time. For another, its begin and end date weren’t specified. The legislation passed on Feb. 9th, and the nation went on “War Time” immediately; it would remain on it until further notice. Further notice didn’t arrive until September, 1945. The nation had been on DST for 4.5 years, straight. In some places, schoolchildren walked to school or waited at bus stops in complete darkness for much of those years.

The rest — the wacky Brits, the loony Soviets, the restoration of DST in the U.S., the time the American broadcast networks imposed DST on an entire foreign country — I leave you to read from the book, if you’re interested.


3 Responses to “A Brief History of Time”

  1. Whitney Says:

    We don’t do DST out there in the islands, and I.LOVE.IT.!!
    That’s my only contribution. Aren’t I just a bucket o’ fun?

  2. urbino Says:

    Hey, at least you broke the silence.

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’ve not given this much thought, one way or the other. I can’t tell that it makes a big difference to me.

    I should ask my grandfather about this, since he was a dairy farmer. Or even my dad, since he helped with that during his teenage years.

    Sounds like an interesting book.

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