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One Nation, Under Time?
——Standardizing Time in the United States, 1752 and 1883
央視國際 (2005年02月11日 16:43)





Mark M. Smith

Carolina Distinguished Professor

Department of History

University of South Carolina, USA



Presented at the International Conference,

“Calendars of Nation-States:

Studies of Traditional Festivals and National Holidays,”

China Folklore Society and the Beijing Folklore Museum

February 14-15, 2005

Beijing, China






Abstract: This paper describes the evolution of uniform time in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It examines the motivation behind—and reaction to—the reform of the calendar in 1752 and the introduction of standard time zones in 1883.  It concludes by comparing the two events and offers deliberately tentative remarks on what the comparison might tell us about a broadly construed “American” experience with time.



       Every year, most Americans change their clocks twice: they put their clocks back one hour in the autumn, forward one in the spring.  News sources dutifully remind the public of the impending shifts and notwithstanding the inevitable instances of oversleeping and a few missed connections the process works smoothly.  The efficiency of it all, the quick twiddling of watch hands, the clicking of digital clocks back or forward an hour is so embedded in American culture that many people remain only dimly aware why they “fall back” and “spring forward.”  Even fewer understand that that their annual reconfigurations of clock time are rooted in much earlier movements standardizing first the colonial American calendar in 1752 and then the nation’s time zones in 1883.  In other words, standard time generally—calendrical and clock—has such an assumed cultural authority in modern America that, to paraphrase Norbert Elias, its origins are rarely interrogated.[i]  I offer this paper as something of a reminder of those origins. 

       The paper investigates two moments in American history in an effort to understand more broadly the “American” experience with standard time, at least prior to the twentieth century.  The first moment occurred in the year 1752 when colonial North America adopted the Gregorian calendar; the second was in 1883 when standard time zones were instituted in the United States.  The paper considers the role played by the state in each episode, evaluates the importance of commerce and science in each instance, and examines the impact of standardized time on American temporal sensibilities generally.


1752: Calendar Reform in Colonial America

The Event

       By the mid-eighteenth century, there were two operational calendars in Europe separated by eleven days and each beginning the year on different days.  The Gregorian calendar, instituted by Papal Bull in 1581/2, corrected the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar and, by 1752, prevailed in many Catholic and a few Protestant European states.  Several Protestant countries, however, held out against converting to a Catholic calendar for religious reasons.  As a result, such countries—most notably Britain—not only began the year on a different day (March 25 rather than January 1) but operated on a calendar that was eleven days out of step with the Catholic one by the mid-eighteenth century.[ii]

       The British calendar was reformed by Parliament in 1751 with an “Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year; and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use.”  It applied to Great Britain and it colonies, North America included.  As Robert Poole explains in his astute examination of the reform in Britain: “Wednesday 2 September was followed by Thursday 14 September. The basic principle was that all events fixed to a particular date stayed on that date, while the calen­dar itself was pulled forward eleven days.” Financial transactions were sup­posed to run their full natural terms and the start of the civil year was changed from March 25 to January 1, thus ending the need to double date the year for the intervening days.[iii]


The Cause

       Commercial and scientific concerns led the British government to adopt the reform of the calendar.  In addition to the decline in anti-Catholicism that allowed for the political adoption of an ostensibly “Catholic,” Gregorian calendar, the rise in scientific rationalism, broadly construed, was an important force behind the reform in both Britain and the colonies.  The Reverend Hugh Jones of Maryland, for example, seven years before the actual reform penned a piece in the Gentleman’s Magazine calling for a thorough standardization of weights, measures, and times to counter an “absurd and unstable” calendar.  Others complained that the calendar was both practically and philosophically out of sync with the spirit of an age.  Astronomy, scientific observation, enlightened inquiry, even the scientific study of the human past, all were inconvenienced and muddled by the existence of two calendars, one of which (the Julian) was so inaccurate that not reforming it amounted to sentimentality trumping science and progress.[iv]

       Commercial concerns on both sides of the Atlantic were also important in generating support for the reform.  For years, merchants had to rely on both the Gregorian and the Julian calendar. Colonial merchants had to know which countries, even which individual ports, used which cal­endar. In 1670 they could read: “At Hamborough and Strasburgh in Germany they do write the same stile with us here in England, namely old stile; but in all other parts beyond the Seas (except New England, Barbadoes, and where our English plantations are) they do generally write new stile.” The source of this wisdom is John Marius’s seventeenth-century treatise, Advice Concerning Bills of Exchange, which continued to be reissued until 1794. Anglo-American merchants made good use of this handy guide, which contained information on when bills of exchange fell due in old and new style. Malachy Postlethwayt thought the question of calendars and their relevance to mer­chants sufficiently important to include in the 1774 edition of his Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. He also reminded English and American merchants, now that their calendar was reformed, that they had to remain vigi­lant in their dealings with countries that were still on the old style. “All mer­chants, bankers, and traders,” he advised, “who deal with such Protestants as have not yet admitted the new calendar, ought to be acquainted with that dif­ference, because of the days on which their bills of exchange become due.”[v]

       Pre-calendar-reform America, then, was very much in tune with the new style, not least because it was the one used by maritime interests throughout the colonial period. Transatlantic sailors relied on calendars and almanacs that contained both styles of dating, and transatlantic mer­chants were familiar with both styles primarily because their international dealings mandated their competency with both systems.  But familiarity didn’t mean convenience.  Not only might missing payments by more than the three days’ customary grace mean money lost on interest and attendant penalties but the “punctual paying [of] Bills, and thereby maintaining Credit” was essential for merchants’ reputations. “Nothing,” commented Daniel Defoe in his Complete English Tradesman (1726), “can be of more moment to a Tradesman, than to pay [a bill] always punctually and honourably.” Unsurprisingly, then, some of the earliest calls for reform of the English calendar touted the commercial advantage. Switching to new style, it was argued in 1656, will “much facilitate commerce with Forren Nations, and cut off the duple dif­ference of Stilo veteri & novo, which makes much confusion in letters, accompts, and transactions among Merchants.” American merchants agreed. The innovation, it was maintained, “will be of great convenience to merchants, &c. corresponding with other nations, who have gener­ally received this correction of the calendar, (commonly called New Stile) and tend to prevent disputes about the dates of letters, accounts, &c.” In retrospect, the “new stile” was “doubtless the justest” despite its papal ori­gins. “Our grand concern,” observed English historian Adam Anderson in 1801, “in a mercantile sense, was to reduce our stile to uniformity with the rest of Europe; the difference of days frequently occasioning errors and mistakes in business.”[vi]

       Given these imperatives, colonial merchants responded to the 1752 recalibration with ease and relief.  Merchants throughout colonial North America welcomed the reform. The dual calendar had been an inconvenience for them and the evidence suggests that they were anxious to be “freed from the confusion” of what a Boston newspaper described at the time of the reform as the “absurd” dual calendar. Merchants, the Virginia Gazette reported in 1751, were keen to adopt an international calendar that would be “agreeable to that of other Nations.”[vii]  The new calendar, in short, rendered transatlantic trade more stable, predictable, and efficient.


The Effect

       According to Robert Poole, the English response to the calendar shift had an ideological aspect.  It was the gentry, the reformers of the calendar, Poole argues, who injected ideology to the debate because in their response to the war with revolutionary France and its deci­mal ‘calendar of reason,’ the English aristocracy nostalgically resurrected old style Julian festivals at the end of the eighteenth century.[viii]  By contrast, American colonists dealt with the reform rather more efficiently and reliably.  Certainly, ideology had less purchase in the American context than in the British one, thus suggesting that Daniel Boorstin’s characterization of colonial Americans as a particularly pragmatic people might not be without at least some foundation.[ix]  Colonial newspapers in all regions, for example, disseminated news of the impending shift effectively and widely, often reprinting the Act in full, and a variety of almanacs offered commentary on how, exactly, the Act would work.  Some colonial assemblies even used public money to disseminate news of the new public time. Connecticut, for example, paid “Mr. Timothy Green, printer, the sum of ninety-four pounds six shillings . . . for printing the act of Parliament for altering the stile and correcting the calendar, and finding paper, &c., for the same.”  As a result, the implementation of the new style was accompanied with little fanfare, problem, or frustration.[x] 

       The evidence here is tricky not least because ascertaining if people made the shift efficiently is to some extent contingent on whether or not they omitted (correctly), reference to September 3-13 in their dairies and other documents.  But we do know that colonists were critical of public sources that got it wrong. On September 14, 1752, John Draper, proprietor of the Boston News-Letter, pub­lished the following notice from Nathaniel Ames of Dedham, Massachusetts: “As the New-Stile commences to-Morrow, and my Almanack 1752, is not con­formable thereto, and mention is made in the last Monday’s Evening Post of my being wrong; I beg leave to make the following Apology, and desire you would make the same Publick by inserting it in your paper on that Day, being the I4th Day of September 1752, N. S.” Ames explained: “Now, as my Almanack goes on in the common Way, and does not conform to [the Act], I was in hopes my Readers would have been sat­isfy’d with what I offer’d them in said Almanack, Namely That when the Copy was sent to the Press, I had no certain Account of the said Act of Parliament:—It would have been a great Error in me indeed to have left out the Eleven Days of the common Calendar at any other Time than exactly where the said Act of Parliament had ordered . . . and it was not possible for me to conform to a Law that I had never seen, and so could not under­stand.”[xi]

       Such oversights were unusual.  Not only did most people understand and abide by the provisions of the Act but American colonists were quite sensitive to oversights contained in the original Act’s provisions. Because the British Parliament was appar­ently ignorant of the timing of colonial North American law courts, assemblies had to be vigi­lant to the change. In the May session of 1752, the Massachusetts Assembly, realizing that court times in Worcester and Hampshire Counties were sched­uled to be held during the deleted eleven days, altered the times in advance: “Whereas by Reason of there being but nineteen Days in the Month of September next, the Superior Court of Judicature Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery, cannot this Year be held in and for the County of Hampshire, at the Time by Law appointed for holding the same, nor can the said Court this Year be holden in and for the County of Worcester at the Time by Law appointed for holding the same.”[xii]

       If colonial Americans accommodated the reform with apparent ease, they also distinguished themselves from the British elite by not holding onto old style festivals after the calendar had been reformed.  Few people in colonial America clung to old-style, Julian festivals or dates.  Yes, a few individuals continued to celebrate their birthdays according to the old style—most notably George Washington and John Adams—and a few people celebrated Christmas old style in Virginia in the 1770s.  But even in these instances, they also observed Christmas Day new style—December 25—and it seems that the celebration of birthdays on old style days did not preclude a recognition that the same day also had its new style equivalent.  John Adams certainly noted both days and seems to have regarded his old-style birthday as a sort of sentimental attachment.  Either way, old-style dating was doomed to evaporate.  As the generation born before 1752 began to die, there would be no one left who had been born on an old-style day.  Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that Washington, Adams, or anyone else who simply noted their old style birthdays stuck to the old, Julian calendar for organizing other aspects of their lives or that they began the year on March 25 instead of January 1.  By the end of the eighteenth century, and probably well before, the 1752 reform of the calendar had become so entrenched that few people remembered, let alone used, the old style calendar.[xiii] In short, there was no significant ideological, religious, or political objection to—or legacy from—the reform of the calendar in colonial America.

       Why did colonial Americans accommodate the change with less ideological protest than their English counterparts?  Commercial and scientific factors on both sides of the Atlantic, as we have seen, were important in pushing the Crown to reform the calendar.  In this sense, both American and British merchants and fans of Enlightenment rationalism benefited from the reform and were probably equally accommodating to it.  What made colonists in North America unusually pragmatic in accommodating the reform was a preexisting cultural diversity that meant than colonial Americans had a temporal competency and calendrical fluency long before the official reform of the calendar.  In other words, the peculiar immigrant make-up of colonial America was important in shaping reaction to the reform of the calendar.  Perhaps as many as one-fifth of colonial Americans in 1752 was already using the Gregorian system and had been doing so for years, long before the 1752 Act of Parliament came into effect.  Because colonial North America was home to immigrants from countries where the Gregorian calendar had already been adopted, certain constituencies used the British, Julian calendar and the Gregorian system prior to the 1752 reform.  Recall that France, Portugal, Spain and parts of the Netherlands, for example, had adopted the Gregorian system at the outset, in 1582; various German states—Protestant as well as Catholic—adopted the Gregorian calendar between 1584 and 1699.  Thus, immigrants from these and other “Gregorian” regions celebrated various cultural and religious festivals and events (such as Christmas) according to a Gregorian calendar even as they used the Julian one in their dealings with British authorities.[xiv]

       Although there was a regional dynamic to this practice—the middle colonies were home to a wider mix of Europeans than, say, were the New England colonies—the pattern of cultural retention of Gregorian time and simultaneous use of the Julian system in official business prevailed everywhere.  Dutch settlers in Virginia, for example, recorded the birth of their children by Gregorian style prior to the reform and Moravian travelers throughout colonial America seemed to have used Gregorian style dating in their own communities and only employed the Julian calendar when dealing with British officials or groups of old-style Protestants.  Even slaves who had been exposed to the Catholic teachings of the Portuguese in the Kongo in the fifteenth century arrived in the southern colonies with their Catholic, Gregorian calendar intact.  Evidence suggests that a group of Kongolese-born slaves at Stono, South Carolina initiated the largest servile revolt in colonial American history according to their memories of their Catholic, Gregorian calendar.  They revolted on September 8, 1739, Mary’s nativity, new style.[xv]

       A good illustration of this temporal fluency can be found in the activities of the Salzburgers who left Augsburg in 1733 using the new style, abandoned it in favor of the Julian calendar en route in London,  and kept it once they arrived in Julian-style Georgia.  Even as the German settlers formally abandoned the improved system, they periodically reverted to it, especially when writ­ing to friends and religious authorities in Halle. Johann Martin Boltzius, for example, wrote to Gotthilf August Francke, the Salzburgers’ spiritual leader, from Dover, England, on December 19, 1733, new style, at the same time he began to employ Julian dating. When in Georgia, Boltzius and Israel Christian Gronau were careful to narrate their experiences to colleagues in Halle by indicating which style they were using in their letters. From Ebenezer, “Mr. Zwifler, the Apothecary,” wrote to friends in Augsburg on “the 14th of May (new style), 1734.” Salzburger settlers did not forget their Gregorian calen­dar and used both old and new style depending on constituency. The new calendar was simply too braided with their religious identity and cultural memory to abandon wholly. As Boltzius and Gronau wrote from England, en route to Georgia: “We remembered that Christmas was being celebrated in Germany at this time, which moved us to heartfelt prayer.”[xvi]

       On the whole, then, the reform of the calendar in colonial America suggests the importance of scientific and commercial forces behind the 1752 Act and the relevance of calendrical time to cultural identity.  Moreover, many colonial Americans had a temporal competency that was actually in advance of the British state in 1752 because they were already using the “new” style in an “old” style context.  The peculiar and particular cultural makeup of colonial America ensured that the colonial experience with calendar reform less contested than the British one.  In other words, cultural heterogeneity in colonial America gave rise to a temporal competence and pragmatism largely missing from the more ideological charged British experience.  And the irony here is obvious: although the reform of the calendar did not cause Americans to revolt against Britain, it did allow for them to help form an imagined community by using common dates and to coordinate reliably during the Revolutionary War.[xvii]


1883: From Days to Hours

The Event

       One hundred and thirty one years after the reform of the calendar, Americans made another, incremental move towards uniform time. On November 18, 1883 American cities, towns, and villages abandoned forty-nine local or sun-regulated times in favor of four scientific, clock-defined time zones. The telegraph, not the sun, now communicated time to a temporally unified nation.  This “day of two noons” was also the day of one nation. By the end of 1883, there was no longer any such thing as local or regional time.  In both a literal and figurative sense, the longitudinal time zones now bracing the nation had replaced the sectional, political, latitudinal lines that had served to separate the country during a previous generation.


The Cause

       Although historians disagree on who exactly was responsible for the intro­duction of standard time, it is clear that both the scientific community and railroad interests had long considered the need for a system of uniform and standard time in their vast and sprawling country. As early as 1809, amateur astronomer William Lambert recommended to Congress the establishment of time meridians in the United States but got nowhere not least because the immediate benefit of such ordered time wasn’t immediately obvious in a country that had yet to experience much of an industrial or, indeed, market revolution.  As Carlene Stephens has rightly observed, “Local time was sufficient when people and goods traveled slowly, infrequently, and over short distances.”[xviii]

       The coming of the railroads in the 1830s changed this.  Railroads and, later, telegraphs, had the effect of reducing American space and, in the process, highlighting the temporal variations between communities.  The idea of a standard, albeit localized, time was considered as early as 1834 by the engineer of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company in an effort to carry mail with greater reliability and so avoid stiff financial penalties imposed by the Post Office for late deliveries.  As a result, the railroad placed six clocks at various depots along its 136-mile track in a bid to standardize running time and avoid the confusion of passing through lots of local “zones.”  By all accounts, the new system worked and the Charleston and Hamburg became increasingly punctual, reliable, and, importantly, profitable.[xix]

       Other railroad companies faced different problems but used similar solutions.  In New England, two spectacular train crashes in August, 1853, led to a heightened sensitivity to the need for train scheduling and efforts to establish local standard time. The crash on the Providence & Worcester Railroad on August 12, 1853, in which fourteen people died courtesy of the conductor’s faulty watch, led railroad officials to begin using precision timepieces at all their stations and issue a set of precise guidelines detailing “Standard Time” on the railroad.[xx] 

       In addition, as Ian Bartky has shown, “astron­omers, many of whose observatories provided time to the railroads,” via tele­graph signals, also “began to write about uniform time in the early 1870s.” The combined forces of the need for a uniform time system in the fields of geo­physics, surveying, and, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, railroading, slowly pushed the United States toward the adop­tion of standard time in 1883.  Following Charles F. Dowd’s lead, in the 1870s at least four North American scientific societies began discussing the desirability of standard time zones.  The American Metrological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Canadian Institute all formed committees on standard time and disseminated information on the matter to the general public. At first, railroads were not especially welcoming of the move. They considered the scientists impractical, outsiders, and idealistic and thought that people simply wouldn’t embrace standard time zones because most of them were not long distance travelers.  But, gradually, the scientists won the day.  Yale University astronomer Leonard Waldo managed to convince the state of Connecticut to abolish the five different railroad times in his state on the grounds of economic efficiency, scientific reasoning, and pubic safety.  Within the federal government, Cleveland Abbe of the U.S Weather Bureau pushed for—and won—the hosting of an international conference on standard time and in 1884 that meeting took place in Washington, D.C.[xxi]

       Standard Time in the U.S. was, then, inspired by science and commerce.  In many ways, the man responsible for drafting the specifics of Standard Time embodied both interests.  William F. Allen had been a railway engineer in New Jersey and was later instrumental in constructing various railroad timetables.  Allen spoke at the General Time Convention in St. Louis in April, 1883, urged the adoption of Standard Time, and inaugurated a public relations campaign, one supported by most railroads, businesses, and scientists, to effect new time zones.  It worked and on November 18, 1883, Allen’s time zones were established.  Drawing on several previous plans, Allen proposed a map dividing the country into four zones, each exactly fifteen degrees of longitude, or one hour, apart. This division ignored state geopolitical boundaries and the existing patchwork time divi­sions established by individual railroad companies. “Practicality,” as Michael O’Malley writes, “ruled the minds of railroaders, and they felt no sentimental or patriotic attachment to the time of one particular city . . . What they wanted most was a plan that altered existing division breaks, and the accustomed day to day operations of the roads, as little as possible.”  They got it.  From atop the Western Union Building in New York City, Allen observed the changeover with justified pride: “Standing on the roof of that building . . . I heard the bells of St. Paul’s strike on the old time. Four minutes later, obedient to the electrical signal from the Naval Observatory . . . the time-ball made its rapid descent, the chimes of old Trinity rang twelve measured strokes, and local time was abandoned . . ..”[xxii]




The Effect

       The new standard time required railroads and, by implication, every­one who used the train, to advance or retard their clocks and watches so many minutes, according to the zone in which their locality lay. The zoning required people in New Orleans, Denver, and Philadelphia to do nothing. Those in New York City, however, had to stop their clocks four minutes; people in Washington, D.C. ad­vanced theirs eight minutes, while Chicagoans retarded theirs nine minutes. What amounted to a revolution in time was, for most people, a matter of adjusting clocks and watches a few minutes. Jewelers, train station and post office clocks, and public town clocks, once local, civic authorities had assented to the change, quickly adopted the new time and provided the source for people to set their watches to standard time.

       Even more than the reform of the calendar in 1752—which required state actualization and implementation of recommendations originating in part from commercial and scientific communities—the institution of stan­dard time in 1883 was a largely non-government-instigated reform. It was not until 1918 that the federal government began to legislate civil time. Indeed, the option for communities to adhere to local time continued until 1967, when federal legislation finally preempted all civil time statutes. “Even today,” as one historian has pointed out, “the United States’ civil-time system is not uniform: About 3 percent of the population lives in areas that do not observe daylight saving time.” Revealingly, Washington, D.C., was one of the last places legally to adopt, by an act of Congress, standard time. The capital’s attorney general, Benjamin Brewster, was unsure of the constitutionality of standard time in the District and so ordered government offices not to adopt the new time until Congress autho­rized them to do so. It did so in March 1884. In some instances, the state played catch-up to the market in the standardization of time in the United States.[xxiii]

       State mandate or no, some people after 1883 (and throughout the twentieth century, in fact) clung to different times.  Following November 18, 1883, some clergymen, for example, argued that their local time was immune to molestation by private, Mammon-worshiping railroad interests because their time was God’s. Still others resisted the new time precisely be­cause they thought it was introduced by the railroads. As the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel put it three days after the introduction of the new time, “The sun is no longer to boss the job. People . . . must eat, sleep and work . . . by railroad time . ... People will have to marry by railroad time.” In an age distrustful of railroad conglomerates, railroad time lacked the legitimacy that local time and all its affiliations with God and nature bestowed.

       Yet such objections were the exception. Ministers in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago did not denounce the new time and outside of Indiana, where distrust of the railroads was strong, few public complaints against the new “railroad time” were made.  Nor did opposition to the new time devolve on a rural-urban or a North-South axis. While the very largest cities like Chicago and New York made the transition to standardized clock time smoothly, there was considerable re­sistance to the abandonment of sidereal time in such urban centers as Boston, especially from the working poor. Some citizens in Bangor, Maine, Detroit, Michigan, and throughout Ohio also initially refused to accept the new time.  A similar ambivalence prevailed in the South. While the Atlanta Constitution applauded “the utter contempt into which the sun and moon have fallen,” thus allowing “progress into the future,” southern “country folks con­tinued to set their clocks by the sun” and insisted on sidereal time.[xxiv]

       Opposition to the new time had little to do with culture and more to do with convenience.  In fact, those who resisted did so using terms similar to those employed by commercial interests and scientists who had originally pushed for the new zones.  For example, resistance to standard time was strongest in those localities concentrated in the eastern regions of the two most eastern time zones where the shift disrupted civic and business schedules. Al­though Allen had predicted that the standardization of time would cause a variation between local and standard time of no more than thirty minutes, the new eastern zone’s standard time actually caused a discrepancy between the old, local time and the new national time ranging from thirty-two minutes on the zone’s eastern edge to thirty-eight minutes on its western. Similarly, in the adjacent central time zone, the discrepancy between standard and local time ranged between forty-five and sixty-six minutes. The net effect for people at the extreme of these zones was a perceived and real change, either a reduction or increase in the amount of sunlight.

       Places at the extremes resisted standard time and opted to use the zone most convenient for their locality. Augusta, Georgia, which lay on the border of two zones, for example, did not adopt eastern time until 1888. Cincinnati, on the central time zone border, refused to put the city clocks back twenty-two minutes, as did Dayton, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and several other states and cities located along the zones’ borders. Between 1883 and 1915 standard time came to trial before the supreme courts of various states at least fifteen times. Supreme courts in Nebraska (1890) and Kentucky (1905) and the Texas Circuit Court in 1895 all ruled that although the uniform time had been adopted in many places, local time still ruled legally.[xxv]

       And yet in the majority of places—locations that had to adjust their times by only a few minutes, those not on the borders of time zones—there was ready acceptance of the zones. The newspapers in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, explained in sober and practical terms the reasons for the change and the impact it would have.  Even in small towns where the adjustment was quite significant, the perceived need for standardization seems to have won people over. Rugby’s Plateau Gazette and East Tennessee News simply informed its readers: “Last Sunday the time on all the railroads were [sic] changed to the new ‘Standard Time,’ which will make our time 22 minutes slower.” The relatively substantial loss elicited little comment. And Louisville’s Courier-Journal similarly argued that “the adoption of the new railway standard in this country can be accomplished without much difficulty by all communities; otherwise there will be misunderstanding about local and standard time which will continue to befog travellers.”  Or, as one small South Carolina newspaper editor put it: “The Change is a good thing and will be a great convenience to the travelling public.”  On the whole, the changeover went smoothly with little opposition.[xxvi]



       Comparison of historical events removed in time by a hundred and thirty odd years is fraught with danger and the temptation to see genuine similarity where there is only accidental, happy coincidence is great.  A careful evaluation, though, suggests quite clearly that the two episodes in the evolution of standard time in American history share some fundamental similarities.

       Both the 1752 reform and the 1883 zoning were inspired by similar constituencies.  In both instances the scientific community lobbied for a rationalized time system and expressed concern and contempt for prevailing, multiple, confusing temporal systems.  Commercial interests also played an important role on both occasions in lobbying for the reform and for similar reasons: unreformed calendars and time systems created uncertainty, courted mistakes, and generally proved aggravating for merchants and businesses anxious to both protect a bottom line and streamline operations. 

       In both 1752 and 1883 the state played a limited and modest role in initiating temporal reform.  Plainly, the British Parliament was important for debating the matter in 1752 and for passing the specific legislation.  But the deeper forces behind the reform were scientists, individuals interested in Enlightenment balance and perspective, and commercial interests, less so politicians.  In 1883, the role of the federal government was even less pronounced.  Again, the American state facilitated the implementation of standard time but long after the 1883 event (not until 1918) and its instigative role was relatively modest.

       I do not wish to minimize the extent and nature of disputes over time evident just after each reform, and, in fact, in the period after 1883.  Between 1752 and 1883, in fact, there were contests over time, its meaning, its value, and its religious and cultural worth throughout the United States, contests that helped educate Americans generally on the nature of time.  Because time was so tightly indexed to religious meaning, work, freedom, patriotism, and character, debates over time were virtually inevitable.  The Revolution, for example, had created a citizenry whose virtue was gauged by punctuality, especially in business.  In the antebellum North, industrialization helped sharpen a preexisting, if vague, commitment to clock time and by the 1830s, factories were regulated by clock time.  Initially, managers aimed simply to make workers obedient to the factory’s time which was communicated aurally through the use of clock-regulated bells and whistles.  But workers recognized that managers manipulated work time by altering the hands of the factory clock.  Bosses, workers realized, “start up the mills several minutes, sometimes seven, eight, nine, or ten minutes, before the time for commencing work,” thereby stealing both their time and labor.  Factory operatives, therefore, bought ever less expensive watches for themselves in an attempt to combat managers’ definitions of when work really began and ended.  The debate over true time was very much to do with not only who owned time but who defined it, and managers and workers both appealed to the apparent objectivity of the mechanical timepiece to stake their claims.[xxvii] 

       Then there was the vigorous debate about the meaning and worth of Sunday.  A variety of Protestant churches in the antebellum period lobbied hard for social fidelity to the fourth commandment: “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.”  These “Sabbatarians” worked to keep Sunday pure because they saw commercial forces making in-roads on the sanctity of God’s time on the Sabbath.  Their determination to keep Sunday as a day of rest—to protect God’s time from commercial time—took various forms.  Sabbatarians tried to prevent the opening of post offices, libraries, museums, and theatres on Sundays; attempted to prevent railroads and steamboats from running; and argued against the sale of newspapers on God’s day.  To this day, something of the Sabbatarian impulse lingers in the form of various blue laws, especially in the American South, which prohibit the sale of alcohol.[xxviii]

       Neither were contests over time unknown in the twentieth century.  Daylight saving time, for example, has its origins in World War I when business interests argued that an extra hour of sun light would not only increase American industrial efficiency but would allow citizens extra time to pursue leisure interests.  Some balked at the proposal, notably farmers, who benefited from more light in the morning.  But the industrialists won the day not least because getting people to work earlier appealed to the patriotic need for increased efficiency during the War.  “If I have more Daylight I can work longer for my country,” maintained reformers. Perhaps inevitably, some people still refuse to abide by standard or clock time.  Although daylight saving time has been federal law since 1918, parts of Arizona and Indiana still refuse to adopt it.  Some religions eschew mechanical time by praying at sunrise, noon, and sunset.  And for those who remain peripheral to America’s market economy, such as the homeless, clock time has only fleeting relevance to their lives.

       But too much is sometimes made of these “hold outs,” the people who refuse to accept temporal reforms or who operate according to times supposedly erased.  I suspect we exaggerate either the numbers who “resist” in this way and I think we are sometimes prone to exaggerate the political significance and meaning of such resistance. Even though time is still contested and contingent, as it always has been, most people accept the clock, national calendars, and time zones sometimes as a necessary evil, often as a positive good.  Moreover, the debates themselves over the meaning and nature of time that took place between 1752 and 1883 likely helped sharpen popular appreciation of time and temporal orders and made the 1883 reconfiguration understandable and relatively trouble-free.  Indeed, even those who resist daylight saving time or other forms of standard time often do so because the mandated temporal system simply isn’t as efficient or as convenient—as socially or economically functional—as their alternative time system. 

       On the whole, a standard calendar and standard time work because similar commercial and scientific imperatives that gave rise to the temporal reform in the first place still have enormous currency in the United States.  Moreover, people have proven adaptable when accommodating to standard time generally.  Neither 1752 nor 1883 profoundly challenged the basic meaning people attached to their affective, cultural times not least because the temporal and cultural plurality of the American experience meant that people had been used to existing in multiple times while also recognizing the functional importance and desirability of a single calendar or standard time system.  The American experience with multiple temporal regimens allowed for the adoption of new standardized times and the quiet retention of other, additional cultural time-systems.  This does not mean to say that all Americans always willingly surrendered cultural temporal systems in the face of the introduction of standard time systems.  But the American experience—if we might talk so broadly—does suggest that a pragmatic sensibility leads to relatively ready acceptance of standardized time and that standard time itself is a basic component of the cultural understanding of time in the United States.  Americans have proven adept at retaining cultural times important to their specific constituency, abandoning regimens that seem outdated, and embracing ones that serve commonsensical social and economic functions.  Perhaps this willingness to discriminate, adapt, and evolve is itself an avenue for better understanding the slippery, multiple, “American” national character.




[i] Norbert Elias, Time: An Essay, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), p.6.

[ii] See G. V. Coyne, M. A. Hoskin, and O. Pedersen, eds., Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate Its 400th Anniversary, 1582-1982 (Vatican City, 1983); Paul Alkon, “Changing the Calendar,” Eighteenth-Century Life, 7 (1981-82), pp.1-18.

[iii] Robert Poole, “‘Give Us Our Eleven Days!’: Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England,” Past and Present, 149 (1995), pp.95-139.

[iv] See, for example, Gentleman’s Magazine, 15 (1745), pp.377-79; Urbanus Sylvan, Gentleman’s Magazine, 5, (1735).  See also John Davenport Neville, “Hugh Jones and his Universal Gregorian Calendar,” Virginia Cavalcade, 26 (1977), pp. 134-143; David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp.146-164.

[v] Mark M. Smith, “Culture, Commerce, and Calendar Reform,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., LV (October 1998), p.577.

[vi] Ibid., pp.577-578.

[vii] Ibid., pp.578-580.

[viii] Poole, “Give Us Our Eleven Days,” pp.131-137.

[ix] See, for example, Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York, 1958).

[x] Smith, “Culture, Commerce, and Calendar Reform,” pp.561-562.

[xi] Ibid., p.562; Boston News-Letter, September 14, 1752.

[xii] William Sumner Jenkins, ed., Records of the States of the United States of American; a Microfilm Compilation (Washington, D.C., 1949), Mass., B 2b, reel 2, 1742-1774, session laws, May sess., 1752, page 369.

[xiii] Generally, see Smith, “Culture, Commerce, and Calendar Reform,” p.566, and for exceptions, see p. 567.  To this day, some federal agencies use a remnant of the Julian calendar to begin their financial year.  Plainly, though, they operate principally on the Gregorian calendar.

[xiv] Ibid., p.571.

[xv] Ibid., p.574; Mark M. Smith, “Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion,” Journal of Southern History LXVII (August 2001), pp. 513-34

[xvi] Smith, “Culture, Commerce, and Calendar Reform,” p.575.

[xvii] Ibid., pp.582-584.

[xviii] Carlene Stephens, On Time: How America Has Learned to Live by the Clock (Boston, 2002), p.102.  Generally, see Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (New York, 1990).

[xix] See Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the America South (Chapel Hill, 1997), p.83.

[xx] Stephens, On Time, pp. 100-101; Carlene E. Stephens, “The Most Reliable Time: William Bond, the New England Railroads, and Time Awareness in 19th-Century America,” Technology and Culture 30 (January 1989), pp. 16-21.

[xxi] Ian R. Bartky, The Adoption of Standard Time,” Technology and Culture, 30 (January 1990), pp.25-56; Ian R. Bartky, Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America (Stanford, 2000).

[xxii] O’Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 111; Bartky, “Adoption of Standard Time,” p.49.  Allen’s time zones were replaced in 1918, courtesy of the federal government.  Although the federal zones—the same ones used today—were different they were indebted to Allen’s work.

[xxiii] Bartky, “Adoption of Standard Time,” p. 26.

[xxiv] Smith, Mastered by the Clock, pp.178-183.

[xxv] O’Malley, Keeping Watch, pp.135, 139.

[xxvi] Smith, Mastered by the Clock, pp. 182-184.

[xxvii] See, for example, David S. Roediger, “Time, Republicanism, and Merchant Capitalism: Consciousness of Hours before 1830,” in David Roediger and Philip S. Foner, eds., Our Own Time: A History of Hours before 1830 (London, 1989), pp.1-19; David Brody, “Time and Work during Early American Industrialization,” Labor History, 30 (winter 19189), pp.5-46; Paul B. Hensley, “Time, Work, and Social Context in New England,” New England Quarterly, 65 (December 1992), pp.531-559; Smith, Mastered by the Clock.

[xxviii] For a full discussion of this important topic, see Alexis McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca, 2000).




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