The cows can’t get used to it and the milk trains won’t wait (the history of Daylight Saving Time)

DST_1918PosterToday most of America simply moves their clocks up one hour in March and sets them back one hour in November (or in this day and age, your digital devices reset it for you).  Thereafter, there are few, if any, references to Standard or Daylight Saving Time.  However, back in the early twentieth century it was a HUGE deal and not without controversy.  In many ways it was city dwellers vs. rural America.

In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin wrote an amusing tongue-in-cheek essay, entitled “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light.”  In the essay he essentially proposed that instead of using candles or oil lamps for light in the mornings that natural sunlight be used instead.   Franklin, on the night previous, had seen a demonstration of an oil lamp and he began to think in terms of economy and thrift.  Was the price of the oil to fuel the lamp worth the cost?

When he posed the question to his hosts at the demonstration of the oil lamp, he apparently gave them something to ponder:

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

After the meeting, he retired to his apartment and bedded down at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.  A noise awakened him about 6:00 in the morning and he was surprised to see the room filled with light.  At first he thought that perhaps several of the lamps he had seen demonstrated the night before had been brought in.  However, upon rubbing his eyes he realized the light was coming through the windows.  In somewhat disbelief, he arose to look out the window and realized that the domestic help had forgotten to close the shutters.

He looked at his watch, knowing that it worked very well, and found that it was still an early hour, only 6:00 a.m.  He checked the almanac because he thought it “extraordinary” that the sun rose that early.  In fact, he discovered that the sun rose earlier each day until close to the end of June.

Franklin continued his “experiment” for the next three mornings with the same result.   Once he begins to share his observation with others, he was met with puzzlement and skepticism:

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me. One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstance of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness; and he used many ingenious arguments to show me how I might, by that means, have been deceived. I owned that he puzzled me a little, but he did not satisfy me; and the subsequent observations I made, as above mentioned, confirmed me in my first opinion.

The essay is amusing and informative as Franklin continues to muse and reflect, even coming up with his own calculations and theories.  Click here to read it.

Franklin’s essay caused a bit of a stir at the time, but never was a serious consideration In the late nineteenth century when New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson proposed a two-hour leap forward in October and two hours back in March.  William Willett of England suggested in 1905 that clocks be set ahead twenty minutes on each of the four Sundays in April and turn them back twenty minutes each of the four Sundays in September (that’s eight time changes in one year!).

The House of Commons debated a bill in February of 1908, drafted the Daylight Saving Bill in 1909, and presented it to Parliament several times.  The bill was especially opposed by farmers and that particular bill was never made into a law.  Seven years later Germany would become the first country to adopt DST – on April 30, 1916 at 11:00 p.m. the clocks were advanced forward one hour.

The law was seen as a fuel-saving necessity during World War I.  Britain and other countries soon followed and eventually the United States after joining the Allies.  President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law in 1918 after industrialist Robert Garland, called the “father of Daylight Saving”, campaigned for its enactment.

Following World War I, some countries reverted back to Standard Time, but in the United States it was a point of contention.  Even after its repeal following World War I, big cities like New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, continued to utilize it until 1942 when Franklin Roosevelt instituted year-round DST or “War Time”.

On September 1, 1918, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle pronounced Daylight Saving a success, proven to be “so delightful and beneficial that it will no doubt be left as a permanent institution after the war is won.  All the dreadful prophesies made by the ultra conservatives who opposed it seem to have falling down badly.”

In 1918 Irish peasants in western Ireland dismissed the idea of daylight saving time – in fact they had three kinds of time.  “Old Time” was regulated by the sun and was forty minutes behind Greenwich Time.  “God’s Time” was Greenwich Time and daylight saving time, “utterly ignored by the peasant but observed by the railroads.”

When DST was in effect, special emphasis was placed on mentioning “Daylight Saving Time” when referring to events and railway schedules:

The_Winnipeg_Tribune_Thu__Apr_3__1919_Connecticut was another place where the debate continued.  On July 9, 1923, the Greenfield, Connecticut Daily Reporter reported:

The Legislature of Connecticut having imposed a fine of $100 on anyone caught using daylight saving time the rebellious citizens of Stonington purchased the town clock by subscription and stopped it and tied its hands together with crepe.  Such is the “contempt for law” (fool law) in a section once boasting of itself as the land of steady habits.

Farmers and dairymen would begin protesting the time-shift forward before the spring deadline.  For them it was a matter of “cows can’t get used to the new time, and the milk trains won’t wait.”  Parents of young children had a beef as well (Kansas City Sun, 18 May 1918):

The_Kansas_City_Sun_Sat__May_18__1918_After Pearl Harbor was bombed, Roosevelt and Congress made the change on February 9, 1942 to three time zones: “Eastern War Time”, “Central War Time” and “Pacific War Time”.  When Japan surrendered in August of 1945 the zones were renamed “Peace Time.”  More confusion ensued, however, since thereafter it was up to state and local governments to decide whether to observe DST.  Train and bus schedules, as well as the up-and-coming broadcasting industry, were adversely impacted.

Congress finally passed a law called the Uniform Time Act of 1966 stating that DST would begin on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October.  However, state and local governments still had the option to pass a local ordinance.  Today, for example, the state of Arizona does not utilize Daylight Savings Time – but the Navajo Nation does (the Hopi Nation, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, doesn’t observe DST either).

Indiana is another state where DST was hotly debated for years.  Parts of the state utilized it and others did not.  Finally, in 2005 a law was passed implementing DST statewide beginning on April 2, 2006.

After the 1973 oil embargo, Congress extended DST to eight months vs. six.  The United States Department of Transportation had observed that extended it saved several thousand barrels of oil each day.  Beginning in 2007 the clocks were set to move forward on the second Sunday of March and fall back on the first Sunday of November, in theory saving even more oil.

Over the years there have been some unintended consequences, I guess you might say.  A few anecdotes (from

  • A man, born just after 12:00 a.m. DST, circumvented the Vietnam War draft by using a daylight saving time loophole. When drafted, he argued that standard time, not DST, was the official time for recording births in his state of Delaware in the year of his birth. Thus, under official standard time he was actually born on the previous day–and that day had a much higher draft lottery number, allowing him to avoid the draft.
  • In September 1999, the West Bank was on Daylight Saving Time while Israel had just switched back to standard time. West Bank terrorists prepared time bombs and smuggled them to their Israeli counterparts, who misunderstood the time on the bombs. As the bombs were being planted, they exploded–one hour too early–killing three terrorists instead of the intended victims–two busloads of people.
  • While twins born at 11:55 p.m. and 12:05 a.m. may have different birthdays, Daylight Saving Time can change birth order — on paper, anyway. During the time change in the fall, one baby could be born at 1:55 a.m. and the sibling born ten minutes later, at 1:05 a.m. In the spring, there is a gap when no babies are born at all: from 2:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.
  • In November 2007, Laura Cirioli of North Carolina gave birth to Peter at 1:32 a.m. and, 34 minutes later, to Allison. However, because Daylight Saving Time reverted to Standard Time at 2:00 a.m., Allison was born at 1:06 a.m.
  • Amish communities in the United States and Canada are divided about whether or not to observe Daylight Saving Time. Although the Amish are generally known for leading simple lives without modern conveniences, practices vary from community to community.  Likewise, some Amish communities observe DST, while others do not.  In one county in Ohio, approximately 10 of the 90 Amish church districts opt out of DST (known as “fast time” or “English time,” preferring to observe what they term “slow time.”

Once we get our body rhythms adjusted we can enjoy the extra daylight, but it sure feels good to get back that extra hour in the fall.   For a night owl like me, it takes awhile to adjust and that first morning is not something I look forward to.  Maybe I should just roll over Sunday morning and declare myself Amish for the day. 😉

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2015.

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