Hating Daylight Saving

Feeling slightly groggy and disoriented this morning? Thank daylight saving, the pet project of A. Lincoln Filene.

Daylight Saving was first tried in the US during WWI. It was adopted nationally for one year, in 1918, and then repealed. From 1919 till 1966 Daylight saving was observed by “local adoption.” In 1966, it made federal law. The times when Daylight Saving begins have been moved more than once. Most recently, in 2005 the dates of daylight saving were shifted to the second Sunday of March and the first Sunday of November

It’s always been paraded around as a measure to save energy, but it’s always been nothing more than an effort to benefit some industries by rigging the clock in their favor.

Before the Civil War, American businesses–factories, railroads, steamship lines, schools of all sorts–changed their hours of operation to suit the available daylight. The well-known timetable of the Lowell Mills, below, shows this clearly.


As the hours of daylight changed, businesses and life itself shifted to fit them

Standard time zones, introduced in 1883 changed this equation. Now the time of day might have little to do with the local sun. A person on the eastern or western edge of a time zone, for example, might find that noon by the clock differed by up to an hour from noon by the sun.

“We are creatures of the clock,” reasoned Detroit’s “More Daylight Club” in 1907; “our habits are governed by it to an even larger degree than we suspect.” The founders of the “More Daylight Club,” Dr. George Renaud and C. M. Hayes, saw that no matter what zone Detroit chose, the clock, not the sun, governed life—schoolchildren woke up when the clock said seven, not when sunlight kissed their rosy cheeks. “We get up in the morning, we go to bed at night, we go to work and quit, and we eat, when the clock says to,” they asserted.

Detroit’s early risers drew on the singular obsession of William Willett, a prosperous English builder. Like many fans of daylight saving, Willett loved golf, and regretted the early sunsets that robbed Englishmen of healthful exercise outdoors. In 1907 he wrote a pamphlet, “The Waste of Daylight,” which proposed setting all British clocks ahead two hours each summer. Willett sent copies to members of Parliament, businessmen, “Physical Culture Organizations” and foreign governments including the United States Congress. In Detroit and Cleveland, Willett’s idea strengthened the movement toward eastern time. The More Daylight Club’s constant agitation brought Detroit to a vote on the issue by 1911, and enthusiasm for the plan spread southward. Cleveland adopted eastern time on May 1, 1914, and a year later Detroit, following a similar protracted battle, set its clocks to “fast time.” 

By 1918, Daylight Saving had become a national movement, thanks to the lobbying of A. Lincoln Filene, head of Filene’s Department Stores, the “National Daylight Saving Association,” a lobbying group he helped form. After six months of extensive lobbying in New York and Washington, the National Daylight Saving Association held its first meeting in New York City on January 30, 1917. Over one thousand eager National Daylight Saving Conventioneers converged on the city for two days, “wearing lapel buttons bearing a picture of Uncle Sam turning the clock forward one hour.” Speakers on the virtues of more daylight included John Tener, President of the National Baseball League, who spoke on “why fans favor the movement,” and the president of the National Lawn Tennis Association.

More important, the US officially entered WWI in April of 1917.  Daylight Saving was now cynically pitched as a way to save fuel for the war effort, and to encourage patriotic Americans to go out and start “Victory Gardens.”

For example, President Ban Johnson of the American Baseball League spoke enthusiastically about beginning ball games an hour later under daylight saving. Previously (before artificial lights), games started at 3:30, leaving many office workers no time to get to the ballpark. Under the new time sunsets came a hour later. Beginning games at 4:30 gave fans more time to get to their seats, raising attendance and profits. Here seemed a perfect example of the charms of saving daylight, especially for the wallets of baseball leagues and team owners.

“Slackers,” declared Charles Lathrop Pack of the War Garden Commission—“Slackers of the worst type is the brand placed upon baseball team owners or managers who plan to move down the scheduled times of starting games.” President Wilson, Pack recalled, had named food production for the war effort a top priority, and to waste the increased daylight at the ballpark “violated the spirit of the law.” Changing the starting times “will take thousand of hours of time from gardens,” and the daylight saving law, Pack preached, “was not intended to give extra hours of recreation.” “I hope,” he added, this is not the attitude of those in control of the greatest of national games.” In the climate of war, such appeals touched a weak spot in the nation’s psyche.

Despite its official-sounding name, the “War Garden Commission” was in fact a lobbying organization for the makers of garden products—tools, seeds, fertilizers, canning and preserving equipment, including jars, cans and rubber ring seals—who stood to gain dramatically from any increase in wartime gardening. Pack issued pamphlets and newspaper advertisements insisting that “the preservation of vegetables and fruits…is a patriotic duty and a national war time need.” Accompanying the message of conservation came a list of manufacturers of garden products. Masking itself as a government agency, Pack’s organization used daylight saving to raise sales, and used patriotism to head off the competition. In this case, one recreational business—baseball—lost out to another—the makers of gardening and canning equipment.

Daylight saving was repealed in 1919, after a wide range of objections. Popular opinion tended to blame the repeal of daylight saving on farmers, as in the cartoon below. But in fact objections to daylight saving came mostly from places on the borders of a time zone. The boundaries between standard time zones had been set to fall in rural areas as much as possible. A farm located at the extreme edge of a zone—like much of rural Ohio, for example—was already half an hour or more ahead of the “real” time of the sun, unless it ignored standard time.

Daylight saving put some places nearly two hours ahead of the solar time—in some Ohio communities, the clocks showed “noon” at what had been one forty five or even two in the afternoon by the sun. These disadvantages combined to present farmers and their families with a considerable hardship, or at the very least with substantial and genuine reasons for wanting the bill repealed. 

From the Literary Digest, Feb. 1, 1919 p. 24

But in their arguments against the bill, rural Congressmen blamed it for the manifest ills of the age. It embodied the trend away from real production and towards idle consumption: the bill “is a pet of the professional class, the semileisure class, the man of the golf club and the amateur gardener, the sojourner at the suburban summer resort,” charged a Minnesota representative, “who can all close their desks an hour earlier and hie them to an extra hour of play.” As a thoroughly nonproductive, silly game played on the coiffed and manicured surface of perfectly good land, golf symbolized the utter decadence that underlay the daylight saving movement. By their honest sweat the farmers wrested the world’s sustenance and ease from stubborn ground; instead of asking more sacrifice from the farmer, or laughing at his ignorance, rural politicians claimed, “you should rise up in your refinement and call him blessed.”

One of daylight saving’s most outspoken opponents, Representative Edward King of Illinois, saw daylight saving as the impractical child of the professional reformer and the University dreamer. During the war, King insisted, the farmer supported all sorts of boneheaded “scientific” measures for “‘economy,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘coordination’” in good faith, even to the outrage of common sense. But now King lambasted “the impractical, the Utopians, the theorists, political astrologers, medicine men, and advance agents of the millennium” who he insisted constituted daylight saving’s main support.

“Now that the whole world has been made safe for democracy,” remarked a member from Illinois sarcastically, “perhaps it is appropriate that the President should insist that every day in this country be made safe for the joy rider and for the patron of the golf links and tennis courts.”

Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama spoke for many when he insisted that “time has been fixed for ages by the movement of the sun.” Now that the war is over, he asked, “let us stand by the custom that generation after generation has adopted.” Daylight saving interferes, added an Iowan, “with the natural order of things as regulated by the rising and setting of the sun.” Representative Ezekiel Candler of Mississippi angrily insisted that “the rising of the sun and the going down thereof fixes the time.” “God’s time is true,” Candler rang out; “man made time is false.” “Let us repeal this law and have the clocks proclaim God’s time and tell the truth,” he thundered to his colleagues’ applause. “Truth is always best. It is mighty and should always prevail.”

Daylight Saving, then and now, is a measure designed to benefit certain businesses. Today it’s the makers of softball gear, charcoal briquettes and mosquito repellant who most love daylight saving and seek to extend its period. There’s no reason at all why we could not simply shift the hours of work to reflect available daylight, as our ancestors did. I like the proposal of Representative Otis Wingo of Arkansas, who in 1918 suggested “that Congress provide for a winter thermometer and fix the freezing point at 45° Fahrenheit.” Placed in American homes, Wingo continued, the thermometers would read thirteen degrees higher than the actual temperature, and so “they could look at the thermometers and be fooled, and in that way save fuel next winter.”


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