Chicago lyrics aside, do you really understand time as a function of American History? You proably don’t… and you may not even really care. But time has not been a constant throughout our history and often quite confusing.
Begin with the notion of “being late” to something. In colonial America, being late wasn’t a thing. Time was local, not universal. If three communities in the same region all had clock towers, none of them might have the same time. There was no official time from the Naval Observatory. That doesn’t start until 1845 for greater Washington, DC and the official time keeping for nation starts in 1865. So time was a local matter, and if it was 9 am in your community, that it was 9:15 in the neighboring village mattered not. Who could travel fast enough (by horse) to get between the two communities to have those time differences matter?
So the concept of “you’re late” wasn’t a thing, because you weren’t expected to arrive at a precise time. You might come over in the afternoon, or visit in the evening. Generalized time.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the railroad that time mattered across places. That you could now travel a distance of 10 miles by train to do some shopping in the bigger city close to you meant that you would need to know when to catch that return train home. Standard time, rather than local time, was introduced by the railroads. And with it the growing concept of tardiness.
And as railroads became faster and more universal, time across place mattered more and the introduction of time zones for the nation was born. In 1883 the railroads began using the concept of time zones in the U.S. and in 1918 the government adopted them officially.
Time was the source of frustration and anger in other ways beyond tardiness. In 1918 the government initiated Daylight Saving Time as a war productivity measure. Some say the idea originated with Ben Franklin in a letter on the concept to French authorities. Full of wit, perhaps America’s Founding Father of Snark may have been spoofing in his letter. Either way, by 1919 farmers were irked by the concept and led to its repeal that year. Farmers use the sun, not the clock, for their field work but hired hands were using the clock and not the sun. So a loss of productivity on the farm axed the measure meant to increase manufacturing productivity. During World War II another national daylight measure was passed, then repealed after the war’s end.
But in its aftermath was a cacophony of state and local time codes that left many confused. One fantastic tale was of an office building in St. Paul, Minnesota where some of the floors observed Daylight Savings time and others did not. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 resolved local time issues, but still allowed for exemption by states — but only upon the days that the Federal law kicked in. Today Hawaii and Arizona are the only state that exempt from Daylight Saving. For where Hawaii is, perhaps the concept irrelevant. For Arizona it is only the Navajo reservations that do not jump the clock ahead each Spring.
Thankfully Indiana capitulated to Daylight Saving Time in 2006, as that state was confusing enough with the Central Time zone weaving through part of the state let alone determining your timezone and then what time of year it was.
But time exists across the calendar, and if you think the time on your wrist (or cell phone) has been a source of frustration, let’s reflect on time across the months. Every December 31st we flip on the TV at 11:59 to watch the ball drop in New York City to usher in the New Year. Except… January 1st has not always been the first day of the year.
In pre-United States time in Colonial America, the “new year” was traditionally… March 25th. America, governed by the British, continued under the Julian calendar despite the move across Europe to the Gregorian calendar. That date, March 25th, is claimed to be “Lady Day” where Mary had learned she was pregnant with Baby Jesus. England, the last to convert to the Gregorian calendar New Year of January 1st, did so in 1752 and created a bizarre set of circumstances. 1751 ended up being only nine months long and to further adjust to align with the Gregorian calendar, erased 11 days in September 1752.
Americans, oft for not following British law at the time, were already using the Gregorian calendar for international business beyong England’s reach. Imagine the outcry today if we were to erase 11 days from any month. Think of all the birthdays missed, anniversaries lost and National Day of (whatever) skipped!
Perhaps in all of this kerfuffle over time none is more amusing than the story of a Chicago convict was to be executed for his offense in 1921 (before the codication of time zones and Daylight Saving). He asked at what time he was to be hanged? When he was told it was to be at 8 a.m., he said “Chicago time or Central time? The said Chicago time, to which he said “But I was sentenced before the time was changed and this rearrangement deprives me of an hour of life. That won’t mean anything after I’m dead, but it will mean a lot Friday morning.” The officials relented and bumped his execution to 9 a.m., granting him one extra hour that morning.
Evidently they did know what time it was and somebody, indeed, really did care.