When We Repealed Daylight Saving Time
On June 30th, 1922, New York Harbor was gripped in one of the thickest fogs sailors had ever seen. Most of the commercial liners remained in the relative safety of quarantine and planned to enter the harbor once the fog had lifted. But, in the darkness just before midnight, twelve ships stoked their engines and prepared to steam as fast as they could toward Ellis Island. June 30th marked the end of the national fiscal year, and the ships carrying immigrants from small European countries had timed their entire journey so that they could slip past Ellis Island just as the clock struck midnight and the new fiscal year began. Under the newly implemented quota system, immigrants from countries that did not already have large populations in the United States, like Latvia, Armenia, or Greece, raced against the clock and each other. The occupants of a single ship from Portugal, for instance, could fill the quota for a whole month.
Braving the fog in New York, six ships raced through the night. At the last minute, the other six had turned back because the passage was too dangerous. And it was. The Argentina from Trieste nearly struck a cruise liner; the Presidente Roosevelt came within ten feet of a coast guard cutter, but they didn’t slow. Unable to see, the racing ships, tugs, ferries, and fishing boats filled the fog with whistles and horns, hoping they would be heard in time to avoid collision. At midnight, just as they planned, the six ships that had braved the fog, carrying 1,789 immigrants, crossed the line into the United States and a new fiscal year.
And then, all hell broke loose.
The ships had arrived at midnight in New York City, but in 1922 New York City followed Daylight Saving Time, much of New York State did not, and the federal government only “voluntarily” followed it. The federal law mandating Daylight Saving Time had been repealed in 1919. This raised the question: had the ships arrived in the new fiscal year? Or had they, nightmarishly, arrived just in time to accidentally miss the new year? The scene in the fog was chaos. Some captains were advised to return and try the three mile race again, while others were told to hold their place in line. As the waiting room at Ellis Island filled with exhausted passengers and the piers filled with their friends and family, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen prepared to fight once more over the legality and utility of Daylight Saving Time. As one newspaperman put it, “If the scene had not been a real tragedy, it would have evoked laughter, loud and prolonged.”
The Repeal of Daylight Saving Time
Daylight Saving Time arrives and departs each year accompanied by obligatory articles about the headache of waking up too early, the health hazards of changing time schedules, or renewed calls to repeal it entirely. Whether championing the law or advocating for its repeal, most of these articles overlook what happened after the first daylight saving law was repealed in 1919.
The confusion following the repeal of Daylight Saving Time may have reached a crescendo in 1922 at Ellis Island, but it had been building for decades. It began, arguably, with the hazily drawn maps created in 1883 when the United States adopted Standard Time. In 1918, the law that implemented Daylight Saving Time, called The Standard Time Act, was also designed to fix the problems with Standard Time and establish clearer boundaries between time zones. But when Daylight Saving Time was repealed one year later, the map only grew more complicated.
Where did time originate? Was it established by the federal government, by God, or inherent to the natural environment?
By 1922, 137 cities in 16 states voluntarily followed Daylight Saving Time, but there was no pattern to the map. Even cities that were in the same time zone were increasingly following different schedules. New York and Boston had Daylight Saving Time; Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. did not. When it was 7PM in Philadelphia, it was also 7PM in Milwaukee, even though the two cities are separated by two states and one time zone. The city of Boise reported that because it was on the border of a time zone and the intersection of several major rail lines, its citizens followed five time schedules—none of which matched the clock on the wall at the post office.
Repealing Daylight Saving Time had only made its meaning more ambiguous. Where did time originate? Was it a schedule established by the federal government, by God, or inherent to the natural environment?
National Temporal Borders
We are accustomed to think of borders as one way of defining space, but as the dangerous race through New York Harbor in 1922 demonstrates, they also define time. Changes in federal immigration policy marked one among the myriad ways that federal temporal orders drew lines through and around Americans’ daily lives. For example, time zones initiated in 1883 transformed states like Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska into border states—temporal rather than political borders divided them from their neighbors.
Until 1918, the lines that divided the United States into time zones were hazy at best and inconsistently followed. Because of this, one of the most compelling reasons for agricultural states like Wisconsin to support the 1918 bill that established national Daylight Saving Time was because the bill promised to redraw the map of Standard Time. When the bill passed, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) gained the power to fix national temporal borders and almost immediately received rafts of petitions for them to do just that. Politicians and businessmen from border states insisted that if lines must be drawn, they should more closely conform to the ecological, cultural, and economic relationships that mattered in the region, rather than the political borders.
The borders that the ICC fixed between time zones were hardly features of the natural environment, but neither are they fully abstract. For instance, in the 1917 bill, the whole state of Idaho was in one time zone—as it would make sense to be if temporal borders followed political ones. But politicians and businessmen in Idaho balked. The president of the Oregon Short Line, for instance, wrote to Congress to oppose the new division that had been drawn between Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. “Pacific time works a hardship on the railroads operating in the State and creates a hazard,” he wrote. “If care is not taken by crews to change from one time to the other, serious accidents through collisions may take place.” Letters poured in from aldermen, mayors, and Kiwanis Clubs across southern Idaho, not to mention pressure from the state legislature, the railroad, and U.S. Senators.
In response, in 1918 the ICC redrew the map to put most of Idaho in Mountain Time. That also didn’t solve the problem. Boise continued to follow five schedules, split between Mountain and Pacific time. In the next draft, the ICC announced that the time zone map would use both environmental and economic features as the border between Mountain and Pacific time. Where it was possible, the time zone was redrawn to run along the Continental Divide, the Oregon Short Line, and the Colorado River.
Idaho wasn’t alone. With the new map, the Texas panhandle, parts of eastern Kentucky, and southern Indiana all petitioned for the lines to be redrawn to more closely correspond to local economic relationships. Rural Americans, especially in the West, forced the national government to redraw a temporal map that did not reflect the economies or ecologies that mattered in their daily lives.
Initially, the bill that enacted a national Daylight Saving Time enabled groups all over the country to redraw the map to better reflect local time. The Standard Time Act, ironically, made more room for local time within the abstraction of national Standard Time.
Saving Wasted Time
Fixing Standard Time was not the only reason Americans supported the portion of The Standard Time Act that established national Daylight Saving Time. For urban industrialists, Daylight Saving had long been framed as a form of conservation, repurposing workers’ “wasted time” the same way Progressives might save an upstate forest from over-eager logging. This dream came to pass when, during World War I, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several regional temporal reform associations made the case that Daylight Saving was a necessary wartime measure to hold off the specter of food and fuel shortages.
The extra hour of daylight, they argued, would offer urban workers a chance to grow war gardens, reducing their dependence on store-bought food. Dreaming of alleys and vacant lots converted to gardens—“wasted space” put to use in the otherwise “wasted time” of urban industrial workers—members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Daylight Saving Committee assured one another and Congress that the wartime necessity of Daylight Saving would likely continue once peace had returned. “This extra hour not only means economy in the use of electric light and other illuminants,” declared the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce committee, “it means economy, it means efficiency, it means physical recreation for our people, and it means farm gardening to a very much larger extent than we have to-day.”
The urban workers for whom the new schedule was intended seemed to agree, and they too framed Daylight Saving Time in the context of conservation. “If we are going to start an individual conservation scheme,” declared one representative of the American Federation of Labor, only Daylight Saving Time “will get the people back to the land, if it is only a square rod or two.” Daylight Saving seemed to offer the chance to better align industrial labor with the rhythms of the natural world.
When the Daylight Saving portion of The Standard Time Act was repealed in 1919, these arguments didn’t diminish. Refusing to follow Daylight Saving Time seemed, to urban industrialists and workers, to deny city dwellers an opportunity to find a better balance between industrial schedules and work (and play) outdoors.
Saving God’s Time
“Daylight saving is all right for the swells because it gives them an extra hour for golf, but it is tough on us guys who are about to take the long walk,” wrote William Bell and Jacob Rosenwasser from death row in 1922. Bell and Rosenwasser petitioned the Sing Sing prison warden to follow Standard Time in scheduling their executions, allowing them the full measure, as they saw it, of their time on earth. “I don’t like to lose an hour of life,” Bell declared, “and I intend to demand my rights.”
In their public appeal, Bell and Rosenwasser expressed a more extreme version of what many Americans believed about Daylight Saving Time. This widely held opinion spurred the outrage among voters that quickly repealed the 1918 law, and it maintained the debate in regions that considered a voluntary adoption of Daylight Saving Time after its repeal.
Mechanical clocks and Standard Time were necessary to register time in a general way, the argument went, but clocks and calendars merely tracked the unfolding of what was, ultimately, God’s time. To change that register twice a year—and to compel people to follow it in their daily lives, even in the moment of their death like Bell and Rosenwasser— was overstepping the limits of federal authority. The ICC could regulate the railroad, and through railroad schedules, it could induce the nation to follow Standard Time, but no federal or state commission had the authority to impose a change on local clocks.
For its opponents, Daylight Saving Time was a moral problem. As one Senator from Mississippi put it, with Daylight Saving Time the federal government was “trying to usurp the authority of God Almighty himself by attempting to interfere with the time.”
The conflict, as these groups saw it, was between “Wilson’s Time”—referencing former President Woodrow Wilson—and “God’s Time.” They worried that Daylight Saving Time promoted immoral and unhealthful personal habits by preventing people from fully aligning their lives with the patterns of the natural world—which they saw as the manifestation of God’s time. Using this logic, thousands of mothers in Michigan petitioned to prevent Daylight Saving Time from going into effect. They argued that the change of schedule would disrupt infant nursing and feeding schedules. Although they vowed to follow their own schedules at home, the mothers feared the new national time would still lead to widespread infant malnutrition. The misalignment between Daylight Saving and the schedules of infants, young children, and farm animals indicated how far from the right path Americans could fall if they followed the federal schedule.
By 1922, most Americans agreed that any national temporal schedule should be flexible enough to allow them to better align their lives with local economies and ecologies. They agreed on this as an ideal, but they vehemently disagreed on the technologies to effect this change: Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time.
The scene in Washington, D.C. in 1922 on the first day of Daylight Saving Time was symptomatic of this crisis. Citing efficiency and outdoor leisure, President Harding had put the federal government voluntarily on Daylight Saving Time. Congress, fearful of the objections of voters convinced that Daylight Saving disrupted God’s time, chose to follow Standard Time. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court continued its tradition of following local solar time, and opened at high noon.
“Some day we’ll find out whether or not the government officials in our nation of free people have been authorized to decide how we shall set and how we shall read our clocks,” reflected one Pennsylvania newspaper editor in 1922. “Just now, apparently, we do not know.”
New Border States
Daylight Saving Time reveals the contours of federal temporal orders, maps of power already present in the daily lives of those who live near or wish to cross its borders. In July of 1922, only 650 Greek immigrants were allowed to enter the United States. To make the quota, the steamer King Alexander with its 300 Greek steerage passengers put itself and other boats in danger and raced through the fog. The Count Rosso, with 500 Greek immigrants on board, decided the fog was too dangerous, and waited. For the 150 passengers on the Count Rosso who were sent back to war-torn Europe, the federal temporal border was not an abstraction—it was the line they had raced against and it was the reason they were being sent back.
The temporal borders we live within have been drawn, disputed, repealed, and redrawn. They reflect previous ideals about how American society could align itself with the natural environment, as well as harder realities about federal and state authority. Twice a year we are forced, by the alteration of daily habit, to consider whether the lines we draw through time reflect the lives we live, the economies we occupy, or the ecologies we value. Our discomfort is a sign that we have not yet answered the questions that sent boats racing through the fog in 1922.
Featured Image: Scope of Daylight Saving Movement, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), June 23, 1920, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Kate Wersan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Specializing in the environmental and cultural history of the United States, her research examines the environmental history of American timekeeping practices from 1660 to 1920. She is a member of the Edge Effects editorial board and the Managing Editor for Wisconsin101: Our History in Objects. Website. Twitter. Contact.