Online Edition: Fall 2005

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Spring Forward

The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time

Michael Downing

Shoemaker & Hoard ($23)

by Carrie Mercer

Described by one Native American as “the white man cutting an inch off the bottom of his blanket and sewing it to the top to make it longer,” the idea of Daylight Saving has been mocked and championed in equal measure for more than two hundred years. In Spring Forward, Michael Downing chronicles a surprisingly checkered and bizarre history, including arguments between federal, state and local governments. Lobbying efforts came from such diverse groups as farmers, railroads, retailers, Broadway, the beef industry, and even church clergy.

The general public has the impression that Daylight Saving was invented for farmers, but as Downing makes abundantly clear, farmers were vehemently against it from the start. Among many non-farmers who contended the benefits of Daylight Saving was A. Lincoln Filene, chairman of Boston’s largest department store. “Most farm products are better when gathered with dew on,” he claimed. In fact, many crops could not be harvested until the sun had dried the dew off. Ironically, Daylight Saving actually had the effect of lengthening the farmer’s workday, since his schedule was determined by two different clocks—the natural one and the one controlled by his local government.

Who started this nonsense in the first place? And why? The blame (or credit, depending on your viewpoint) can be spread among many characters, as Downing notes. Although Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion may be the first on record, no one is really sure anymore if he meant it as a joke. In the early 20th century, English architect William Willett lobbied parliament after having a revelation that the early morning summer sun was being wasted on sleeping townsfolk, that they should be out enjoying the extra light. Claims of energy savings and workplace efficiency resulting from Daylight Saving are still popular. Such claims have never been substantiated, despite the fact that the U.S. government has been using such reasoning to implement, and even extend, Daylight Saving since World War I.

In general, having more late afternoon/evening hours of light has made the most difference in people’s leisure time, increasing how much they spend (in time and money) on activities such as barbeque and “pleasure driving,” making the beef and barbeque industries as well as auto and fuel manufacturers heavy lobbyers for Daylight Saving. Of course, entertainment industries that depend on people going indoors for the evening—including Broadway shows and movie theatres across the nation—lobby just as hard against Daylight Saving. One worldwide change that Daylight Saving can be credited with is a huge increase in the number of people playing golf, due to later hours of daylight. And while there are less than five million farmers left in the U.S.—about 2 per cent of the labor force—there are now over 30 million golfers.

Who knew an hour could make so much difference? If only it were that simple. As Downing details, even when communities have agreed to participate in Daylight Saving, there is still no consensus on how long it should last—anywhere from three to six months. This lack of agreement has created some ridiculous arrangements, such as the 1966 case of one office building in St. Paul, Minnesota in which half the floors—those working for the city—observed Daylight Saving, and the other half—those working for the county—did not.

As entertaining as Downing makes the madness over Daylight Saving, he does an even better job of putting this one bone of contention into the larger context of worldwide timekeeping. His discussions of Greenwich Mean Time, Stalin’s failed five-day week in the 1920s, and the aggressive race between countries to be the first—by way of an altered clock—to arrive in the new millennium, give the reader an idea of how powerful a tool timekeeping is, and what huge economic and cultural forces depend on it.

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