This post is by Samantha Walsh, Reference Assistant in the Department of Prints, Photographs & Architectural Collections
The first mention of Daylight Saving Time was made by Benjamin Franklin, in a 1784 letter to the editor of the Journal de Paris. While many attribute today’s practice of turning the clocks forward and back to Franklin, it is widely accepted that Franklin’s proposal was an example of his infamous satire. In his letter, which he signed “A Subscriber,” Franklin explains that after forgetting to close his shutters one night, “An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows.” Franklin explains his shock at discovering that the sun provides light before noon. He explains, “Your readers…will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises.” Franklin goes on to propose that Parisians rise earlier with the sun in order to conserve lamp oil and utilize daylight. In order to implement this change Franklin proposes a tax on shutters, as well as a limit on the amount of candle wax a household may purchase per week. Finally, Franklin declares that all church bells should ring as the sun rises, and if this does not do the job, “let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.” Despite its satirical intent, this letter does prove that Franklin did think of Daylight Saving Time first, but it is clear that he in no way meant to be taken literally, and we may assume that it was not read that way.
Government-mandated Daylight Saving did not begin until over 100 years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, during WWI. On April 30, 1916, Germany began practicing Daylight Saving Time by putting the clock forward one hour until the following October. Most of Europe, including Britain, followed suit in a matter of weeks. A movement to begin DST in the U.S. had already begun, however the enemy’s adoption of DST seems to have given it the fuel needed to convince Americans to wake up earlier. Groups arguing for a law on Daylight Saving Time sprung up all over the country, the most influential being Pittsburgh’s Chamber of Commerce, led by Robert Garland. Garland is remembered as the “father” of Daylight Saving as a result of his efforts. New York had its own New York Daylight Saving Committee, which held the “National Daylight Saving Convention and Luncheon” at the Hotel Astor on January 30 and 31, 1917.
The convention attracted 632 delegates and a wide variety of speakers. Garland spoke, as well as representatives from The National Lawn Tennis Association and a member of England’s House of Commons, who explained “the benefits of the plan as seen in England.” The convention resulted in the formation of the national Daylight Saving Association, which opened offices in D.C. the next day. The Charles Leopold Bernheimer Papers, held in N-YHS’s Manuscript Collections, contain an invitation to the event as well as correspondence regarding Daylight Saving Time efforts in New York. Bernheimer, active in NYC public affairs and a seemingly non-functioning member of the New York Daylight Savings Committee, was serving as president of the Safety First Society of New York. The Society worked closely with the railroads, an industry which has long maintained an interest in anything that affects the clocks.
The argument occurring most frequently in favor of Daylight Saving is that an extra hour of daylight will allow more time for recreational activities, but posters found in N-YHS’s Poster Collection suggest that the war was a major tool in convincing the American public to turn their clocks forward.
The influence of the many committees and associations was enough to get the bill through the House and Senate, and finally passed into law on March 19, 1918. Sunday March 31 marked the beginning of national Daylight Saving Time in the United States. Bernheimer’s papers describe a celebratory reception at 1:30 AM that morning. During the celebration, Marcus M. Marks, Manhattan Borough President and Chairman of the New York Daylight Savings Committee, turned the clock in the Metropolitan Tower ahead one hour.
Less than a year after the war ended the federal law was repealed, however major cities such as New York and Pittsburgh did continue to practice Daylight Saving independently until it was again federally mandated during World War II. As NYC did continue to observe DST, this year marks the 97th anniversary of New Yorkers “Springing forward!”