When first-term Representative Leon Sacks of Pennsylvania introduced H.R. 6546 on April 21, 1937, the Earth did not stop spinning. Time did not stand still.
But it almost did.
Sacks’ bill, “To provide for daylight saving in the District of Columbia,” would have advanced clocks in the nation’s capital by one hour beginning on April 24, 1937. On the final Sunday in October, six months later, clocks in the District would be “returned to the mean astronomical time.” This meant that for the summer months, Washington, DC, would experience an extra hour of daylight.
Sacks had no formal scientific training. The 34-year-old former football player had degrees in economics and law from the University of Pennsylvania and had won his seat in the House after challenging a ward boss in his native Philadelphia. He was a New Deal Democrat to his core, and according to the Washington Post, believed “in distribution of wealth through agencies such as the WPA. Is for labor 100 per cent.” Sacks wanted to see the country adopt a 30-hour work week and sought to make it easier for immigrants to become citizens.
But his other policy interests aside, Sacks’ daylight-saving bill caused a stir and breathed new life into a long-simmering debate in America about time, productivity, and the power of the federal government. Thousands of letters—both for and against Sacks’ proposal—buried the offices of the House Committee on the District of Columbia as it debated whether to consider the bill.
More broadly, debates over daylight saving time (DST) in the first half of the twentieth century reflected a growing divide between America’s rural farming communities, which opposed the idea, and the country’s urban centers, which supported it. That philosophical difference extended to Congress where Members representing rural constituencies and those representing industrialized districts often heatedly disagreed on whether the government should be responsible for adjusting America’s clocks.
Sacks’ bill was simply the latest proposal in a DST debate which began more than a century before 1937 and persisted for nearly three decades after. Americans had entertained the idea as far back as the eighteenth century, when former Continental Congress Delegate Benjamin Franklin calculated that the city of Paris could save millions of pounds of candlewax every year if residents woke up early in the morning and went to bed early at night.
But the idea of DST evolved in fits and starts and didn’t see much federal action in the United States until the early twentieth century. One of the first nationwide DST bills, introduced in 1909 by Andrew Peters of Massachusetts, would have shifted the clock an hour and twenty minutes forward in the spring before reverting it back to standard time in the winter.
In 1918, less than a year after the United States entered World War I, Congress passed the Standard Time Act which contained a provision for the country’s first nationwide daylight-saving law. The act, which built off an earlier campaign by railroad companies to synchronize their schedules in North America, established five time zones across the continental United States and Alaska and, importantly, mandated that clocks be advanced one hour on the last Sunday in March and set back one hour on the last Sunday in October.
Proponents of DST believed that if people woke up earlier during the summer, the season when the sun was highest in the sky, Americans could take advantage of natural light and use less electricity producing artificial light. The Wall Street Journal estimated that more than 800,000 tons of coal could be saved under the provisions of the daylight-saving bill, a five percent reduction. At the time, moreover, at least twelve European countries had already adopted a daylight-saving program. Supporters also believed that extra hour of daylight in the evening meant Americans would have more time for recreation and more time to cultivate war gardens—small gardens planted by everyday people in order to grow food for the war effort.
At first, Members debated the necessity of changing the clock through legislation arguing that people could just change their own sleep schedules without a law. “This bill is for the relief of the slackers of the Nation who are too lazy to get up early,” declared Otis Wingo of Arkansas, the main opponent of the bill. On the other hand, Richard Parker of New Jersey cited an example from his home state, where all employees of the Colgate toothpaste factory agreed to come to work an hour earlier but ran into problems because of the train schedule. “Everybody must make the change at once,” Parker insisted. While Wingo accused Congress of attempting to change the laws of nature, the measure met little additional opposition. In 1918 DST passed the wartime Congress with overwhelming support, in part because Members viewed the change as one that would improve national security.
But the House had miscalculated and mistakenly assumed that America’s farmers would be relatively unaffected by daylight saving because they worked by the sun and not by the clock. In the months after the 1918 law went into effect, however, many in the agricultural sector began to raise concerns. Farms were adopting eight-hour workdays and increasingly relied on hired farm laborers, who, under the new law, arrived to work an hour earlier. But farmhands could not harvest crops until the morning dew evaporated, meaning they spent the first part of the workday simply waiting. Stores and banks in nearby towns also closed an hour earlier, during the best time of day for harvest work.
The concern among farmers also distilled a major transition in American history, as people and resources moved from rural areas to cities and towns. The 1920 Census was the first Census to show that more than 50 percent of the American population lived in urban areas, classified as towns of more than 2,500 people. As cities swelled, so too did their influence in Congress. Around the time Congress debated DST, conflict brewed over congressional reapportionment—the division of House seats among the states. Rural Members of Congress—who feared losing influence to states with growing urban populations—helped delay congressional redistricting for a decade.
In 1919, a little more than a year after the Standard Time Act passed, the House Commerce Committee reported out a bill for the repeal of the daylight-saving provision, citing both the plight of the farmer and the fact that the amount of coal saved in the past year was “inconsequential.”
The full House took up the repeal of daylight saving in June 1919. Members who represented rural constituencies defended farmers on the issue. “The wealth of the country must be dug out of the soil,” asserted Iowa Representative Burton Sweet. And House Commerce Committee chair John Esch of Wisconsin noted that more than 300 farmers’ publications and every major agricultural organization opposed DST. But Members who represented urban districts pointed out that most Americans now worked in factories and offices. Schuyler Merritt of Connecticut declared that laws should serve the majority and that the minority should “accommodate itself.” “You gentlemen rise in this Chamber and talk about the little farmer whose cows can not get used to the new time,” Anthony Griffin of New York said, eliciting laughter in the chamber.
Nevertheless, the bill to repeal DST passed by a wide-enough margin to neutralize a veto threat by President Wilson. Edward Denison of Illinois summarized the situation succinctly: “If the country had not been at war . . . this daylight-saving law would not have been passed.”
If daylight saving was problematic as law, it created even more confusion after its repeal. Although it was no longer being enforced on the federal level, states and localities could still choose for themselves whether to shift their clocks according to the seasons. Cities all over the country adopted DST, but rural opposition prevented most states from observing it on a statewide level. It wasn’t until after the next World War, 20 years later, that Congress worked to clear things up.
America’s entry into World War II launched the nation’s economy out of the Great Depression. Within a month of Congress’s declaration of war against Germany and Italy, the House and Senate introduced dual daylight-saving measures with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s encouragement. The House version called for year-round DST, while the Senate bill gave the President power to adjust the clocks as he saw fit.
According to a 1942 Gallup poll, slightly more than half of Americans favored the implementation of year-round DST for the duration of the war, with the strongest support coming from the most industrialized states. (Prior to America’s entrance in the war, only 38 percent of respondents favored year-round DST.) Once again, farm communities opposed the measure. “I am distressed at the increasing degree of ignorance on the part of our urban population as to how their food is produced,” proclaimed James Wadsworth Jr., a farmer who represented a rural New York district.
But not every Member from an agricultural area agreed. Edward Cox, who represented a rural Georgia constituency, declared that the needs of the country were more important than regional interests. “There is not a more patriotic group . . . than the farmers of America,” Cox said, believing that they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Charles Wolverton of New Jersey, the Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, agreed, saying that everyone had to be ready to “give up comforts . . . to win the war.” The push for year-round DST steamrolled the opposition once supporters framed it as a patriotic duty. The House bill passed easily, and President Roosevelt signed it into law on January 20, 1942.
Wartime DST automatically expired at the conclusion of World War II in 1945, after which the country splintered into a complex patchwork of time zones as states and cities began enacting their own daylight-saving policies. By 1965, 15 states had statewide DST; 19 did not observe it at all; and in the remaining 16 states, DST was a local option, where the clock often read differently from town to town. Moreover, there was no consensus on when clocks should be changed: areas that observed DST changed their clocks on one of 11 different dates each season.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of standardization had interstate commerce ramifications and forced Congress to act yet again. Transportation companies spearheaded the lobbying effort to either implement DST on a national scale or outlaw it altogether. Railroad companies complained that printing new timetables to account for all the various time changes cost them $500,000 a year. Television and radio networks claimed that it cost them millions of dollars to maintain duplicate facilities and programming schedules to accommodate America’s unsynchronized clocks.
While several congressional hearings on DST during the early and mid-1960s had been unable to offer solutions, in 1965, Harley Staggers of West Virginia, Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, introduced H.R. 6785, the Uniform Time Act, which mandated that all areas following DST had to begin observance on the last Sunday of April and end it on the last Sunday of October. The Commerce Committee amended the bill to include a provision that every state would automatically observe DST unless it formally opted out.
When Staggers’ bill made it to the House Floor for debate, he pointed out that a person “could travel for 35 miles between Steubenville, Ohio and Moundsville, W. Va., and go through seven different time changes.” Although the bill had widespread support, some Members believed the legislation gave too much power to the federal government. Lawmakers submitted several unsuccessful amendments that would have provided the states with more timekeeping autonomy.
This time around, Members were no longer as concerned with the needs of America’s farmers. Not only were farmers increasingly reliant on automation, their numbers were rapidly shrinking in proportion to the rest of the population. Thirty percent of Americans lived on a farm in 1920; by 1966, only about six percent did.
The bill passed the House by a wide margin, 292 to 93, and the Senate later agreed to the House version of the bill when the two chambers met in conference. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on April 13, 1966. Although the law would be amended several times in the coming decades, the Uniform Time Act of 1966 remains a major foundation of our system of timekeeping. As of today, Arizona and Hawaii are the only two states that do not observe DST.
Sources: Boston Globe, 14 January 1918, 6 June 1965; Wall Street Journal, 4 March 1918, 26 April 1963; Washington Post, 22 January 1918, 27 April 1930, 23 May 1937, 31 December 1941, 4 January 1942; Hartford Courant, 22 April 1965; New York Times, 18 February 1930, 3 April 1966; Christian Science Monitor, 21 December 1962; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 March 1918): 3566–3583; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (18 June 1919): 1306–1324; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (19 August 1919): 3980–3982; Congressional Record Index, House, 75th Cong., 1st sess.: 486, 822; Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 January 1942): 195–206; Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (16 March 1966): 5996–6009; H.R. 10028, 61st Cong. (1909); Public Law 65–106, 40 Stat. 450 (1918); H.R. 6546, 75th Cong. (1937); Jared Sparks, Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2 (Boston: Tappan and Dennet, 1844); Hearings before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives, Repeal of Section Three of the Daylight-Saving Act, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (1919); House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Repeal of Daylight-Saving Law, 66th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 42 (1919); Congressional Directory, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919); H.R. 6314, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 January 1942); S. 2160, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (30 December 1941); “Calendars of the United States House of Representatives and History of Legislation,” 77th Cong. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1942); H.R. 6785, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (25 March 1965); H.R. 6785, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 March 1966); Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975); Conference Report, Uniform Time Act of 1966, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., Rept. 1385 (1966); United States Census Bureau, “Urban and Rural Areas – History,” accessed 9 January 2019, https://www.census.gov/history/www/programs/geography/urban_and_rural_areas.html; Charles W. Eagles, Democracy Delayed: Congressional Reapportionment and Urban-Rural Conflict in the 1920s (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990).Follow @USHouseHistory