On February 9, 1922, the House Judiciary Committee held a brief hearing on a long subject: the passage of time, and how America kept track of it. Specifically, the committee met to hear from a handful of witnesses about a bill that would have created the “Liberty Calendar,” a uniform new annual calendar—13 months of 28 days divided evenly into four weeks—that supporters argued would make timekeeping more efficient and help meet the demands of the twentieth century.
“Scientists have claimed for 25 years that the calendar can be and should be improved,” the bill’s sponsor, Minnesota Representative Thomas D. Schall, told the committee. America was becoming a global industrial power, and the devastation of World War I had overturned old ways of doing things. If there was ever a moment to rethink time, “this period of reconstruction is a good time in which to undertake the task,” Schall said.
Schall’s bill tapped into the resourceful ethos of the Progressive Era. From the 1890s to the early 1920s, the government ushered in a multitude of reforms which seemed to affect every corner of life in America. Driving this change was an active federal presence that created and regulated everything from alcohol prohibition to the National Park Service to the eight-hour workday. To Schall, the yearly calendar seemed like a logical next step. “We have standardized everything else except our measure of time,” he pointed out, “the very thing we use the most.”
More than a component of the Progressive Era, however, Schall said his calendar proposal was also part of human nature to adapt and invent. “We have replaced the old-time hand sickle with the modern self-binder, we have replaced the oxcart with the automobile, we have replaced the wooden plow with the farm tractor, and it will be a sad reflection on the intelligence of this age of telephones, wireless telegraphy, and airplanes if we shall not be able to substitute for this cumbersome calendar of the ancients a modern and convenient form,” Schall told the committee.
Telephones, cars, and airplanes had enabled America to bridge vast distances, causing many to rethink the boundaries of physical space. In the 1920s, the proposal for a 13-month calendar brought up the question of whether Congress would try and control time as well.
Schall’s plan may have seemed radical, but there was ample precedent for major calendar reforms in human history.
When European colonists first set foot on the shores of North America, much of Europe operated under the Julian Calendar, a 1,500-year-old timekeeping system that dated to the Roman Empire and which itself had undergone changes over its long history. In the sixteenth century, however, religious authorities began to push for the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, which shifted the calendar forward, set a year at 365 days, and made contingencies for a leap year every four years. It took more than a century, but in 1752 Great Britain and its North American colonies adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Although the effects were subtle, it did mean that George Washington, who had been born 20 years earlier, suddenly had a new birthdate.
The Gregorian Calendar went unchallenged for the next 150 years until businessmen in the late nineteenth century started to complain. George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Film Company, for instance, lamented that because some months had 30 days and others 31 days, it was difficult to compare financial data from month-to-month. Moreover, because the calendar’s 365 days did not divide cleanly into seven-day weeks, every month started on a different day and every month had a different number of work days. Tapping into his national business connections, Eastman organized the National Committee on Calendar Simplification to gauge public interest in reforming the calendar.
International advocates also joined Eastman. In 1908, for example, a bill introduced in the British Parliament called for a modified calendar that rearranged the number of days in each month so that each three-month period, or quarter, was equal in length.
Other interest groups at the time proposed something more sweeping: the 13-month calendar, which sought to simplify date keeping as much as possible. First invented by August Compte in France in 1849, the calendar was still 365-days long but each month had 28 days which were grouped into four identical seven-day weeks. This meant that a certain date would always fall on the same day of the week: the first was always a Sunday, the second was always a Monday, and so on. Twenty-eight days multiplied by 13 months, however, was 364—a day short of a full year. As a result, Compte’s calendar took the extra day (or extra two days, during a leap year) and tacked it on at the end of the year but did not assign it a month or day of the week.
Seventy years later, the Minnesota-based Liberty Calendar Association of America began a lobbying campaign in support of something resembling Compte’s plan. Founded between 1917 and 1918 by Minneapolis businessman Joseph Barnes, the Liberty Calendar Association was made up of dozens of businesses and professionals who promoted a 13-month calendar they called the “Liberty Calendar”—a name which tapped into the patriotic fervor of World War I. The association, which framed it’s support as a national duty amid wartime, drafted a bill to adopt the calendar and urged the public to contact their Representatives to put it before Congress. The Liberty Calendar Association soon found an ally from their home state of Minnesota: Congressman Thomas Schall.
Blinded by an electric shock in his twenties, Schall first won election to Congress in 1914. With the help of his wife Margaret—who drafted his bills, read his mail, and drove him around Minnesota to campaign—Schall, who also had a guide dog, eventually served five terms in the House as a progressive Republican before moving over to the Senate.
Schall first introduced the Liberty Calendar Association’s bill in February 1919, but it died in committee. Schall reintroduced the bill in 1920, and again in 1921 when it finally received a hearing in the Judiciary Committee in February 1922.
Among those invited to testify was Joseph Barnes, the Minneapolis businessman who created the Liberty Calendar Association. In his comments before the committee, Barnes explained that Compte’s numberless day would be placed between December and January and celebrated as a holiday—New Year’s Day. Every four years, a leap day, placed between June and July, would also be a legal holiday. The thirteenth month, placed between February and March, would be called Vern, due to its proximity to the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring. (Later versions of the bill dropped the name Vern and replaced it with the month of “Liberty.”)
Representative Schall was the last to testify that day and told the Judiciary Committee that the Gregorian Calendar served businesses and workers poorly: the number of business days each month varied while rent and salary payments came due uniformly. “Millions of our people work by the month, and yet we have no such thing as a standard month,” he pointed out.
Although Schall’s bill never reached the House Floor for a vote, he continued to introduce Liberty Calendar legislation even after he departed the House for the Senate. But the New York Times observed that while simplifying the calendar might hold wide public appeal in principle, the greatest barrier to reform was that the Gregorian Calendar had been rooted into human habit for hundreds of years.
Despite Schall’s unsuccessful effort in the House, calendar reform remained a topic of debate at home and abroad. In 1923, for instance, the League of Nations held an open call and received 185 calendar proposals from 38 different countries.
The calendar issue came before a House committee again in 1928, when Foreign Affairs Chairman Stephen Porter of Pennsylvania introduced a joint resolution calling for an international conference on calendar reform, and encouraged governments everywhere to adopt the 13-month annual cycle. George Eastman of the Kodak Company lobbied for the bill and testified before Porter’s committee. But Eastman and other supporters first had to make it past New York Congressman Sol Bloom.
Elected to Congress in 1923, Bloom loved everything about calendars, so much so that his wife and daughter supposedly ran out of the room with hands over their ears whenever he brought it up. “A great many people get bored to death listening to me talk about the calendar,” he once said. “I got started when I was a little boy, got to reading . . . and I'm still at it.”
On Capitol Hill, Bloom took interest in the Porter resolution, but as he conferred with Eastman over the details of the 13-month calendar, a single question dampened his enthusiasm. “What happens to that blank day?” he wondered.
Bloom struggled with the idea that a day could exist outside of the regular week, and noted that it was incompatible with the beliefs of many religious faiths where the continuity of the seven-day week is of great significance. Bloom, who was Jewish and represented a New York district with a large Jewish constituency, realized that adding a corrective day at the end of the year would mean that one Saturday, the day of the Jewish Sabbath, would appear eight days after the preceding Saturday. Bloom warned that the unnumbered days in the 13-month calendar would result in a “wandering sabbath” in which the holy days of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths would fall out of line with the calendar week. He further observed that of all the changes ever made to the Julian and Gregorian Calendars, none had ever disrupted the seven-day cycle.
As was the case in 1922 during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing, business interests took the lead lobbying for the calendar bill before the Foreign Affairs Committee during the winter of 1928 and 1929. Eastman’s National Committee on Calendar Simplification—which surveyed business associations, chambers of commerce, and professional societies across the country—reported that 80 percent of the 1,433 responses it received supported a simplified calendar. Scientists, too, stated their approval; a representative from the National Academy of Sciences announced that the group had unanimously approved a resolution in favor of a 13-month calendar.
Opponents, however, echoed Bloom’s concerns. Religious authorities representing Jewish and Christian denominations expressed their opposition to calendars that included any so-called “blank days.” In the end, the Foreign Affairs Committee voted against reporting the resolution.
But Bloom wanted to make sure the calendar issue was gone for good and took to the House Floor in June 1929 to drive the final nails in the calendar’s coffin. “Ordinarily I would have been completely satisfied with the quiet demise of a bill I had opposed,” Bloom later reflected, “but in this case I wanted a state funeral—so that a permanent monument would be erected to warn future calendar reformers.”
On the floor, Bloom ran through a litany of concerns: he said the 13-month calendar would violate the First Amendment of the Constitution which protected the free exercise of religion. He noted that any new calendar would also require “a new interpretation of every outstanding bit of commercial paper and legal document.” And he argued that while a year would still be 365 days, the addition of a thirteenth month would mean employers would be quick to lower monthly salaries but landlords would be slow to lower the rent. Businesses, he also pointed out, would have higher annual costs. Monthly transactions—such as rent collection, utility meter readings, and magazine publications—would all have to be performed 13 times a year instead of 12.
If the calendar was mostly a business concern, he said, those businesses were free to use simplified calendars internally on their own volition. “I sincerely believe that every business man can utilize the 13 month plan without making it necessary to have Congress . . . foist this new scheme on an unwilling and unprepared world,” he said.
While the possibility of calendar reform excited certain businessmen and scientists, it didn’t occupy the thoughts of everyday Americans. “The man in the street thus far has remained disinterested in the dispute,” wrote the Washington Post in 1930. Another newspaper observed, “We hear complaints about practically everything else . . . the weather, taxes, the high cost of living . . . but when do you ever hear the enraged taxpayer stand up on his hind legs and complain because April has not as many days as July[?]”
The international push for calendar reform also subsided during the 1930s as the Great Depression took hold. In 1937, the League of Nations abandoned its calendar reform efforts, mostly due to religious opposition, and the movement fizzled in the aftermath of World War II.
In the end, it may all have been for the better. Take a closer look at the photo of Porter and Eastman at the top of this page. Would you really want a Friday the 13th every single month?
Sources: Chicago Tribune, 23 December 1928; New York Times, 29 March 1908, 18 February 1925, 12 December 1928, 9 January 1929, 17 October 1931, and 23 December 1935; Christian Science Monitor, 19 November 1926 and 22 October 1937; Los Angeles Times, 10 February 1935; Baltimore Sun, 13 April 1924; Louisville Courier-Journal, 5 March 1916; Washington Post, 31 December 1928, 27 October 1930, and 21 February 1937; Boston Globe, 15 January 1929; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (2 April 1917): 106–107; Congressional Record, House, 71st Cong., 1st sess. (11 June 1929): 2699, 2701, 2704–2707, 2710–2711, 2714; Congressional Record, Senate, 72nd Cong., 1st sess. (16 July 1932): 15665–15666; Hearing before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Modification of the Calendar, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (1922); Hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Simplification of the Calendar, 70th Cong., 2nd sess. (1928-1929); Eric Nellis, An Empire of Regions: A Brief History of Colonial British America (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); E.G. Richards, Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Joseph U. Barnes, The Liberty Calendar and the First Year (Minneapolis: American Equal Month Calendar Association, 1918); Sol Bloom, The Autobiography of Sol Bloom (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948); A bill to provide for a modification of the time calendar now in general use in the United States, H.R. 15946, 65th Cong. (1919); A bill to provide for a modification of the time calendar now in general use in the United States, the modified form to be known as the Liberty Calendar, H.R. 4847, 68th Cong. (1924); A bill to provide for a modification of the time calendar now in general use in the United States, the modified form to be known as the Liberty Calendar, S. 2862, 70th Cong. (1928).Follow @USHouseHistory