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Does anybody really know what time it is?

By Henry Timman • Oct 5, 2018 at 11:00 AM

At least twice every year we hear discussions concerning the pros and cons of Daylight Saving Time, especially the issue of keeping daylight time permanently or discarding it. Good points are offered by both sides, but we never hear of or see action from the fabled “powers that be.” Therefore, in another month we’ll turn our clocks back and resume using standard time.

Ascertaining time was sometimes a real challenge to our ancestors. Not every man owned a pocket watch and they had to reckon by other means. Their stomach told them when it was meal time and the position of the sun (if it was sunny) gave a general indication of the time of day. I have read that some people would note the maximum length of a shadow on the house floor or on the ground and would mark that high point as being noon or very close thereto.

Peddlers would appear periodically, even on the frontier, and would offer clocks and other household items for sale such as kettles, skillets and other tin and iron tools. A common way to mark a certain time was to advertise a meeting as beginning “at early candlelight,” meaning the time when you’d first light a candle in the twilight. The matter of exact time didn’t really matter until the advent of railroads and the necessity of scheduling departures and arrivals.

In the 1880s, the country was running on what was called Sun Time. This was not a good system, especially for railroads. Every depot on an east-west railroad operated on a time a little different from the depot to its east and west. It took a mathematician to figure out what was what, so a standard time was devised. Few people liked standard time, but the railroads adopted it so people had to at least understand how to calculate it.

Late in 1889, a number of Norwalk merchants petitioned the county commissioners to set the courthouse clock to standard time and make it official for Norwalk. The railroads had been using standard time, so this action put everyone on the same schedule. In 1893, the entire state adopted standard time, and so it has stayed.

After the change in 1893, the state was in what was called the Central Time Zone and existed pretty well with it until 1915 when Cleveland decided to become part of the Eastern Time zone. This meant the Lake Shore Electric street cars would run one hour different from local time. It was fuss and stew until World War I broke out and the governor proposed that all of the state use Eastern time so that people had more time in the evening to work in their garden and help the war effort. In March of 1918, Daylight Saving Time was ushered in and was used until October, when standard time returned.

Daylight Saving Time complaints returned with World War II, but it was used during the war and afterward — except that some cities opted to follow it and some did not. A person en route to an appointment in a neighboring city had to do some quick calculating. When Norwalk’s city council voted in May of 1952 to adopt Daylight Saving Time, it was supported by the chamber of commerce. The chamber president received so many anonymous threatening calls at home that he asked for police protection.

In the 1950s, a municipality could decide what time program it wanted to use and some of us can remember that Cleveland was on one time and Norwalk on another. Some calculating had to be done to ascertain when radio and TV programs would be heard and seen. At least the time is uniform these days, but we still hear nothing official from those who would abolish either standard or daylight time programs.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.


Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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