Yesterday marked the beginning of Daylight Saving, three weeks earlier than usual. In theory, this is supposed to be conserving oodles of energy for the betterment of the country, but like so many schemes put into being by Congress, it seems more than a little suspicious. So far, none of the warnings of massive computer malfunctions have come true, and it remains to be seen if the predictions that people’s internal clocks are being upset and schoolchildren becoming depressed will come true, either. But the bottom line is that once again we mortals are trying to jerk daylight around to suit us.
This is, of course, nothing new. Long, long ago, people pretty much had to follow the sun’s schedule for day and night, just as animals did, Fortunately Prometheus came to the rescue and stole fire from the Gods as a special gift for us snivelling low humans, making it possible to turn night into day. For his trouble, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock with an eagle to fly down and devour his liver each day (a lesson to Congress if ever there was one.)
Much later, in the late 18th century during which us Wenches set our books, staying awake after dark continued to be a luxury. Work days were defined by the rise and setting of the sun. Battles were postponed by nightfall, journeys were limited by the length of the day, and farmers (which meant the majority of Europeans and Americans) still followed the days as determined by the sun and their animals with full moons offered a passing respite for travel and harvests.
Candles, lamps, and firelight were, for most people, luxury items. The best candles were made from spermaceti (a by-product of whaling) or beeswax, with homemade candles dipped from tallow (animal fat) a smelly, smoky second. Even lower on the light-scale were rushes dipped in tallow. Also just coming into popular use were lamps that burned whale-oil.
Reading and writing by the light of a candle or fire may sound romantic, but it’s not easy on the eyes, as anyone who has tried it knows. If people didn’t go directly to bed after dark, then they used these hours for tasks that didn’t require much light –– knitting, spinning, food preparation for the next day’s meals, cleaning tools and weapons –– and for cheerful entertainment like conversation, drinking, music, dancing, flirting, and general goofing around.
The ultimate luxury was a blazing chandelier, especially if the candles were replenished in the course of the evening. No candles lasted very long, or gave off much light, which in turn dictated the taste for highly polished (and reflective) silverware, brass, and looking-glasses to capture and magnify all possible light. The sheen of silk fabrics, metallic-threaded embroidary and lace, and cut-steel and marcasite buttons on evening dress accomplished the same thing. Part of the reason why diamonds and other cut stones were considered appropriate for after dark was how well they showed by candlelight.
The first supporter of moving the clock ahead to capitalize on the longer days of summer was that consummate “improver” Benjamin Franklin. But it wasn’t until English builder William Willet began to lobby Parliament in the early 20th century that the idea began to gain support. While the objections of farmers and sailors made sense, some others seemed a little far-fetched, such as this expounded in the House of Lords by Lord Balfour:
“Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born ten minutes before 1 o’clock [when English clocks would be moved ahead] and the time of the birth of the two children would be reversed…Such alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that house.”
Or, in other words, which son got to be the Duke and therefore the Romance Hero.
Both England and America legislated Daylight Saving (called Summer Time in England) during the First World War. Since then, it’s been sporadically lengthened or shortened: during World War Two, it lasted year-round, and was called “War Time”, while during the 70s, President Nixon signed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act (saving sunlight, if not verbiage) which lasted for fifteen months. (For more about Daylight Saving, see: http://webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/e.html)
The current switch is a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Now Daylight Saving will last from the second Sunday of March until the first Sunday in November, thereby totally messing up all those early-bird Trick-or-Treaters who count on going out when it’s dark at 4:30 on Halloween. Theoretically, we’re all going to save 1% of our total energy costs, plus see our personal productivity grow by leaps and bounds. There’s even supposed to be less crime.
So what about you? Are you more productive by daylight, or does your brain whirl along better after the sun sets? Did you find it horribly hard to get up with the alarm this morning?