World War I and Daylight Savings Time

Detail from The Washington times., March 30, 1918

As school children, many of us learned “Fall back; spring forward,” but every spring and fall, some will struggle to adjust, bemoan the change, and wonder why we as a nation tamper with time twice a year. Relatively few of us, however, think of daylight saving time as part of a war effort. Examining primary sources can help students think about the time change in historical context.

The first law in the U.S. to establish daylight saving time, passed on March 19, 1918, in the midst of the nation’s involvement in World War I, as a way of conserving fuel needed for war industries and of extending the working day. The law establishing daylight saving time was repealed on August 20, 1919, when the war was well over. (Certain sections of the law, which had established standard time zones, remained in effect.) The need to tinker with the clock came up again during the second world war, in 1942, when the U.S. Congress again passed a law implementing daylight saving time. Read more about the legislative history of daylight saving time in a blog post from the Law Library of Congress, Spring forward, fall back – it’s daylight saving time.

From its beginning, daylight saving time required both explanation and persuasion. This 1918 page from The Washington Times newspaper informs readers about the first implementation of the idea in the United States. In addition to explaining the change, it suggests that understanding daylight saving time should be easy, proclaiming that “There is no occasion for the slightest confusion in the matter of daylight saving.” Side by side with this information, headlines and articles chronicle the progress of the first world war.

Victory! Congress passes daylight saving bill, 1918

Detail from The Washington Herald., March 16, 1918

The graph published in The Washington Herald and the poster proclaiming “Victory! Congress Passes Daylight Saving Bill” offer insights into the legislation as a contribution to the war, shifting an additional hour of daylight to the end of the workday. The article accompanying the chart in The Washington Herald further enumerates anticipated benefits. Students might look at all three primary sources pictured here and identify as many reasons as they can for the 1918 time change. (If they need support extracting information from the poster, select questions from the Analyzing Photographs Teacher’s Guide to focus their observations and thinking.) Interested students might research actual benefits and results, beginning with Saving Energy: The Fall Back Position. The Chronicling America daylight saving time topics page points to even more newspapers reporting the the United States’ first experiments with daylight saving time.

If your students were surprised by anything they learned about daylight saving time, let us know in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Maryjane
    March 11, 2017 at 9:13 am

    This was very interesting. It was a connection I was not aware of.

  2. Thomas Holbrook
    March 15, 2017 at 7:15 am

    I found this interesting as well. I grew up in the WWII era, in Michigan, and recall well the annual time adjustments, though I was not then clear on why or how any time was “saved”. As kids we welcomed the changes, because they added some variety to our childhood lives and meant that, in the summer, we could stay outside later to play because it stayed daylight longer. Michigan was also a state on the western edge of a time zone, so that daylight even during normal clock time lasted a bit longer than it did on the East Coast. Michigan also is the only state, I believe, that is divided by two time zones, part of the Upper Peninsula being in the Central Zone, as is Chicago (but not Detroit, where I lived).

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