Note: I wrote this article several years ago when I hosted a weekly trivia contest at the Black Swan English Pub. It still applies today.
Early this past Sunday (probably about the time many in Bokey were wrapping up their Pints ‘N Paws after parties), Americans set their clocks ahead one hour to begin Daylight Saving Time. Most of us made the change with little thought about why we did it. And if we did ponder the reason for it, we’ll blame the farmers.
It’s generally accepted that Daylight Saving Time (DST) was instituted to give farmers more daylight hours to tend to and harvest their crops. Not so. In fact, farmers vigorously opposed the implementation of DST when it was first introduced in World War I. Instead, it was the business community, particularly New York bankers, who benefited the most and therefore pushed hardest for DST.
Englishman William Willett is the father of DST. He formulated the idea in 1905 on a pre-breakfast ride. In his opinion, Londoners slept too late in the morning during the summer months. He was also an avid golfer and calculated that an extra hour of daylight in the summer months would allow him to finish his rounds with plenty of sunlight.
Willett lobbied the British Parliament to adopt Daylight Saving Time until his death in 1915. It wasn’t until Germany implemented DST during World War I that the British goverment, and eventually the U.S., followed suit. The reasoning was DST would alleviate coal shortages. After the war, the U.S. and Germany eliminated DST, but Britain continued to observe the twice-a-year time change.
Even before the war, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was an ardent supporter of DST as a means to improve business efficiency (i.e. boost retail sales), according to Michael Downing’s book “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving.” Following the war, prominent businessmen in New York lobbied Congress to permanently adopt DST. Congress eventually repealed Daylight Saving (after two vetoes by President Woodrow Wilson), so in 1919 New York City Board of Aldermen, with the support of the merchant associations and bankers, implemented a city ordinance establishing DST.
You might ask, “Why did bankers care about Daylight Saving?” One word: Arbitrage. Securities and commodities, like wheat or soybeans, don’t sell for the same price in the different markets. Arbitrage occurs when a broker buys in one market and then immediately sells it in another market to take advantage of the price difference. In his book, Downing notes that trading at the New York Stock Exchange began at 9 a.m., which was 2 p.m. in London. That gave New York brokers 1 hour to make arbitrage trades before the London Stock Exchange closed at 3 p.m. After the war, Americans went back to Standard time, while the British still observed Daylight Saving time, thus eliminating the “arbitrage hour.” Once New York adopted DST, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland quickly followed suit so their stock exchanges were not at a disadvantage.
A hodge-podge of cities and states adopted DST throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Daylight Saving was adopted nationally during World War II, but again to returned to local control following the war. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 established standardized dates and times for the beginning (last Sunday in April) and ending (last Sunday in October) of DST in the U.S. States decide whether to adopt DST. Hawaii and Arizona do not observe DST, nor does Russia, Japan and most African and Asian countries.
In 1987, Congress agreed to move the start of DST to the first Sunday in April. Again it was the business community — not the farmers — who pushed for the change. Clorox, which manufactured Kingsford Charcoal, and 7-Eleven helped fund the Daylight Saving Time Coalition, as did the National Association of Convenience Stores, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and the Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association. Downing says in his book that the golfing industry urged Congress to add an extra month of DST because it would mean and additional $200 to $400 million in sales, while the barbecue industry said an extension would mean $100 to $150 million in sales.
An interesting side note: The former executive director of the Daylight Saving Time Coalition, James Benfield, told a Congressional subcommittee in 2001 that in 1987 he was able to secure yes votes on the DST extension bill from both senators from Idaho by showing them that Hardees, McDonald’s and other fast-food chains posted better sales during Daylight Saving. More sales means more French fries, and thus, more potatoes purchased from Idaho farmers.
Congress again voted to extend DST in 2005, moving the start date from the first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March, as well as moving the ending date from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November.
So next time your friend or co-worker starts to babble on about farmers and DST, you can politely point out they don’t know what they’re talking about.