If you’re a long-time reader of Now I Know, you’re probably aware of a few really weird problems that Daylight Saving Time has created over the years. There’s the town in Saskatchewan that’s also in Alberta, which, beyond being in two places at once, is also sometimes unable to keep its clocks straight because one province follows Daylight Saving Time while the other doesn’t. The date on which most Americans “fall back” is now a byproduct of effective lobbying by the candy industry. One year, Minneapolis and St. Paul couldn’t agree when to “spring forward.” Even the reasons we have Daylight Saving Time (or DST) in the first place are murky.
Let’s add to the list: if you were in Connecticut in 1923, changing the clocks could have landed you in jail.
Whether changing clocks twice annually is a good idea is debatable; similarly, we can quibble as to whether Daylight Saving Time is better Standard Time or vice versa. But one thing is, likely, uncontroversial: communities should probably pick one together, and apply it across the board. If the school bus driver thinks it’s 7 AM but the principal thinks it’s 8 AM, well, that’s a problem. For the sake of our collective sanity, when it comes to deciding what time it is, we need to find a way to get along.
But in the 1920s, Connecticut’s varied interests were having a hard time doing that. Specifically, in 1922, the legislature — controlled by farmers who wished to have consistent time year-round (and didn’t mind having an earlier sunrise and sunset) — passed a law requiring that the entire state remain on Standard Time year round. But the law didn’t have any penalties associated with it, and, surprisingly, a few of the state’s mayors decided to “spring forward” anyway. As TIME reported, the result was comical, and in effect defeated the legislature’s wishes: “the cities used daylight-saving time, while the executive and judicial departments of the State and the railroads kept their clocks at Standard time, but moved their schedules an hour ahead.”
The legislators were none too happy. One legislator, per the same TIME article, “offered a bill to provide four commissioners at salaries of $10,000 a year [a six-figure job today, adjusted for inflation] to go about the streets, examine the watches of citizens and take those to jail who used Daylight Saving Time.” But the rest of his lawmaking colleagues didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to incarcerate those who dared change their watches, and the bill failed.
But a year later, the resolve of the anti-DST crowd proved stronger. In 1923, the state passed a law which, per a subsequent TIME report, “[forbid] the ‘willful display in any public building, street, avenue, or public highway of any time-measuring instrument or device, which is calculated or intended to furnish time to the general public, set or running so as to indicate any other than the standard time.’” And this law had teeth: violating the law meant you were subject to a $100 fine — about $1,400 accounting for inflation — or up to ten days in prison.
And yet, some people still decided to switch their clocks. As ConnecticutHistory.org recounts, a Hartford jeweler, in a direct affront to the law, “[set] the clock in front of his jewelry store ahead one hour.” His case made its way to the Connecticut Supreme Court which upheld the law, and ruled that the criminal penalties for violating the statute were perfectly constitutional. In Connecticut, observing Daylight Saving Time was against the law. (It’s unclear if the jeweler went to jail.)
In the 1930s, Connecticut changed course and DST became A-OK once again. Today, the entire state changes its clocks twice a year.
From the Archives: Knockered Up: How did people wake up on time before the invention of alarm clocks? Here’s one way. It involves a person with a very long stick.
Take the Quiz: Name the most populous city by time zone.
Related: “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time” by Michael Dowling. 19 reviews, 4.6 stars.