Long before you lived here, America was a land of many towns. Our expansive “agrarian society” was barely a society at all, really, save for a loosely connected sense of similar place and purpose. And each place had its own time on the clock.
When it was 9:00 am in your town, it could be 8:42 in the town next door. It had to be that way, because there was not yet a way to unify our communities — no widespread phones, no telegraph to speak of — and the sun itself could only indulge men on the ground with the roughest sense of its place in the sky.
Many cities in the world, such as Edinburgh, Ottawa, and Hong Kong, could induce their citizens to agree on the current minute by means of cannons fired daily at noon on the dot — “noon-day guns,” they were sometimes called, some of which still operate out of the undying human demand for nostalgia and tourism (one scared the crap out of me daily at lunchtime when I lived in Cape Town) — but across the vast unsettled land of America, cohesion was still a dream.
The difference of a few minutes really didn’t matter much when it took an hour to travel two miles, and when the main daily pressure would have been to get you business done by dark. But when the trains began running, the shuffled deck of our various systems became a true mortal threat. A train couldn’t leave one town at 9:00 and arrive in the next one at 8:43. Apart from severely confusing the passengers and creating schedules a foot thick and requiring conductors to use an abacus, there was a real opportunity for collisions.
So in the 1860s people began agitating for everyone in America to adopt a standardized time system. Many of them stood to make a fortune from the new steel highways, as many men did. It started with a joker named Charles F. Dowd, who was the head of the Temple Grove Ladies’ Seminary in Saratoga Springs, New York (back when upstate New York was still a world player thanks to the Erie Canal — but the trains, ironically, would soon fix that). The year the famous Golden Spike was sunk into Utah, Dowd started pressing for the adoption of four American time zones. And to get those accomplished, we’d have to start putting our heads together on what time meant to us. We’d have to pin it down, once and forever, like a butterfly under glass.
It took a while. Americans didn’t really object to the hands of the federal government on their pocket watches, largely because the proposed change was at the behest of the newfangled railroad companies instead. As the equivalent of the Internet companies of their time, they had lots of devotées — most of whom conveniently overlooked the drawbacks and consequences and instead fixated on the benefits of the brave new world they could bring.
But by 1883, we had the tools we needed to proceed. The telegraph was established enough so that signals could be sent between towns and clocks could be adequately synchronized. The National Railway Time Convention was held, and it was agreed that November 18 should be the day that time zones were implemented and everyone’s noon would be noon. It was called the “Day of Two Noons,” after the places that would have to live through one noon before correcting themselves to the “right” one, forevermore.
The day passed, and apart from a little Y2K-style fretting that the seams of the natural world would come unsewn, everyone peaceably made their adjustments and forgot about it. It was completely optional, yet we all agreed that, for the sake of a greater good, time itself should be redefined.
How I admire those old Americans for their good sense.
In that case, industry led the advance of the greater good. The train companies put us all on the same track. A recent episode of PBS’s History Detectives uncovered a clock that was used as a timekeeping nerve center, keeping precise time for train stations throughout the Midwest and Mid-South.
Unfortunately, the mania for standardization was contagious, and in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison (who will never be an action figure) convened the Board on Geographic Names. As described in Bill Bryson’s superlative Made in America, the Board’s mandate was to beat the individuality out of the rich tapestry of eccentric names that America had cultivated for itself over the centuries. The Board’s job was to command all government agencies to spell things its way. Fierce Americanization was the order.
Prior to 1890, British spellings in place names was far more common. After all, at that time, many of our grandfathers would have been born British. But the Board beat the Centres in to Centers, suffixes of -borough were dulled to -boro, and sprightly hydra-headed New Castle and La Fayette were tamed into Newcastle and Lafayette. San José was robbed of its aigu, thus excising the Spaniards from the story of what they began.
The Board and the Post Office lost one notable battle. In 1891, the edict came down to start using Pittsburg. The city, no doubt puffed up with steely pride, refused. Not the University, not the Stock Exchange (which existed, and which during the city’s industrial heyday wielded considerable power). For 20 years, the Board and its arbitrary grammar police commanded the loss of the rambunctious H. It never took. On July 19, 1911, Pittsburgh, with that wasteful 10th letter, became the official spelling per official law.
But most places in America complied, perhaps out of a starry-eyed wonderment for the brave, uniform, industrial age they were supposedly enjoying. I wonder how many towns would sooner burn to the ground than comply with a government order like this today.