Friday, November 02, 2018 Dr. Nic Butler

As we conclude the 100th season of “Daylight Saving Time” and set our clocks back to “Standard Time,” let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the concept of time keeping in Charleston’s past. Before the proliferation of wristwatches, smart phones, and international time zones, who determined the official time for our city, and when did we start synchronizing our clocks with those of other communities? Did keeping track of the time of day or night really matter? Join me as we “fall back” in time and review the horological habits of our less hurried past.

As the autumn days grow shorter during this time of year, most animals, including humans, experience some physiological and psychological changes that prepare us for the relative darkness of winter. It’s an ancient cycle that connects us to the ebb and flow of the natural world around us. The long, hot, active days of summer are behind us, and we’re preparing to slow down and conserve our resources to guard against the coming chill. In the modern world, we also have to set our clocks back an hour, switching from “Daylight Saving Time” back to “Standard Time.” As long as I can remember, I’ve always dreaded this change. Instead of a natural transition, it feels like we hit a time pothole and suddenly we’re into winter. I’m not alone in this sentiment, either. In recent years, a number of people around the globe have voiced their frustration with the wide-spread practice of adjusting our clocks twice a year to account for seasonal changes in the amount of sunlight during a day. Some people are advocating for an end to the practice of turning our clocks forward one hour in the spring and back in the fall. In order to help us form an opinion about this upcoming debate, it seems important to review the chronological path leading up to this dilemma.

Let’s use our imaginations to travel back to the earliest days of Charleston. Before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous population didn’t have clocks, but they were certainly aware of seasonal changes. Their diet, their dress, and even their place of residence changed in accordance with the natural progression of the seasons. Following the arrival of European settlers in late seventeenth century, only the richest men in colonial Charles Town owned a pocket watch or a clock. Over the course of the eighteenth century, watches and clocks became slightly more affordable and commonplace, but they remained expensive luxury items until very near the middle of the nineteenth century. Middle-class folks could afford such things in the second half of the 1800s, but most poor folks continued to rely on other methods of keeping track of time.

The most basic and ancient method of measuring time is called “apparent solar time,” which means simply tracking the daily progress of the sun across the sky by observing the shadows its creates on the ground. This is the concept behind that venerable time-keeping device, the sundial. Since ancient times, people have determined the mid-point of the solar day by marking the point at which shadows cast by the sun are shortest. Using some fancy calculations, one can refine this “apparent” time into a more precise chronology that we call “mean solar time,” or “clock time.” There’s a lot more complexity to the science of horology, or time keeping, but I’ll depart from the science here to make a simple observation. For all of recorded history prior to the mid-nineteenth century, every community determined the time of day through a series of local solar observations. As a result of this process, the “official” time in one town was different from that of another town just a few miles down the road. In an era when people didn’t travel much, or didn’t travel very far, however, such time differences didn’t really matter. It was enough that people could agree on the hour of the day in their own community. People didn’t labor over the minutiae of accuracy and precision.

As individuals, each of can observe the sun in the sky and its shadows on the ground and estimate the time of day for our own personal purposes. In the context of a community, however, individuals have to come to some consensus about the marking of time. This consensus might be rather informal in a rural setting, where people have limited interaction with their neighbors. So, if you’re living on, say, John’s Island, and you think it’s five in the afternoon, while at that same moment, your cousin in Goose Creek thinks it’s a half past four, it really doesn’t matter. If you sent your aunty a letter inviting her to dinner on a certain date and time, and she arrived a half hour early or late, who cared? But in an urban community, where people have greater interaction with their neighbors, it was more important for business and life in general to come to some agreement about the time of day. What time does your shop open? When does the ferry depart? And what time do I get off work? To resolve such questions, urbanites need a common frame of time, or a “time standard.” In South Carolina’s first city, it was called simply “Charleston time.”


Charleston Time

The earliest references to a public time keeping device in urban Charleston date from the early years of the eighteenth century, when the clerk of the market rang a bell each morning at sunrise to mark the opening of the market. The precise hour of that ringing was hard to determine, since there were so few clocks in town, but the hour really didn’t matter. The market opened when there was enough sunlight to see what you were buying. At that time, the town market was held at the intersection of Broad and East Bay Streets, adjacent to the town’s first Watch House or police station. That one-story Watch House was replaced in the late 1720s with a slightly larger two-and-a-half story Watch House, which included a legislative Council Chamber above the police quarters, and Charleston’s first public clock in a “turret” above the roof. That turret, probably more like a cupola, proved to be leaky, however, and in August of 1732 the councilors who assembled below it ordered the clock to be removed to the steeple of St. Philip’s Church.[1] The clock must not have been very reliable or remarkable, however, because references to it are amazingly scarce in the surviving paper records of colonial Charleston.

Even after the arrival of our first public clock in the late 1720s, keeping track of the hour of the day in colonial-era Charleston continued to be a vague business. Most people’s lives simply revolved around the rising and the setting of the sun. Unless you had an expensive watch or clock, or even a sundial, calculating the hours between sunrise and sunset was a matter of guess work. As a result of these conditions, people’s lives did not revolve around schedules and deadlines. The concept of being late or early was far more elastic than it is today. The notion of “clock time” was a mathematical construct, not a rule that framed your life. This situation began to change in the mid-1760s, however, when an expensive, English-made clock was installed in the steeple of St. Michael’s Church at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.

Shortly after the official opening of St. Michael’s Church in 1761, its vestry began to raise a subscription to purchase a clock and a set of bells. A 1763 description of their clock, provided by its maker in London, noted that it was designed “to show the hour four ways[,] to strike the hour on the largest bell[,] and the quarters on 4 bells, as the Royal Exchange [in] London.” The four-faced clock included four copper dial plates, each measuring six feet in diameter. Notice that the manufacturer did not mention a separate hand to show the minutes. It had an hour hand and it chimed the quarter hours, which was sufficient for eighteenth century lifestyles.

St. Michael’s clock arrived in Charleston in July of 1764 and was installed shortly afterwards.[2] From that point to the end of the American Revolution, it was considered the “town clock.” Following the incorporation of the City of Charleston in 1783, the new city government paid an annual sum to maintain what it called “the city clock” at St. Michael’s Church, and also paid the salary of an official “time keeper.”[3] People in town set their watches and clocks by the hours and quarter hours chimed by St. Michael’s clock. As people’s lives became busier and more regimented in the nineteenth century, however, our community began to fret about dividing the hours of the day more precisely. Responding to this cultural shift in the spring of 1849, the City Council of Charleston paid to have minute hands added to the four faces of the clock in St. Michael’s steeple.[4]

The four-faced clock in the steeple of St. Michael’s Church remained the official time piece of the city of Charleston until mid-December of 1946, at which time the city paid the church to electrify and automate the venerable clock.[5] But for nearly half a century, St. Michael’s was not the only city clock. When St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on King Street, just north of Calhoun Street, installed a set of bells and a clock in its steeple in 1901, it also entered into a long-term agreement with the city to hire a “time keeper” to maintain its time piece as a public service to the people residing on the north side of the city. This relationship continued well into the 1950s, when that clock was also converted to electric power.[6]


Seasonal Adjustments

More than two centuries before the invention of “daylight saving time,” the people of Charleston made time adjustments to compensate for the seasonal changes in daylight hours. Rather than setting their clocks forward or back, however, they simply changed their business hours to adjust for the changes in daylight. The earliest evidence of this practice that I’ve found dates from the late 1690s, when the South Carolina legislature passed a series of acts to regulate the night watch in urban Charleston. From March 10th to October 10th, the watchmen were on duty from nine p.m. until four a.m., and from October 10th to March 10th, they patrolled the town from eight p.m. to six a.m. Later revisions to this police system made slight adjustments to the hours and the dates, but this sort of seasonal adjustment in Charleston’s police system continued all the way up to the adoption of a 24-hour patrol just before the Civil War.

The earliest surviving law regulating the food market in Charleston, ratified in 1710, directed a clerk to ring “the bell at the Watch House” each morning to signal the opening of the market, but the time of the bell ringing changed according to the season. From the first of March to the first of September, the clerk was to ring the market bell at six in the morning, and from the first of September to the first of March at seven in the morning, after which “the said market in Charles Town shall be open, and all persons allowed to buy, barter, and sell live and dead victuals and provisions.”[7] A few years later, in 1736, the government decided it was simpler to open the market at sunrise, the time of which changed incrementally throughout the year, but to order the market to close at a specific hour, which was adjusted for winter and summer.[8] The City of Charleston’s market ordinance of 1807, for example, stated that the market bell would ring every day at sunrise, and on weekdays the market would close at eleven a.m. “between the first day of June and the last day of September, or twelve o’clock at noon between the first day of October and the last day of May.”[9] As with the laws regulating the duty of the city’s police force, the dates and hours of these seasonal market adjustments were refined over the years, but they continued even after the Civil War.[10]

From the beginning of curbside garbage collection in urban Charleston in 1750 to the Civil War, the street sweepers and scavengers hired by the city government were obliged to clean the streets before a certain hour each morning, but that hour changed according to the seasons. In 1858, for example, the contractors were “required to have the dirt, filth, garbage, and all kinds of offal, removed from the streets lanes, alleys, and open courts of the city, by the hour of 10 o’clock, a.m., from the first day of May to the first day of November, in every year, and by the hour of 12 o’clock, m., from the first day of November to the first day of May following.”[11] Like the night watch and the market, the city from time to time altered the precise date and hour of these seasonal adjustments, but they remained a fact of life in Charleston into the second half of the nineteenth century.

From the installation of a peal of bells in the steeple of St. Michael’s Church in late 1764, the bells were rung each night for ten to fifteen minutes around sunset, to coordinate with the beating of the tattoo that marked the beginning of the nocturnal night watch and the curfew for the city’s black majority. This practice continued for more than a century, and its timing was adjusted seasonally just like setting of the watch. What was called “first bells” pealed at 7 p.m. in the winter and 8 p.m. in the summer, as a sort of warning to the population that the end of the work day was approaching, then the “last bells” pealed at 9 p.m. in the winter and 10 p.m. in the summer. The need for these bells disappeared with the advent of 24-hour police protection in the late 1850s and the end of slavery in 1865, but the tradition continued. Charleston’s seasonally-adjusted nocturnal bells were last heard on the sixth day of September, 1882. The following day, the city switched on a new telegraphic fire alarm system that chimed the bells electrically. You know—break glass, pull handle, bell will ring.[12]


Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time:

The modern practice of coordinating time-keeping over vast geographic areas has its roots in the railroad boom of the mid-nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1830s, railroads began linking distant communities that had their own time-keeping practices and traditions. To coordinate the rapid movement of trains from town to town and state to state, however, railroad managers began compiling and publishing the “time standards” for all the locations linked by the rail lines. For the first time in history, it was useful and even important to know the exact time in a distant place. In the United States, we had dozens and dozens of “time standards” across our broad nation, and European railroads experienced a similar profusion of confusing local clocks. The arrival of telegraph system in the 1840s underscored the issue. People could now communicate nearly instantaneously over very long distances, but we couldn’t even agree on the time of day.

By the 1880s, business people were clamoring for some method to simplify and standardize time keeping across the country and around the world. Conventions were held in the U.S. and abroad and maps were drawn. The old local “time standards” were subsumed into a new concept called “Standard Time,” which, in turn, was divided into broad geographic units. New York city adopted the concept of Eastern Standard Time at noon on Sunday, the eighteenth of November, 1883. On that same day in Charleston, the News and Courier instructed local citizens to follow suit: “At 20 minutes before 12 o’clock, present Charleston time, to-day, St. Michael’s clock and the three fire-alarm bells will simultaneously strike 12, in order that everyone in Charleston may push up their clocks and watches and adopt the new Standard Time.”

Finally, this brief history of time keeping in Charleston’s past brings us up to the spring of 1918. As the Great War in Europe dragged on, the various nations involved in that conflict began experimenting with a new practice of seasonal time adjustments. Germany started the trend in 1916, and other countries followed suit. The idea was relatively simple: Turn the clock ahead an hour in the spring to create longer days during the warmer, productive months, and turn them back an hour to normal “standard time” in the autumn. The principal motivation for this new practice was to conserve fuel for the war effort. With an additional hour of daylight during the most productive months, one would burn less coal and generate less electricity. The surplus coal could be allocated for military purposes, and the war might conclude a bit sooner. After Britain signed on to the new concept, the United States soon followed her lead. On Sunday, the 31st of March, 1918, the people of Charleston and the rest of the nation awoke to a new era of annual clock fiddling that we call “Daylight Saving Time.” The Great War ended in November, 1918, just after the conclusion of the first summer of “Daylight Saving,” but the practice of turning our clocks forward and back each year has persisted, with minor changes, for the past century.

From the first days of “Daylight Saving Time” in 1918 to the present, mothers have complained that their babies don’t understand that bedtime and feeding time have been shifted backwards or forwards. Teenagers have refused to get up or go to bed an hour earlier. Millions of people have been early or late for work and church. Cats have awakened their humans without regard to the annual “spring forward” and “fall back.” The clock on your computer and your smartphone may reset themselves automatically, but most other clocks, including the clock in most automobiles, still require human intervention to keep up with artificial concept of Daylight Saving Time.

The Great War ended a century ago, but the legacy of its fuel conservation plan continues to complicate our lives. In the generations before that international innovation in time keeping, the people of Charleston and the rest of the world managed to keep track of the hour of the day and the seasons of the year with sufficient accuracy to suit local needs. They adjusted their schedules to suit the seasons, and they fudged the “apparent solar time” a bit to coordinate with their neighbors, but they didn’t jerk the community’s clock back and forth an hour twice a year. As the debate over the future of Daylight Saving Time grows in the coming years, your opinion will count. Personally, I like to keep things simple. I’d prefer to stick with plain, old-fashioned Charleston Time.






[1] South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 5, part 1 (1730–33), p. 141 (17 August 1732).

[2] See George W. Williams, St. Michael’s, Charleston, 1751–1951 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951), 241, 244–45, 248.

[3] The earliest surviving evidence of the City Council’s subvention of the clock appears in the city’s first publication of its internal accounts in Charleston Evening Gazette, 1 September 1785: “A State of the Receipts and Expenditures of the Corporation from October, 1783, to this day,” which includes a list of payments for “contingencies,” among which is “repairs to the Town Clock.”

[4] See Charleston Courier, 15 March 1849: Proceedings of City Council, 13 March: “Alderman Tupper submitted the following resolution, which was adopted. Resolved, that his Honor the Mayor be authorized and is hereby directed, to have minute hands placed to the dials of St. Michael’s Clock, provided the same does not materially affect the present arrangement of the works.” The annual review of the city’s finances for 1849–50, printed in Charleston Courier, 2 September 1850, page 3, includes $963.04 for “St. Michael’s clock, keeper’s salary for previous year and this year in part, sundry bills in reference to minute hands, extra to [time] keeper.”

[5] Charleston News and Courier, 15 December 1946, page 1.

[6] See St. Matthew’s petition asking the city “to provide the same arrangements for the bell to be put in there as are now had at St. Michael’s,” in the proceedings of City Council in the Charleston News and Courier, 1 March 1899. The city’s budget for 1901–2, printed in Charleston Evening Post, 30 January 1902, page 6, includes $240 for “keeper of the clock (St. Michael’s) and $240 for the “keeper of the clock (St. Matthew’s).”

[7] The full text of “An Act to appoint and erect a Market in Charles Town, for the Publick sale of Provisions, and against Regrators, Forestallers and Ingrossers,” ratified on 8 April 1710, is found in Nicholas Trott’s manuscript “Laws of South Carolina,” pp. 31–38, at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

[8] See Act No. 598: “An Act for Regulating the Markets in the Parish of St. Philip’s, Charles-Town, and for preventing Forestalling, Ingrossing, Regrating, and unjust Exactions in the said Town and Market,” ratified on 29 May 1736, in  South Carolina General Assembly, Acts Passed by the General Assembly of South-Carolina, at a Sessions begun and holden at Charles-Town, the Fifteenth Day of November in the Seventh Year of the Reign of Our Sovereign Lord George the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great-Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Annoque Domini One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Three, And from thence continued by divers [sic] Prorogations and Adjournments to the Twenty-Ninth Day of May, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Six (Charleston, S.C.: Lewis Timothy, 1736), 25–29.

[9] See “An Ordinance for the uniform regulation and government of the Public Markets in the City of Charleston; for the adjustment of Weights and Measures in the said City; and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 6 May 1807, in Alexander Edwards, compiler, Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, Passed between the 24th of September 1804, and the 1st Day of September 1807. To Which is Annexed, a Selection of Certain Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature of the State of South-Carolina, Relating to the City of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1807), 432–53.

[10] See the “Rules and Regulations of the Commissioners of the Market, of 4th March, 1835, Concurred in by the City Council, March 1835,” printed in George B. Eckhard, compiler, A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Year 1783 to October 1844. To Which Are Annexed the Acts of the Legislature Which Relate Exclusively to the City of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), pp. 154–56; see “An Ordinance to repeal so much of the Ordinance passed May 6, 1807, as relates to Sunday Markets, and for other purposes,” ratified on 4 August 1843, in Eckhard, A Digest of the Ordinances (1844), pp. 150–51; see the proceedings of the City Council meeting of 7 April 1868, in Charleston Courier, 11 April 1868.

[11] Garbage collection in Charleston commenced with “An Act for keeping the Streets in Charles Town clean, and establishing such other regulations for the security Health and Convenience of the Inhabitants of the said Town as are therein mentioned, and for establishing a new Market in the said Town,” ratified on 31 May 1750; the text of this act has never been published, but the engrossed manuscript of the full text can be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. See also “An Ordinance to abolish the office of Superintendents of Streets; to provide for keeping the streets, lanes, alleys, and open courts in the City of Charleston clean, and for other purposes,” ratified on 19 January 1858, in John R. Horsey, compiler, Ordinances of the City of Charleston, from the 14th September, 1854, to the 1st December, 1859 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Co., 1859), 61–62.

[12] See “The First and Last Bells” in Charleston News and Courier, 12 September 1882. The new telegraphic fire alarm system was described in Charleston News and Courier, 7 September 1882, page 4. The discontinuation of the nightly bells prompted a series of nostalgic letters to the local newspapers in the following days and weeks. See also the police department report in City of Charleston, Year Book, 1882, page 186.


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