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Monday, March 3, 2014

Milwaukee’s Battle over Daylight Saving Time

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When clocks spring forward this weekend, the hour’s sacrifice will hardly seem odd or controversial to most Milwaukeeans. But this practice, so widely accepted today, was a highly charged political issue when it debuted in the area more than 90 years ago. The backers of daylight saving time (DST) saw it as a convenient and practical way of making the best use of the sun’s rays. But others felt it was not only clocks that were going to be manipulated. Opponents of DST tagged it as an effort by capitalists to squeeze additional labor hours from the workingman. 

Milwaukee first adjusted its clocks in 1918. That year and the next, DST was implemented nation-wide by the Standard Time Act, enacted to conserve energy during World War I. But the practice was unpopular and was repealed by the U.S. Congress over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto following the end of the war. While Wisconsin returned to standard time for 1920, some in Milwaukee wanted to continue daylight savings. Proponents spoke of the daylight that could be shifted from the early morning to the evening, giving Milwaukee an extra hour of darkness for sleep and an extra hour of sunshine for post-work relaxation.

Opponents of the proposal, especially labor interests, blasted DST as an oppressive tool of the capitalists. Victor Manhardt, representing building trade unions, called the plan a “scheme” to get more out of the workers. Manhardt was certain that with more daylight, companies would demand more time on the job of their men. He went on to cite the alleged dangers of time shifts to children whose patterns of sleep would be disrupted. The potential of confusion over a “local time” for Milwaukee was also raised. A trip into Milwaukee’s city limits from the suburbs or outlaying communities might mean block-by-block watch adjustments. At the urging of such groups, the proposal was killed in committee by the city’s Common Council.

While Milwaukee remained on standard time for 1920, Chicago adopted the shift and operated an hour ahead of the Cream City for the summer. With perhaps Milwaukee’s most important trade link now endorsing DST, it was no surprise when city business interests again brought the issue to the forefront in January 1921. From their headquarters in the City Club’s downtown offices, the Committee for Daylight Saving Time opened a petition drive to force the issue with the Common Council. The committee sent forth an army of volunteers upon the city, collecting signatures and distributing literature. Hand-drawn charts detailed the patterns of the sun and highlighted the lighted hours that would result from the shift in time. Women’s groups and business leaders endorsed the plan. Suburban officials, anticipating the implementation of DST in the city, began to prepare their own plans for adaptation.

Again, organized labor loudly opposed the shift. J.J. Handley of the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor said: “We cannot see any benefit from it. It is an attack on the short work day, nothing more.” Labor interests convinced the 11 Socialist members of the Common Council to oppose the plan. When the Committee for Daylight Saving Time collected enough signatures to force the Council to either approve DST or defer the matter to the will of the voters, the Socialists forced the matter to a referendum. One month later, the issue was approved by 56-44% margin during the spring election.

But the victory for the savers of daylight was short lived. Just two years later, the efforts of labor and the Socialist Party got the issue back on the ballot. Just as the pro-DST forces had in 1921, anti-DST backers ran an elaborate publicity campaign to “enlighten” the city as to their stance. Among the more abstract arguments against the practice was a series of proclamations made by nationally recognized Milwaukee astrologer Charles Kirchhoff, who declared that man was tempting the wrath of the stars by unnaturally adjusting time. If the practice was not repealed, Kirchhoff predicted that a wave of multiple births—twins, triplets, and quadruplets—would overwhelm the city. He said the later 1920s would bring war and worldwide terror. “If the daylight saving ordinance is not repealed,” he told the Milwaukee Sentinel, “I pity man.”

Milwaukeeans overwhelmingly voted to ditch DST by a stunning 59-41% margin, and a state law prohibited any city from adopting DST. In 1930, the city tried to subvert this by “voluntarily” adapting the practicing, asking local merchants and factories to use the hour shift and hoping others would follow suit. An amendment to the 1923 law quickly put a stop to the effort by barring any business from displaying any clock set to non-standard time.

The issue lingered for another three decades, with referendums occasionally appearing on the ballot, but nothing seemed able to rid the city of its reticence towards tinkering with the clock. The city remained on standard time until 1966, when the Uniform Time Act was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, implementing DST statewide. Despite the claims of Professor Kirchhoff, no boom in multiple births was reported to have followed the shift.