Port Townsend, WA. Life on American farms in the 19th century tended to be impoverished, tedious, and lonely. To try to make it less so, the Grange movement emerged after the Civil War with a focus on modernizing agricultural practices and strengthening rural communities. As Grange Halls spread across the countryside, they brought lectures and technical demonstrations, concerts, dances, and celebrations—some of which helped raise crop and livestock yields and all of which knitted communities together.

The movement gave rise to the National Grange organization, which became an influential advocate for rural interests in Washington, D.C. Among its legislative victories were laws that lowered railroad freight rates and extended free mail delivery to rural areas. The Grange lives on today, but its influence waned as the U.S. urbanized. The arc of its decline as a powerful lobbying organization can be traced in one of its last great legislative battles, which lasted through the first half of the 20th century, on an issue that might seem quaint or strange for farmers to have cared much about.

The Grange fought hard against Daylight Saving Time. (Officially it’s “saving,” not “savings.”) Contrary to popular belief that DST originated as a favor to farmers, most of them were adamantly opposed to it. The Grange and later farm groups, such as the county and state Farm Bureaus, were surprisingly effective in preventing the widespread adoption of DST for several decades, despite strong support for it from urban and industrial interests.

Farmers’ motives were partly practical, partly instinctive, as we’ll see. What’s remarkable is that their instincts about DST have been validated in recent years by discoveries in physiology and the emerging field of chronobiology. A chorus of scientific societies now says DST is unhealthy and should be abandoned, for reasons that rural folk a century ago seem to have sensed intuitively.

What makes this even more remarkable and also timely is that in the past few years, 15 state legislatures have spurned scientific opinion by voting to more firmly enshrine DST—making it permanent, year-round. Many other states have been considering the move. None as yet has been able to put it into effect because it’s not an option under the Uniform Time Act, which established national DST in 1966. The law allows states to stay on standard time, as Hawaii and Arizona do, but those that opt to observe DST must do so for eight months, March to November.

With 15 states in limbo unless Congress amends the law, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has come to the rescue with a bill that would impose permanent DST nationwide. His Sunshine Protection Act would put an end to the semi-annual changing of clocks throughout the U.S. It also would advance each U.S. time zone one hour closer to Coordinated Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time. Presto! The equivalent of daylight time becomes the new national standard, year-round.

Sen. Rubio and likeminded state lawmakers maybe should be given credit for trying to move the nation forward, even if only by one hour. But they ignore considerable scientific evidence that DST messes with our body clocks and that year-round DST could be worse. That they persist says something about the evolution of American agriculture and how out of touch we collectively have become with the intractable pulse of nature.

The concept now known as daylight saving emerged after the industrial revolution and because of it. In Great Britain around the turn of the 20th century, timekeeping came to be seen by some as one more production factor that could be engineered for greater efficiency. Advancing clocks by one hour in the summer, it was argued, would give factory workers more time for outdoor recreation after hours, resulting in a healthier workforce. Merchants, too, would benefit from an extra hour for commerce in sunshine, or its cloudy English equivalent, at the end of the day.

DST bills were introduced in Parliament—tabled, as lawmakers say outside the U.S.—but all were tabled in the U.S. sense—set aside or rejected. Battle lines were drawn that would last for decades to come: Urban and industrial interests favored DST, rural and agrarian ones opposed it. In a charming history, Seize the Daylight, author David Prerau summarizes the agrarians’ practical concerns:

Farmers complained that they could not change their daily schedule and start work an hour earlier just because the numbering of the hours was changed. Several farm operations could not possibly be performed earlier than they were at present. For example, the harvesting of grass for hay could not be done before the dew had disappeared, whatever the clock said, because the reaper and binder machines would not work unless the hay was dry. Other farm activities could not be done until the cool of the evening, and thus farmers could not end work an hour earlier, no matter what the clocks said.

Cows’ milking schedules were another big issue, but regardless, couldn’t farmers ignore the clock and maintain their diurnal rhythms? Not so simple. Farmhands, with families in the village and pubs to meet up at or other appointments, would be reluctant to start and end work an hour later according to clocks sprung forward for DST. Obdurate farmers themselves might get out of sync with their suppliers, distributors, and communities.

The DST debate eventually spread to North America, but farmers’ antipathy prevented the clock change from gaining traction anywhere. That is, until the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand appeared to create a killer app for DST as an aid to waging war. During World War I, Germany adopted summer DST in the belief that it would reduce civilian consumption of electricity, which was generated mostly by burning coal needed for the war effort. Germany’s allies also moved their clocks forward. Britain retaliated by doing the same, as did the U.S. once it entered the war. Whether this coordinated action saved much coal is unclear, but maybe the combatants avoided confusion as to when the day’s trench warfare should begin.

When the war ended, however, so did DST, everywhere. In the U.S., Chambers of Commerce lobbied for keeping it, and President Woodrow Wilson twice vetoed agriculture bills that repealed it. Congress overrode Wilson’s second veto. The U.S. returned to standard time year-round. “The farmer defeated the city man,” the New-York Tribune observed.

Yet, this did not end the controversy in the U.S., but merely moved it to states and cities. Industrialized ones, mostly in the Northeast at first, began adopting DST on their own. A 1926 Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of these state laws and local ordinances.

As the issue metastasized around the nation after World War I, farmers’ concerns grew, fueled by status anxiety, and began to take on a moral dimension. The clock change was now seen as part of a rising threat to agrarian values, challenged by the growth of cities and by the difficulty—to paraphrase a popular song at the time—of keeping ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree. DST represented an intrusion by city slickers and company men demanding that everyone else adjust to their decadent lifestyles.

“The man who wants to go out and play tennis, golf, and ball and go fishing has an argument,” said Rep. Edward King from downstate Illinois during the Congressional debate on repeal of war-time DST, “and that is the only argument I think there is in favor of keeping this obnoxious law on the statute book; to let the pleasure-seekers, the swivel-chair ornaments, and the golf players get out an hour earlier and go and play.” In short, the honor and integrity of yeoman’s work, rooted in the rhythms of nature, were being dissed.

Some even considered DST a perversion of the natural order of things. “Have the clocks proclaim God’s time,” exclaimed Mississippi Rep. Ezekiel Candler Jr. Said his fellow member, Rep. Harry Hull of Iowa, “We tried to ‘put one over’ on Mother Nature, and when you try to improve the natural laws it usually ends in disaster.” This may sound like rank superstition, but suspend judgment until we consider what physiologists now call social jet lag and circadian misalignment.

From the end of World War I into the mid-1960s, the Grange and other farm groups led campaigns against local-option DST. They fought many business interests, golf-club makers in particular. Farm groups had allies in the movie industry, which preferred standard time as a spur to evening theater attendance, and some battles were won. In California, a 1930 ballot measure to adopt DST was rejected by voters, three-to-one. Movie studios helped with that one, but voters in Washington State also voted down DST, twice, in 1952 and 1954, and by wide margins divided along urban-rural lines.

As farm populations fell, however, DST spread. By 1947, about 40 percent of Americans were observing summer daylight saving in a geographic patchwork and on many different schedules. Iowa, for example, at one point had 23 different combinations of start and end dates for DST. Horological variety caused headaches for many, especially those engaged in interstate commerce and transportation. In 1966, Congress stepped in with the Uniform Time Act. Herding instincts and network effects took hold as all but two states adopted the prescribed DST schedule, which Congress later extended twice. The issue was settled. The Grange moved on.

But in the past decade, evidence has accumulated of disturbing problems associated with DST. Its semi-annual time changes are natural experiments, predictable and on a grand scale, irresistible to researchers as opportunities to isolate cause and effect. As a result, many scientists have gathered many kinds of data, and vast amounts of it, on the time periods before and after DST starts and stops. Not much of interest has been found out about any effects of returning clocks to standard time in the fall. But strangely, a shocking array of problems—such as sleep deprivation, heart attacks, stroke, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even suicide—all apparently increase after clocks spring forward onto DST.

These findings have been an impetus behind the movement to make DST permanent. Proponents argue we can avoid problems associated with the spring time change if we stay on DST—if we “ditch the switch,” as they say. Yet, while some vernal problems dissipate a few days after the time change, others linger at elevated rates long past March. Many scientists have come round to the view that our bodies never fully adjust to DST. Based on a growing body of research in neurobiology and epidemiology, a scientific consensus has emerged that time switching, although irksome, is less problematic than DST itself. “It’s not one hour twice a year. It’s a misalignment of our biologic clocks for eight months of the year,” says Beth Ann Malow, professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.

Scientists knew little about circadian rhythms until recently. Seasonal affective disorder, for example, was not identified in the scientific literature until 1984. Now we know it can arise from reduced exposure to morning light in winter. Sunlight helps wake us up by suppressing the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy, and elevating the hormone cortisol, which keys us up to meet the day’s challenges.

Because delayed sunrise can prolong elevated melatonin levels, scientists worry permanent DST would spread and intensify morning sleepiness, winter blahs, and seasonal depression, especially in northern latitudes where winter sunrise comes later and winter days are shorter overall. High cortisol levels, prolonged by later sunset, could at least partially explain why the start of DST in the spring brings a rise in reports of disturbed sleep. “We have an epidemic of sleep deprivation, and daylight saving time makes it worse,” says Nathaniel Watson, professor of neurology at the University of Washington.

Other problems also may be linked to circadian disruption caused by DST. Biologic clocks regulate our physiology and influence our behavior in innumerable ways. Among the most important: Body clocks control immune response and DNA repair, both crucial to getting and staying well. Recent research has shown that these processes can be impaired by phenomena like jetlag and what physiologists call social jetlag, such as working the night shift, sleeping in late on weekends—and DST.

Its abolition is now recommended by several scientific societies. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine published a position statement on the subject in October 2020. “Permanent, year-round standard time is the best choice to most closely match our circadian sleep-wake cycle,” said lead author M. Adeel Rishi, a specialist at the Mayo Clinic.

The scientific case against DST also is detailed in a position paper adopted in June 2019 by the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms, an international organization of scientists and clinicians. Even deeper dives, drawing the same conclusions, were published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers of Physiology and by an international panel of nine scientists in the European Journal of Internal Medicine.

Fundamentally, their perspective is that we tend to do well when our body clock and social clock—the official time in our time zone—are in synch. That is, when noon on the social clock coincides with solar noon, the moment when the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky where we are. If the two clocks diverge, trouble ensues. Startling evidence for this has come from recent findings in geographical epidemiology—specifically, from mapping health outcomes within time zones.

Time zone borders are drawn inconsistently, often according to political boundaries and patterns of commerce. But U.S. zones are each roughly 15 longitudinal degrees wide, so that the Sun, as it appears to travel from east to west at a rate of one degree every four minutes, passes over one zone per hour, and reaches its highest point above the middle of a zone around noon, standard time, in that zone.

The synchronization is imperfect. Toward a zone’s eastern edge, solar noon will tend to arrive a little before noon, standard time. Toward the western edge, the opposite; solar noon—and body clocks, therefore—will lag a little. But by and large, U.S. zones are configured to keep body clocks and the social clock in close harmony.

On standard time, that is. On DST, not so much. DST shifts the social clock forward an hour for most of the year, leaving solar noon lagging behind, especially on the west side of time zones. For example, in Detroit near the western edge of the Eastern time zone, solar noon lags even on standard time, but DST widens the gap. If DST were year-round, Detroit would never see solar noon before 1:15 p.m. and some days not until 1:46 p.m.

Here’s why this matters: Scientists say lagging body clocks, left behind by DST, are why people living on the west side of U.S. time zones, like Detroiters, tend to be less healthy, have higher cancer rates, and die sooner. Conditions in Detroit and its demographics almost certainly make things worse there, but regardless of other factors, health status consistently gets progressively worse the farther west people live within every U.S. zone.

Several studies have confirmed this finding. “Risk increased from east to west within a time zone for total and for many specific cancers,” concluded scientists at the National Cancer Institute in 2017. The reason is “circadian misalignment,” said a team of Harvard public-health researchers in 2018.

One way such circadian disruption may make people sick is through sleep deprivation, a known killer. The Sun sets last on the west side of time zones. Later sunsets may prompt people, via hormonal and social cues, to stay up later. And they may then sleep less overall, as work and school have set start times in the morning. Indeed, economists who analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects detailed diaries of how Americans spend their time, found those living on the west side of time zones get an average of 115 hours less sleep per year.

Bear in mind that if delayed sunsets do trigger a cascade of ill effects, then west-siders are the most affected, but not the only ones. Pushing off sunset for everyone, wherever we live, is the whole point of DST. Which is bad news especially for night owls—what physiologists call late chronotypes, whose body clocks lag more than most and lag even more during DST. Researchers suspect this is why night owls are less healthy than morning larks/early chronotypes.

Teenagers, too, may be especially vulnerable. Research has found they tend to be night owls because their melatonin is slow to kick in at night. To counter chronic sleep deprivation in students, many schools have delayed their morning start times—in effect, moving the school clock back. But DST negates this move for five months of the school year. Year-round DST would negate it all year.

As the U.S. moves toward advancing clocks permanently, the biomedical evidence has Europe headed in the opposite direction. In 2019, the European Union voted to scrap summer DST, after three scientific societies jointly urged adoption of year-round standard time.

Scientific authority may carry less weight in the U.S. In any case, researchers’ evidence against DST has emerged only in the past few years, and state legislators considering permanent DST seem to be blithely unaware of it. Hearings tend to be cursory, maybe because year-round DST usually has no fiscal impact and because it is moot unless and until Congress acts. Debate tends to be lighthearted, even flippant. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on preliminary approval of a permanent DST bill in the Utah Senate:

Monday’s 28-1 vote followed a brief and semi-serious debate, in which senators questioned whether setting a consistent time year-round would affect the growth of flowers, dedicated their votes to individual constituents, warned against the health dangers of traveling between time zones, and asked whether passing the bill would end what has become a perennial debate on Capitol Hill.

“If we pass this, can you guarantee us it will stop coming back every session?” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

There may be another reason why this issue, which affects our circadian rhythms and daily lives, gets little serious deliberation: No powerful interest groups think they have much at stake, one way or the other. Farmers no longer take much interest; giant agribusiness certainly does not. Some state Grange organizations have endorsed permanent DST. Anyway, farmers no longer have the numbers to exercise much clout beyond the maintenance of crop subsidies. America is no longer home—and politicians no longer answer—to many millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are intimately tied to the soil, climate, and unalterable movement of the Sun.

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  1. This long piece is simply brilliant. Like many others who never did any research, I’m sure, I’d long accepted the urban folklore that the introduction of Daylight Saving Time was driven by farmers looking to increase evening hours for planting and, later, harvesting. But the story told here makes far more sense, sociologically and otherwise. Thank you for enlightening me this morning, Mr. Mitzman! I hope this piece gets shared far and wide.

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