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Daylight Saving Time: Sun in the eye of New York City History

Marcus M. Marks
Bain News Service

As clocks spring ahead across the country, it’s worth remembering a New York Borough President for winding up the Daylight Saving Time movement to national acceptance.

When former Manhattan Borough President Marcus M. Marks died in 1934, the New York Times began its obituary with his timeliest pursuit:

Above all else it will be remembered of MARCUS M. MARKS that he caused the sun to advance in its Summer course by putting forward the clocks which measure the hours of light and darkness.

Every year, the observance of Daylight Saving Time sends us scurrying through the house—well, maybe dragging our feet—to reset clocks an hour ahead. This annual chore pays off pleasantly by extending daylight into evening. But the sister task of refreshing the smoke alarm batteries may help us to recall New York’s historic role in promoting Daylight Saving Time as a vital wartime stratagem for saving energy.

World War I

“During World War I, DST was first adopted in Germany, which was quickly followed by Britain and countries on both sides, and eventually, America,” David Prerau writes in Seize the Daylight, an exhaustive history of Daylight Saving Time. “Daylight replaced artificial lighting and saved precious fuel for the war effort.”

In 1916 the formation of the National Daylight Saving Association advanced that American wartime conservation effort. Its president was New York City’s own Marcus M. Marks, the standing Manhattan Borough President.

On December 2, 1917, Marks urged the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s wisdom in approving the Daylight Saving bill. “When city lights are ordered dimmed and when manufacturing is curtailed so as to save the coal used in producing electric current and power,” Marks reasoned, “our attention is forcibly called to a simple plan that has been suggested to save a million tons of coal during the Summer months.”

Marks reported that “officials in Canada and Nova Scotia (whose sovereignty sentiments were still topical)” were all set to follow the United States adoption of a daylight saving plan. “England saved 300,000 tons of coal in the Summer of 1916,” he said, pointing out the benefits of turning the clock an hour ahead. He added, “and France saved $10,000,000 in coal and light.”

Daylight Saving Controversy

Congress laid out time zones and enacted Daylight Saving in 1918 as a wartime economic measure. Its first operative work day also indicated nationwide commercial benefits for business concerns, employees and shoppers.

But once the war was over, many took a dim view of continuing the Daylight Saving Time observance in peacetime. After World War I, Prerau reports, farmers pressured President Woodrow Wilson to reinstate “God's Time.” The winds of repeal promised to see Daylight Saving Time sputtering out across the country.

In January 1920, National Daylight Saving Association President Marks—his term as Manhattan Borough President had ended in 1918—went up to Albany to implore New York’s Legislatures to rally against passage of proposed repeal. He urged citizens to “rain protests on their Assemblymen and Senators,” the Times reported.

“The people must wake up if the Daylight Saving law is to remain on the stature books of this State,” Marks insisted. Even more defiantly, he promised that “New York City will have daylight saving no matter what is done in Albany.”

By January1921, Wayne County Assemblyman Charles H. Betts had been pushing a bill to repeal Daylight Saving Time, which he argued “upsets nature’s plans.” But Marks dismissed Betts’ “fossilized” claim. He contended that farmers were historically time savers, who shouldn’t begrudge townsfolk “the same health and economic benefits.”

Daylight Saving Eight Months Long

As the twentieth century ticked on, Daylight Saving debates and laws fluctuated with a new world war in the 1940s, a peacetime energy crunch during the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s, and a variety of extenuating conditions. Prerau notes its impact on issues as disparate as draft status during the Vietnam War, Halloween revelry, election voter turnout, and transportation schedules and crime statistics.

Since 2007, the terms of an energy policy act has extended the length of Daylight Saving Time to its present eight-month length in all states except Arizona and Hawaii. The time change begins on the second Sunday of March and ends the first Sunday of November.

Marcus M. Marks did not originate the idea of Daylight Saving Time. Earlier proponents included American Benjamin Franklin and Britisher William Willet. Yet Manhattan’s former BP was “the acknowledged leader in the ‘daylight-saving’ movement in America, with its immeasurable wholesome results in the lives of millions,” the Times claimed. Indeed, he was the most public face of a very bright idea, as surely as the day is long.

Sources:

  • New York Times, various.
  • Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, by David Prerau, 2008.