Column: Turning back time in Florida

Sunrise at the fishing pier in Safety Harbor, Florida \u0096 Photo by Daniel Kaufman
Sunrise at the fishing pier in Safety Harbor, Florida \u0096 Photo by Daniel Kaufman
Published March 15 2018
Updated March 19 2018

"Time and tide wait for no man," not even for King Canute or the Florida Legislature, which has approved legislation that would require the state to observe daylight saving time year-round.

Humans have lived on the Florida peninsula for thousands of years, and the notion of altering time or tide was as unnatural as it was unimaginable. Until the late 19th century, most Floridians lived on farms or small cities, and the rhythms of the land and season dictated work and play.

Time was measured by the flow of the seasons. "Hot weather has struck us butt end first, I mean goat fashion," wrote Tampa resident Ruby Hall McFarlane in her diary on July 17, 1887. A Tampa Tribune reporter observed in 1904, "Every train bound for Florida is loaded with Floridians who have spent the summer in the mountains or seashore."

Seasons yielded myriad pleasures. "Itís scuppernong time in Florida," announced the Lakeland Telegram in August 1916. Red Barber reminded NPR listeners each spring, "Itís camellia blossom time in Tallahassee."

Time was calculated differently for urban dwellers. In colonial St. Augustine, the cityís sentry served as the timekeeper. He minded an hourglass and clanged a bell upon the passing of each hour. Church bells summoned parishioners to Mass.

More Americans were leaving farms and taking jobs and residences in cities. There, many encountered the tyranny of time. The critic Lewis Mumford contended, "The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age."

In late 19th-century America, a new clockwork age made possible the industrial revolution. The expanding railroad and its demands for precision and schedules changed our attitudes toward time. Every railroad engineer and conductor carried a reliable chronometer or railroad standard watch that was inspected every two weeks. Only American-made timepieces were acceptable.

A question: In 1882, if it was 12:01 a.m. in Tampa, what time was it in Ocala? Individual cities determined solar time, based on high noon, when the sun reached its apex. Local time meant local time.

The railroads manifested such power that they made time stand still. Literally. Nov. 18, 1883, was the day time stood still. Americaís railroad companies created "standard times" across four continental time zones.

Not everyone listened or adjusted to the new times. "There are now three different times recognized and observed in Gainesville," complained the Gainesville Advocate in 1887. "They are sun time, standard time, and city time. The first is about 34 minutes ahead of the second, and the second is about 8 to 12 minutes from the third. The laboring classes observe sun time; the railroads observe standard time." The paper pleaded, "Let the town clock be moved forward until it reaches standard time."

Trains not only altered time but connected Floridians to a national transportation and communications network. Now, pompano caught in Boca Ciega Bay and strawberries picked in Plant City arrived in New York City and Chicago the next day.

"How this railroad kills time and space!" exclaimed the Ocala Banner in the 1885. One might have added that the new clockwork efficiencies placed new demands on factory and white-collar workers. The clock was king. Not everyone adapted well. In Ybor City, Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigarmakers resisted any effort to impose modern restraints upon their workplace. Cigar workers measured hours by the readersí voices, whom they had selected. Readers read ó always in Spanish ó news, a serialized novel, economic and political works, and light novellas.

Floridians institutionalized new time rituals. In a memorable Seinfeld episode, Jerry visits his parents in Del Boca Vista, Florida. There, the retirees await the early bird special. "Who eats dinner at 4:30?" asks Jerry. Morty explains, "By the time we sit down, itíll be quarter to five."

But time marches on and politicians cannot not resist tampering with it. In 1918, Congress passed the first daylight saving law, as well as establishing the Eastern Standard time zone. A century later, the Florida Legislature has passed legislation that would convert the Sunshine State to year-round daylight saving time. The irresistibly named "Sunshine Protection Act" awaits approval by Gov. Rick Scott and Congress.

Gary R. Mormino is professor emeritus of history at USF St. Petersburg, where he also serves as scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities in Council. In 2015, he received the Florida lifetime achievement award for writing.

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