Time and its keeping ushers in modernity


University of Chicago Press, 2013, $45

There’s so much that we do with time. Musicians and dancers “keep” time, busy people “make” time for other things, and absolutely everyone “spends” time, hoping that it won’t go to waste.

Alexis McCrossen has written an ingenious new book about the objects and time-bound ideas that had a revolutionary impact in conditioning human behavior. By 1900, the author writes, we were a synchronized people. “Coordinated and well-running public clocks made it possible for modern time discipline to become a fact of American life.”

One might say that modernity was ushered in when “the value of labor came to be measured in increments of time, rather than by the tasks completed.”

Early America was bell-conscious. Time was heard. With accustomed flair, John Adams said of the unbound colonies at the moment they gloriously united: “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together.” Authoritative time was not yet associated with a clock’s face. Soon enough, though, mechanical time became more visual as watch and clock makers set up their shops in the principal towns, and sold to the gentlefolk who felt empowered as they took note of the superior accuracy of their personal timepieces.

With the advent of the telegraph, a near obsession with time built. Distant places were suddenly able to connect almost instantaneously, and the world felt different. “Temporal authority” was granted to a select corps of jewelers, who boasted an inventory of well-governed clocks still known as “regulators.”

Curiously, in the middle decades of the 19th century, the popularity of pocket watches diminished, and clocks were sold at a rate five times that of watches. Priced above some English- and Swiss-made watches, the American versions lost market-share.

The Civil War brought a wide range of time-related anecdotes, shared in letters home. A Pennsylvania bugler played “Reveille” when his pocket watch told him it was 6:00 a.m., unaware that his trusty timepiece had stopped hours earlier, and it was only an hour past midnight. On a more serious note, battles were won or lost owing to the well- or poorly timed coordination of key actions.

After the war, as industrial productivity increased and marketing strategies became more sophisticated, patriotic insignia helped to sell watches, which now rebounded in popularity. In 1876, for instance, the “Centennial” brand identified its product with the celebration of 100 years of independence. “Betsy Ross” watches advertised: “Sentimental and historical in name–Reliable as timekeepers.” Engraved initials and messages on the casings added special value, as watches carried in battle or given by a loved one became family heirlooms.

The inimitable Mark Twain wrote a story called “My Watch: An Instructive Little Tale,” describing how a jeweler fixed his slow timepiece so that it left all the town’s other watches behind. As it picked up pace, he found himself getting his rent in early and hurrying up his bill payments. The next repair overreached, and he missed appointments. And so on. Getting time right was a comedy of errors. Placing one’s life in non-human hands became at once a source of daily anxiety and the stuff of literary humor.

The Union might have been preserved as of 1865, but the politics of standardizing time across the country dragged on until the 1880s. Britain had established Greenwich mean time in 1848, using telegraphy to synchronize clocks across the realm.

Local independence persisted here before uniform time was adhered to along specific meridians. It was during this era that grandiose street clocks began popping up in cities across America and urban architecture made clocks a central motif on cupolas, steeples, and public towers. They were seen, writes McCrossen, not just as symbols of money and power, but “an essential component of an orderly community.”

Abundantly illustrated with vintage photographs, Marking Modern Times is itself a time capsule. It offers a fascinating and rather unusual backward glance. Get a copy now, because the clock is ticking.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU, and the author most recently of Lincoln Dreamt He Died. His web site is andburstein.com.