A fierce debate raged in Chicago City Hall in 1920 about whether the city should grab “an extra hour from old father time,” as the Chicago Daily Tribune put it, and after six months of discussion aldermen finally approved “the scheme to advance the hands of the clock one hour.”
While the city adopted daylight saving time that summer, many surrounding suburbs did not, which created confusion.
“Some commuters — an hour’s ride from the city — have to get up at 4:30 o’clock to get to Chicago at 7:30, and they leave Chicago at 5 in the evening and get home at 5 o’clock,” the Daily Tribune reported that summer in an article with the headline “Why Father Time Is Chuckling.”
Still, Chicagoans voted that fall to continue observing daylight saving time in 1921 and beyond.
Turn the clock forward a century and modern-day Chicagoans will change their clocks this weekend as daylight saving time ends at 2 a.m. Sunday and the country “falls back” to standard time until spring. But just like in the 1920s, lawmakers across the nation have been debating whether clock changing ought to continue.
In March, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a measure dubbed the “Sunshine Protection Act” to make daylight saving time permanent and end twice-annual clock switching. The change would mean no more 4 p.m. sunsets here in Chicago, although the tradeoff would be darker winter mornings.
However, the measure has been stuck in the bureaucracy of congress and has not received a vote in the House. With the midterm elections looming and a new Congress set to be seated in January, the effort is likely doomed. But while lawmakers at the federal level are stalled, state legislators have been busy proposing changes to daylight saving time.
Most states — including Illinois — have introduced bills and resolutions addressing daylight saving time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Here in the Land of Lincoln, there are nine pending pieces of legislation that would do away with clock switching, but nothing has passed.
Under the Uniform Time Act of 1966, states can ignore daylight saving entirely and stay on standard time year round, the way Arizona and Hawaii do. However, states can’t currently opt for permanent daylight saving time without Washington first changing the law.
“There’s a consensus around let’s stop changing our clocks, but then which way do you go? There’s a fair amount of evidence on both sides to support either moving ahead in terms of saying daylight time is permanent or saying standard time ought to be permanent,” said Jim Reed with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The U.S. has dabbled in permanent daylight saving time before. In an attempt to save on fuel used for heat and light amid an ongoing energy crisis, President Richard Nixon signed a bill in 1973 to put the country on permanent daylight saving time and get more evening sunlight for two years. At first, the bill seemed promising, but public opinion quickly tanked.
“It was so unpopular. People really strongly disliked it, because it made the mornings very dark,” said David Prerau, author of the book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.
Parents didn’t like sending their kids to school in the dark, and by fall 1974, the Senate voted to revert back to the clock-changing system — cutting the two-year permanent daylight saving time experiment short.
But health experts say our current system has drawbacks too — including the toll it takes on our bodies. On its website, Northwestern Medicine said the long-term health effects of daylight saving time include depression, slowed metabolism, weight gain and cluster headaches.
Dr. Phyllis C. Zee, a sleep medicine expert at Northwestern said in the post that she favors a switch to permanent standard time, which she says would mean “our internal clocks will more likely be in sync with the rotation of the Earth, seasonal changes and the sun clock.”
As for Prerau, an author and daylight saving time expert, he’s in favor of keeping things the way things are now, which he calls a compromise.
“When people think about if they want to keep or get rid of daylight saving, they only usually think about the time when you change your clocks, they don’t think about the reason you’re changing the clock,” Prerau said. “It makes the winter mornings much more palatable to most people around the country.”
The U.S. first adopted daylight saving time in 1918 during World War I — saying the later sunlight would save fuel and benefit the “victory gardens” Americans were encouraged to plant at home. While the patriotic pitch was “very powerful,” Michael O’Malley, author of the book Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, called it “transparent nonsense.”
“The organized push for daylight savings comes entirely from businessmen,” O’Malley said. The thinking was if people had more daylight in the evenings, they’d be more likely to go out shopping or golfing after work.
Daylight saving time was eliminated on a national level after one year and municipalities were free to decide for themselves if they wanted to adopt the system. At the time Chicago aldermen were debating whether the Windy City would sign on, a pamphlet encouraged Chicagoans to write to their alderman and sign petitions in favor of daylight saving time.
Under “benefits,” the pamphlet said “the result of daylight saving, as already demonstrated, is an added hour of daylight at the end of the working day that is used for outdoor recreation and healthful pursuits. It gives the city dweller a daylight recreation hour in exchange for a recreation hour of darkness.”
It was also sold as a way to keep up with the rest of the country, “with New York and other eastern cities setting their time one hour ahead, Chicago will be two hours behind unless we also adopt daylight saving. This would seriously inconvenience many business concerns.”
Cities like Chicago and New York continued to make their own decisions around daylight saving time until 1966, when the Uniform Time Act established the system as we know it today — a highly contentious, twice-annual ritual whose future is grounds for much debate.
But for now, you should brush up on how the heck to change the time in your car or on your stove — and prepare to enjoy an extra hour of sleep this weekend.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.