Ask most Americans why they still turn their clocks backward and forward twice a year–as they’re set to do on March 12–and they’ll likely cite the same reason: farmers said they needed more daylight in the field.
This is mostly a myth. While the farm lobby did participate in the policy debate a century ago, they were actually lobbying against daylight saving time–which they said would reduce the time they had in the morning to milk cows and get crops to market. In fact, after World War I, Congress had to repeal the DST law “to quell the revolt from the farm lobby,” says Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. Congress replaced it with a new version in 1966.
So who lobbied for DST if not the farmers? Industrialists and politicians, including President Woodrow Wilson, who thought that increasing daylight hours would reduce demand for electricity and free up coal for the war effort, according to David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.
Data remains mixed on whether DST does, in fact, reduce energy consumption to a significant degree. But it has succeeded in another one of its initial goals: getting more people to shop. (The Chamber of Commerce was an early backer.) The extra month of DST that the U.S. began observing in 1986, when “fall back” moved from October to November, boosted the golf and BBQ industries by between $200 million and $400 million, according to some estimates. That trend continues for many retailers today.
–OLIVIA B. WAXMAN
For more of these stories, visit time.com/history
This appears in the March 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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