- Modern Time as Historical Artifact
These two excellent books explore different aspects of how Americans have understood and used time since the late eighteenth century. Alexis McCrossen charts the rise and decline of public clocks, installed on churches, town halls, office buildings, railroad stations, or other prominent sites. She sees these clocks as “markers of modernity.” First at a local level and then with the standardization of time at the national level, bells, clocks, and falling balls not only divided time into shared units of experience but also encouraged Americans to internalize mechanical rhythms, replacing a sense of time based on natural observation. At the apex of public-clock installation between 1871 and 1911, 15,000 were added to the thousands that had been put up in previous decades (p. 189). If increasing numbers of people owned watches, they nevertheless checked and adjusted them against public timekeepers.
Molly McCarthy tackles the related subject of daily planners. At roughly the same historical moment that public clocks became prominent, planners emerged from the back pages of almanacs to become a profitable publication in their own right, and even in the digital present they continue to be sold to millions of Americans. While a daily planner ostensibly helps keep track of future appointments and present expenses, in practice their owners often have used them to record retrospectively the events of each day.
These volumes are fascinating in themselves, but both also can be viewed as studies of the historical transition that has led to the present 24/7 world, where timekeeping is built into a myriad of devices that record and, to some degree, direct our actions. Well before these two studies, the cultural history of time was explored by anthropologists interested in the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that each language structures a sense of space/time relations1 and by [End Page 54] labor historians following the groundbreaking works of E. P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman.2 Much important work has been done since, seemingly all of it referenced in the books under review. A short list of important studies published since 2000 includes books by David Landes, Anthony Aveni, Carlene Stephens, and Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift.3 In addition, Michael O’Malley’s Keeping Watch, a fine overview focused on the United States, appears to have been a touchstone for both McCarthy and McCrossen.4 Neither author provides a bibliography, an omission presumably dictated by the publisher.
McCrossen argues that modernity had been achieved “when time and space ceased to pose meaningful barriers to circulation of news, ideas, goods, and people” (p. 18). Establishment of public time was crucial to breaking down these barriers, making it possible, for example, for railroad timetables to be harmonized or for stock-market trading to be synchronized through the telegraph system. She begins with the story of a magnificent six-ton Elgin clock erected in 1928 on the exterior of the new Jeweler’s Building in Chicago. It was meant to symbolize both the professional skill of jewelers, who had long sold and repaired clocks and watches, and the success of the Elgin National Watch Company that had its headquarters on several floors of the building. Forty years later, however, the jewelers had vacated the building and Elgin had gone out of business. Its rivals had either moved to Switzerland (Hamilton, Waltham, Gruen) or had disappeared (E. Howard and Seth Thomas). The era of large American public clocks had ended, and a Chinese company owned the Elgin name. These transformations of the clock and watch industry after 1930 are not McCrossen’s concern, however. She has written not a business history but a cultural history, and accordingly the following chapter turns the clock back to the introduction of bells in colonial Philadelphia and to the nation’s first public clocks, followed by...