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Image Massachusetts Time Ways: The Puritan Idea of “Improving the Time”

In most cultures, attitudes toward work are closely connected to conceptions of time. The people of the Bay Colony were no exception. For a Puritan, time was heavily invested with sacred meaning. Fundamentally, it was “God’s Time” as Samuel Sewall called it: “God’s Time is the best time, God’s way the best way.”1

A central idea in this culture was that of “improving the time,” in the seventeenth-century sense of “turning a thing to good account.” Time-wasting in the Bay Colony was a criminal offense. As early as 1633 the General Court decreed:

No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict; and for this end it is ordered, that the constables of every place-shall use special diligence to take knowledge of offenders in this kind, especially of common coasters, unprofitable fowlers and tobacco takers, and to present the same.

A year later, the Court fined two men the heavy sum of twenty shillings each for “misspending their time.”2

The Puritan magistrate Samuel Sewall was infuriated by the wasting of time, and still more by its profanation. When he observed two men playing “idle tricks” on April Fools’ Day he angrily upbraided them:

In the morning I dehorted Sam. Hirst and Grindal Rawson from playing Idle Tricks because ‘twas the first of April. They were the greatest fools that did so. New England men came hither to avoid anniversary days, the keeping of them, such as the 25th of December. How displeasing it must be to God, the giver of our Time, to keep anniversary days to play the fool with ourselves and others.3

Puritan writers showed an obsession with time. Their diaries were temporal inventories of high complexity. Birthdays rarely passed in Puritan lives without solemn reflections on the use of time. “I have now lived fifty years much longer than I once expected, blessed be to God,” one wrote in 1729, “but oh what abundant cause to be ashamed that I have lived to so little purpose.”4 The turn of each year was marked in the same way. An English Puritan wrote in his diary on one New Year’s Eve, “This is the last day of the year and I am sensible a great deal of it hath been lost and misspent.”5

The daily rhythm of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to make the best use of every passing moment. The New England day normally began at the crack of dawn. The country-folk of New England, wrote Mrs. Stowe, “were used to rising at daybreak,” to make the best use of every daylight moment.6 The Puritans also tried to reduce the time for sleep. Increase Mather resolved, “I am not willing to allow myself above seven hours in four and twenty for sleep; but would spend the rest of my time in attending to the duties of my personal or general calling.”7

For the founders of Massachusetts, “improving the time” was primarily a spiritual idea. Their descendants later turned the same impulse to secular and materialist ends. The classical example was Boston-born Benjamin Franklin. In an essay called Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (1748) Franklin wrote:

Remember that TIME is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.8

The sayings of Poor Richard, which began to appear in 1733, expressed this idea in many aphorisms:

Sloth and Silence are a Fool’s Virtues.

He that wastes idly a Groat’s worth of his Time per Day, one Day with another, wastes the Privilege of using £100 each Day.

If you have time, don’t wait for time.

Since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour.

Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.

Have you somewhat to do to-morrow; do it today.

Who gives promptly, gives twice.

He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night.

Idleness is the greatest Prodigality.

Dost thou love Life? Then do not squander Time; for that’s the Stuff Life is made of.

Time enough, always proves little enough.

Lost time is never found again.

Procrastination is the thief of time.9

Other cultures in Anglo-America showed nothing quite like this obsession with “improving the time,” which for more than three centuries became an important part of folkways in New England.

The Puritans in England and America also undertook the improvement of time in another sense—seeking better methods of measuring its passage. This impulse caused the English Puritan Ralph Thoresby to invent an alarm clock. In his diary on 1 November 1680, he made following entry:

Thinking to have got up by 6 was mistaken, and rose so early that I had read a chapter before it chimed four. Spent most of the time in reading my dear father’s diary, and after in writing some things, desiring to redeem my time from sleep I entered into a Resolution that if it might any ways conduce to the glory of God … for upon a serious consideration that I usually (now in winter especially) sleep away so much precious time which might be redeemed to the ends aforesaid, and then considering the capitalbrevity of our lives, to which a few years will put a period even to the longest, and perhaps a few weeks or days or perhaps minutes to mine in particular, considering these things I resolved in the strength of God to redeem more time, particularly to retrench my sleeping time, and getting an Alarm put to the clock and that set at my beds-

head to arise every morning by five and first to dedicate the morning (as in duty obliged) to the service of God, by reading a chapter in an old Bible I have with annotations and then after prayer. … 10

A similar impulse in a more secular form led Benjamin Franklin a century later to invent the idea of daylight saving time. While American minister to France, Franklin was shocked that the people of Paris lost many hours of light by sleeping until midday, and then burned candles far into the night. He tried to enlighten his French friends in an essay called An Economical Project which proposed what we call daylight saving time.11

Another Puritan idea about time appeared in their notion of “numbering the days.” This phrase had many meanings. It meant that time was precious and limited. It also betrayed a quantitative idea of time. Historian Bernard Bailyn observes of the Puritan merchant Robert Keayne:

the word that expresses best the most basic activity of Keayne’s mind is calculation. The veil through which he saw the world was not so much colored as calibrated. It was quantity that engaged his imagination.12

This calculating spirit often appeared in the temporal attitudes of seventeenth-century New England. In diaries and sermons, time usually meant clock time and calendar time. The stages of life were also quantified; old age, for example, was defined as life after sixty. Puritan diaries normally timed events to the nearest hour, or to horological periods such as “between twelve and one,” or “one-quarter after one.” Minutes were rarely mentioned. New England clocks and watches in the seventeenth century often did not have minute hands. This culture had little need for that degree of temporal refinement. It was a world without our idea of punctuality. In the seventeenth century, “punctual” meant “pertaining to a point.” Nevertheless, this world was firmly governed by the discipline of calendars and clocks.13

Clocks were costly in the seventeenth century. New Englanders improvised by turning their houses into timepieces. Massachusetts homes were often “sunline houses,” which faced due south on a noon sighting. The facade of the house was made into a giant sundial, with hours carved into the facing-boards around the door. By that means, a New England family could tell the hour even in the absence of a mechanical clock on the mantel.

Other forms of time-keeping were also part of this culture. The diurnal rhythm of light and dark was exceptionally important to the Puritans. The coming of darkness, which they called the “candle-lighting,” divided each period of twenty-four hours into profoundly different parts. Night was dangerous, threatening and hostile. As the shadows grew longer, New England travelers hurried on the highway, trying desperately to reach their destinations before dark. Samuel Sewall was once overtaken by darkness while on the road to Salem. He kicked his horse into the gallop, racing frantically against the night until the animal stumbled in the dark and “fell upon his nose”; Sewall was lucky to escape with his life. His diary described other moments of danger, fear and even panic when night fell in New England.14 To the Puritans, the night seemed not only dangerous but evil. The town bells sounded a curfew every night—and still do so in the author’s Middlesex village 350 years after its founding. To be abroad after curfew without permission was to risk punishment for a crime called “nightwalking.” Altogether, the diurnal rhythms of darkness and light were very pronounced in the time ways of Puritan New England.15

Also exceptionally strong in this society was the weekly rhythm defined by the Sabbath. Before coming to America, English Puritans began to observe the Sabbath with extreme rigor—a custom that was kept in Massachusetts from the start. The Puritans followed the Old Testament in reckoning the Sabbath from sundown on Saturday or even earlier. John Winthrop’s Sabbath began as early as three o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Historian Win ton Solberg observes that “New England was in all likelihood the only region in Christendom where this custom prevailed.”16

Many activities were forbidden on the Sabbath: work, play, and unnecessary travel. Even minor instances of Sabbath-breaking were punished with much severity. The Essex County Court indicted a man for carrying a burden on the Sabbath, and punished a woman for brewing on the Lord’s Day. When Ebenezer Taylor of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, fell into a forty-foot well, his rescuers stopped digging on Saturday afternoon while they debated whether it was lawful to rescue him on the Sabbath. Other New Englanders were punished for picking strawberries, playing quoits, marking fish, smoking a pipe, and sailing a boat on the Lord’s Day. At New London, a courting couple named John Lewis and Sarah Chapman were brought to trial in 1670 merely for “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree.”17

Sexual intercourse was taboo on the Lord’s Day. The Puritans believed that children were born on the same day of the week as when they had been conceived. Unlucky infants who entered the world on the Sabbath were sometimes denied baptism because of their parents’ presumed sin in copulating on a Sunday. For many years Sudbury’s minister Israel Loring sternly refused to baptize children born on Sunday, until one terrible Sabbath when his own wife gave birth to twins!18 Altogether, the Puritans created a sabbatical rhythm of unique intensity in the time ways of their culture.19

If daily and weekly movements were unusually strong in New England, other common rhythms were exceptionally weak or even absent altogether. The Puritans made a point of abolishing the calendar of Christian feasts and saints’ days. The celebration of Christmas was forbidden in Massachusetts on pain of a five-shilling fine. In England, the Puritan Parliament prohibited the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, saints’ days and holy days.

These Puritan principles made a difference in the rhythm of life. The timing of marriage, for example, differed in New England from other British colonies. In Massachusetts, it was no longer regulated by Anglican prohibitions against matrimony during the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter and also in the period before Christmas. New Englanders kept old East Anglian customs without those Episcopal restrictions.20

In place of the liturgical calendar, New Englanders created their own annual rhythm of regional festivals, including Election Day, Commencement Day, Thanksgiving, and Training Day. Election Day was a spring event, held on a Wednesday in April, when the charter of Massachusetts required that members of the Bay Company should meet to elect their officers. Gradually this day became a Puritan holiday which was celebrated with sermons and a ritual meal of “election cake” and “election beer.”21 Commencement Day, normally a weekday in July, was an academic ceremony which by 1680 had become a “Puritan midsummer’s holiday” when ministers and magistrates assembled at Cambridge to share a dinner, wine and “commencement cake.” There was also a great gathering of hucksters and vast crowds of country people on this occasion.22 Training days happened at various dates from early spring to late summer, when the militia assembled to practice their martial arts. John Winthrop described a training day on 15 September 1641, when 1,200 New England soldiers came together on Boston common. The governor noted with satisfaction that “there was no man drunk, though there was plenty of wine and strong beer in the town, not an oath sworn, no quarrel, nor any hurt done.”23

A fourth Puritan festival was Thanksgiving, which by 1676 had became an annual event, held on a Thursday in November or December. In earlier years, days of Thanksgiving were appointed ad hoc for special occasions by civil authorities. The first Thanksgiving in the Bay Colony happened on 22 February 1630/31, after provision ships arrived just in time to prevent starvation.24 Approximately twenty-two special days of Thanksgiving were held in the first half-century of the Bay Colony. After New England survived King Philip’s War, Thanksgivings began to occur regularly in November. The appointed day was Thursday, which had been lecture day in the churches of Boston and Ipswich. Special days of Thanksgiving continued, but by the late 1670s this event had become an autumn ritual, in which a fast was followed by a family dinner and another fast. The main event was a sermon which reminded New Englanders of their founding purposes. Sabbath rules were enforced on these days; Yankee farmers were prosecuted for ploughing on Thanksgiving.25

Gradually Thanksgiving also became a domestic festival when families gathered together and renewed the covenant which was so important to their culture. In the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe remembered that Thanksgiving in her family reached its climax after the dinner was done:

When all was over, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, and a fine venerable picture he made as he stood there, his silver hair flowing in curls down each side of his clear, calm face, while in conformity to the old Puritan custom, he called their attention to a recital of the mercies of God in his dealings with their family.

It was a sort of family history, going over and touching upon the various events which had happened. He spoke of my father’s death, and gave a tribute to his memory, and closed all with the application of a time-honored text, expressing the hope that as years passed by we might “so number our days” as to apply our hearts unto wisdom.26

The time ways of seventeenth-century New England were distinguished not only by the strength of these regional rituals, but also by weakness of natural rhythms which were very pronounced in other cultures. An example was a fascinating phenomenon which demographic historians call the “conception cycle.” Throughout the Western world in the seventeenth century, a large proportion of babies were conceived in the spring. There was a “rutting time” for humans as well as animals—a season of intense sexual activity which was defined by annual cycles of work, nutrition and inherited custom. In Europe twice as many conceptions occurred in the peak month of April as in the summer months during the seventeenth century. This conception cycle also appeared in the baptismal records of New England, but it was fainter than in most parts of the Western world. Conceptions were distributed more evenly throughout the year than was the case in Europe or other American colonies. Sexual behavior in New England was “deseasonalized” in an unusual degree for a seventeenth-century population.27

In sum, the time ways of New England embodied Puritan values in many ways. Seasonal rhythms such as the conception cycle were comparatively weak; diurnal and sabbatical rhythms were exceptionally strong. The liturgical calendar of Christian holidays was replaced by festivals which commemorated the founding purposes of New England. Ideas of “improving the time” and “numbering the days” gave a special cast to temporal thinking. Some of these customs appeared elsewhere, but all of them together were unique to New England.

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