How to Tell Time
Q&A with Howard Mansfield
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Photograph by Briar Hill Studios
Twenty-four-hour news. Express checkouts. Fast food. Download accelerators. We’re continually bombarded with technological advances designed to save time, so why is it that we seem to have less of it than ever? That paradox intrigues author and historian Howard Mansfield, who looks for answers by turning back the clock and exploring concepts of time and its relationship to everyday life in Turn & Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart (Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 197 pages; $24.95).
A series of essays about New England linked by theme, Turn and Jump takes its title from the late nineteenth-century vaudeville actors who took their “turn” on stage, then made the “jump” to the next venue by railroad. In each chapter, Mansfield, of Hanover, New Hampshire, measures the relationship between time and place with a different “clock,” a metaphor he applies to such diverse subjects as the management of a nineteenth-century outlet dam, a nostalgic play that was a long-running Broadway smash in 1880s, and King Philip’s War, a bloody clash of two cultures that shaped the Yankee — some might argue the American — identity.
Mansfield, who has been called a “cultural psychologist” for his enlightening interpretations of American culture, is also the author of five books on historic preservation, including In the Memory House, The Same Ax, Twice, and The Bones of the Earth.
In Turn & Jump, we learn that voters in Augusta rejected standardized time zones when they were introduced by the railroads in 1883. Why?
Before the railroad standardized time zones, every locality set its clocks however it wished. You could run up just about any time you wanted and put it on your courthouse clock or your church spire. It would be based on noon — noon was when the sun was exactly overhead, so noon was different from place to place. “Sun time,” they called it. Time meant nature. It meant when to plant, when to harvest, when it got dark, when it got light, and the almanac was your key reference point. It worked because it didn’t matter what was going on outside your town or even outside your farm.
Then the railroads started linking up towns across the country, and places like Augusta were being told to move their clocks eighteen, twenty minutes. And why? Who says so? The railroads. Not the federal government. Not Congress. People were used to sun time in the same way that we’re so used to standardized time that it’s very hard to get our minds out of it. Suddenly the clock and watch were not just a representation of time; they had become time itself. That’s why three-quarters of the people of Augusta voted against standardized time, and other places protested as well. There was a tremendous reaction against it.
How did the railroads and standardized time affect commerce and social life in New England?
In the book I use the example of continuous vaudeville. Showman Benjamin Franklin Keith thought, “I have this big problem getting people into the theater, and they hesitate to sit down when they come in. What if I just ran the show continuously?” And he did. The continuous variety show kept people coming and going so the seats stayed full for twelve hours. The continuous is a reflection of city time and industrial production. It reflects the moving away from a seasonal, agricultural economy, when certain things were only available locally in season, to an economy where everything is available everywhere because of the railroad. Oysters were being shipped to people in the prairie. Sears & Roebuck in Chicago was shipping entire house kits to Maine and New Hampshire. We were moving to a more national economy as opposed to a regional and local economy. Today we call this “24/7.” It wasn’t quite that — people weren’t banking at 1 a.m. — but things were starting to head that way.
It wasn’t an easy transition. Maine, for example, had a lot of mills. Let’s say you grew up on a farm: You did your chores, you milked the cows in the morning, you went on to whatever was in season, and if you got hot, you took a break and went swimming. You were your own boss. Now you’re in a mill: Each hour has to be like the next hour. Every day has to be exactly the same. When that whistle blows, you have to be there. “Time discipline” is what they called it in the nineteenth century. Then, in the 1870s, you get these phenomenal strikes over wages and conditions, which were horrendous. But historians say they also were time wars. People no longer had control over what they were going to do and when you were going to do it. They were fighting to get back control of their time.
As we read about Derby’s, which is the sort of department store that once anchored every New England downtown, we couldn’t help but consider the small locally owned stores, cafés, and farms that are bringing villages back to life all over Maine. These places seem to have tapped into a yearning not just for good products, but for the sense of community that places like Derby’s represented.
I think you’re on to something there. When people shopped at little department stories like Derby’s or their local five-and-tens, not only were they doing their chores, they were visiting. Today we call it multi-tasking. They were talking with people they’ve known ten, twenty, thirty years, catching up on what’s going on in the schools, in the town. That’s what people are trying to recreate in downtowns today.
In a broader sense, it’s this same sense of time and place that brings people to Maine for the summer. They want to go down to the sea and try to reclaim a sense of time that’s outside the one in which they are constantly being emailed and Blackberried. They’re trying to get back to that expansive sense of time they knew in childhood, when they were free to wander and just let days go by. It’s a summer kind of time, a time when they were happiest. For some, that’s in the forefront of their minds because they’re coming back to places where they went to summer camp, where they went to college, where they went skiing.
You write that author Barbara Tuchman’s statement about World War I — she called it “a path burnt across history” — can be applied to King Philip’s War (1675-1676), even though historians have largely ignored it. Why was this war important?
King Philip’s War affected the relations between English settlers and the Indians forever. It changed everything. Thousands of people died. Before King Philip’s War, one in four New Englanders was an Indian. The English and the Indians were living in a way that’s like your fingers intertwined: They were right alongside each other in trade, in trust, in mistrust, in marriage, all those kind of complicated relationships. It was a multicultural system, with the Wampanoag in Massachusetts and the Wabanaki in Maine. We don’t know exactly what that world was like, but you get little glimpses in a comment here and there, and you think about how differently things could have been. It’s haunting. After the war, that relationship was broken. You have estrangement.
The war set the colonies back one hundred years. It set up the American Revolution because the crown had to come in and take greater control of the colony that the Puritans messed up. And the Indians never recovered.
You conclude Turn & Jump by asking the reader to “think like a Wabanaki.” What do you mean?
Take a longer view of time. If you live your day in five-minute increments, you have one view of time. If you regard this land through only the history of the United States, you have another view of time. If you expand it out to the Wabanaki view of ten thousand years in New England (of course it wouldn’t have been New England then — the language is such a trap!), you get a whole other view. The Wabanaki were living here just as the glacier was receding. It must have been an open, tundra-like place, sparsely forested. If we could think in different time scales, it might affect how we treat the environment, how we consider the consequences of what we leave behind. Entering different time scales is liberating, confusing, and fascinating.