On Sunday March 10, 2024, people in most of the United States, along with numerous nations around the world, will move their clocks forward by one hour and begin observance of Daylight Savings Time. Many Americans neither appreciate nor endorse the time change.

Ever since the nation instituted its “spring forward” protocol, as part of the World War I era Standard Time Act of 1918, Americans have complained about the time change and somewhat grudgingly adjusted both their time-clocks and body-clocks. Among those who objected to Daylight Savings was Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), a Doylestown native and one of the borough’s leading citizens.

Mercer was an eccentric yet brilliant anthropologist, archeologist, artisan, and historian. He established three of Doylestown’s most notable historic sites including: The Mercer Museum, built in 1916 to display his vast collection of artifacts from America’s pre-industrial age; the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, built in 1912 as a facility for his business of crafting and selling decorative ceramic tiles; and Fonthill Castle, Mercer’s home that he designed and constructed between 1908 and 1912, replete with many of his most valued artifacts and treasured tiles.  

Mercer was not fond of President Woodrow Wilson or America’s entry into the Great War. When Wilson signed the time change into law, on March 19, 1918, Mercer vowed to defy the directive. At 2:00 am on March 31, as America’s clocks marched forward one hour, the clocks in Mercer’s world remained in place.  

The time change never caught on with the American public. Many dubbed it derisively as “War Time,” and once the war ended in 1919, a vast number of Americans demanded repeal of the decree.  

The movement opposing Daylight Savings took root among workers, particularly those in agricultural and railroad sectors, and propelled a populist rebellion against permanently adding an extra hour of daylight at the end of the workday. Following a fierce national political debate, the federal government directed each locality to decide if they would retain the shift in time. Doylestown, Philadelphia, and other areas in the Delaware Valley chose to do so. 

Nonetheless, Mercer continued to resist and insisted on maintaining Standard Time. His friend Benjamin Barnes recalled, “Dr. Mercer would not go on daylight savings time. The Pottery and Fonthill were both on standard time.”  

Yet those who worked at Fonthill or the Pottery had to be aware of the passage of time beyond Mercer’s self-insulated world. 

Laura Long, who managed Fonthill, deemed it essential to keep track of time according to the outside world. She had to manage her staff, most of which commuted from Doylestown. Thus, Laura discreetly kept a clock set to Daylight Savings.  

Barnes acknowledged that Mercer knew of her ruse. He recollected Mercer’s admission, “Laura has her clock in the kitchen an hour fast, but she can’t fool me. I can tell time by the sun.”

Indeed, Mercer could tell time by the sun. His design for Fonthill located his bedroom facing east with two huge windows that allowed light from the morning sunrise to awaken him. Adjacent to his bedroom was his study — his primary workspace. Mercer designed this room to allow natural light to illuminate an eastern facing desk in the morning, a southern-facing desk around mid-day, and a western facing desk later in the afternoon. He also had a lamp suspended from the ceiling above his northern facing desk that allowed him to work at night.  

Although Mercer chastised friends and acquaintances that dared check their watch in his presence, he relied on Laura to keep him on schedule for business meetings and other obligations. 

His brother William arranged a social gathering at his home near Fonthill. That night, Mercer was to read selections from his book November Night Tales.  William kept his clocks set to Daylight Savings Time, however, and when Mercer arrived one hour late the two exchanged heated words that strained their already contentious relationship.  

Besides Mercer, Laura was one of two people who lived at Fonthill. The other was Frank Swain, Mercer’s property manager who also ran the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. He insisted that the business operate according to the time change, but Mercer objected. The disagreement escalated until, after Swain threatened to leave, Mercer relented. 

Swain later confirmed the notion that Mercer measured time by the sun. In a letter to a member of the Bucks County Historical Society, Swain confided, “Dr. Mercer had no watch — time meant nothing to him.” Swain also maintained that Mercer had “a clock in his bedroom and one in his study,” but they “differed by as much as 30 minutes and neither one was ever right by the sun.” 

Currently, there are three clocks at Fonthill Castle. One is in the gallery, the room adjacent to Mercer’s breakfast area where staff, including Laura, would have to be cognizant of time. A second clock is in the downstairs lLibrary, while a third is upstairs in a reading area known as the Map Room adjoining Mercer’s study.

In 1924, one hundred years ago, as Daylight Savings began, Mercer was most displeased. He never adjusted to the time change and continued to protest its implementation. The United States did not formally adopt the Daylight Savings until the Uniform Time Act of 1966, and in doing so established a date whereby all states adhering to the time change would advance their clocks.  

Henry Chapman Mercer would have objected strenuously. He revered the agrarian foundation of and tradition in America, as well as the customs and cultures of indigenous peoples. Accordingly, he would most certainly embrace the notion attributed to Native Americans: ”Only a fool would believe you could cut a foot off the top of the blanket, sew it onto the bottom of the blanket, and you’d be left with a longer blanket.”

Along with Mercer and millions of other Americans, past and present, I agree.  

Jeffery S. Prushankin holds a Masters in History from Villanova University and a Doctorate in History from the University of Arkansas. He taught U.S. History at Penn State Abington and Millersville University. Prushankin currently works at Central Bucks South High School and as a tour guide at Fonthill Castle. Prushankin@aol.com

3 thoughts on ““I can tell time by the sun” — Henry Chapman Mercer and his defiance of Daylight Savings Time”

  1. If you think a one-hour advance is hard to deal with, during WWII, the British Isles had what was known as British Double Summer Time, a 2-hour advance. Try that on your circadian rhythm.

  2. Quite enjoyable–and relatable. I had never heard of Mercer, but would vote for him as President. What? He’s dead? Well, so is the current guy, cognitively.

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