On Time National Museum of American History

Marking Time
  The Almanac
  Nature's Time
  Status Symbols
  Time in Religion
Organizing Time
Improving Time
Rituals in Time
Scheduling Each Day
  Time Is Money
Synchronizing Time

Time in Religion

Organizing Time

Tower clock movement

Tower clock movement, 1790s; by Frederick Heisely, Frederick, Maryland
Gift of the City of Frederick, Maryland

The German immigrants who founded Frederick, Maryland, believed that time was a divine gift to be spent in organized, productive work. According to their Calvinist beliefs, temporal order was an important component of godly and disciplined behavior. They relied on this tower clock to help them organize their daily lives in time. The congregation of the German Reform Church (now Trinity Chapel) installed the clock in the church tower. The entire town contributed about $800 to purchase the clock, and paid for its maintenance for nearly 140 years.

Improving Time

New England Puritans believed that time belonged to God. They diligently sought to "improve" every waking moment through worship or productive activity. Parishioners were summoned to hours-long services with conch shells, horns, or drums. Puritans believed that time was fleeting—death was a common theme in samplers; the winged sandglass was a common gravestone motif. Later generations expressed similar "rise-and-shine" values in weathercocks atop church steeples. The Puritan obsession with time gradually became secularized and widespread.

Conch shell
Conch shell sounded to summon parishioners to worship services from about 1773 to 1795
Lent by First Congregational Church of Whately, Massachusetts
  Sampler, 1773; by Katherine Mayo, Roxbury, Massachusetts   Gravestone (casting), late 1670s; for Thomas Kendel of Wakefield, Massachusetts

Rituals in Time

Calendar-based rituals cued by nature's rhythms were central to every religion in the racial, ethnic, and cultural mosaic of early America. Times were identified by the position of the sun, the phases of the moon, the appearance of certain stars and planets, seasonal changes, or passing days and nights.

Ceremonial mask Omer
Ceremonial mask, before 1881; representing Tunghat, the spirit keeper of game animals, who lived in the moon; used in pre-hunt rituals by the Yup’ik—Bering Sea Eskimo.
National Museum of Natural History
  Omer, early 19th century; used during the Jewish religious year to count the fifty sunsets between the celebrations of Passover, commemorating the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot, marking the giving of the Ten Commandments
Lent by David Sulzberger
Sandglass, 19th century; from a schoolroom in Sterling, Massachusetts
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood

Scheduling Each Day
Centuries-old devotional schedules devised by Jewish rabbis and by Catholic monks following the Benedictine rule established the practice of partitioning each day and specifying times for worship and work. Catholic orders in the New World followed—and often imposed on others—rules that governed highly structured days of work, meals, instruction, and prayer. Tolling bells often reinforced these schedules. In Protestant churches, a sandglass often measured out sermons in the pulpit; in schools, it reckoned the time allotted to lessons.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History