Curwen’s Calendar, Part II

Last week I shared some letters from the Curwen Family Papers showcasing the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.  The colonies officially made the change in 1752, yet some letters in the Curwen Family Papers exhibited the switch previous to the official change.  Why the early appearance of these dates?  The change was happening as early as 1582 in parts of Europe, and although they were an ocean away, colonists kept abreast of developments as they happened in Europe.  Early sources show it was being talked about, and also express how the news was being received.

Talk of the switch appears in newspapers and almanacs prior to 1750, when the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750 was passed.  Below is an excerpt from the American Weekly Mercury, a Philadelphia newspaper, from 1745.  In an opinion piece, the author first comments upon the differences in units of measurement between Europe and the colonies, and goes on the support the proposed calendar change, stating it basically isn’t that big a deal.  And don’t even try to use holidays as an excuse, the author says, they’re messed up to begin with!

But some may object, that an alteration in these things would so discompose the order and method in which affairs are carried on at present, that the propos’d [sic] remedy would be worse than the disease; so that of two evils we should chuse [sic] the least.  To which I answer, as to time: If it be required I can produce a calendar with plain tables, in which the days of the year, month and weeks, the change of the moon, the movable and immovable fasts and festivals, terms &c. will appear at first view for any time past, present, or future, as well as according to the old and new style now in use, as the Gregorian account now recommended.  And were the latter introduced into astronomy, tables depending on the sun’s place, &c. would not be soon out of date, as they are by the method now in use for calculation. 

Transposal [sic] of the holy days &c. can be no valid objection, since they are now so irregular as to be observed in different parts of Christendom, according as the new and old style is received; and in the same individual countries they are in such a fluctuating condition, that they insensibly revolve quite thro’ the year: so that in process of time Christmas will fall out at Midsummer, and May-day will come to the middle of Winter: but the method now proposed reduces the years, months, and days to a permanent certainty.

In another opinion piece from the Boston Evening Post in 1747, the author writes a letter “To the Author of the London Courant” addressing the “Design…on Foot for changing our Style.”  The author certainly seems to convey understanding and support, stating that the change

…has been a Thing often talked of, and, I believe, very much looked for; indeed, I have often wondered, that it was not done long ago, and have heard other Persons say the same, and that no good Argument could be assigned, why this Alteration has not been or should not be made, to prevent our being longer singular to such a Degree, as to be in some Measure ridiculous.

Jumping across the pond momentarily, London Magazine published an article in 1747 titled “Of the Confusion arising from the Uncertainty of beginning our Year.”  Hoping to find some complaints, or even evidence of the Brits’ reaction to loosing 11 days, I found only support.  “The absolute necessity there is for an Uniformity in the Dates of History is so obvious to every Man who makes that Science his study, or even his Amusement…” the authors states.  His only complaint is the confusion in dating (newspapers and decrees, he mentions specifically) that the switch may bring about.

These few sources, among others, show that while the changeover may have caused some inconvenience, it was understood as a necessity to be consistent with the rest of Europe.  No strong arguments were presented otherwise, but it must just be human nature to complain about change.  The fear of loosing a firm handle on one’s own history, insomuch as dates were wishy-washy, is understandable.  And it’s easy to see people fretting about losing 11 days, but, not to get philosophical, time is just an illusion anyways.  An article regarding the calendar change in the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure from December 1st, 1751 opened wisely with the following quote from the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, perhaps as a reminder to those citizens who may have been worried about their time lost –

Time of itself is nothing, but from thought / Received its rise, by labouring fancy wrought, / From things consider’d; whilst  we think on some / As present, some are past, or yet to come; / No thought can think on time, that’s still confest, / But thinks on things in motion, or at rest.

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