Story: Timekeeping

Page 3. Time and society, 1870s–1930s

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Using clocks and watches

After the establishment of a New Zealand standard time, communities put up public clocks. Those in Ashburton and Christchurch commemorated Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897; Hokitika’s was a memorial to the South African War (1899–1902), and four others remembered the dead of the First World War.

Affordable, mass-produced American watches became available in the last 20 years of the 19th century, when over 400,000 each of clocks and pocket watches came into the country. It seems likely that by then most households had a clock, and most adults a watch. By the 1920s wristwatches were common.

Work schedules

As a national train network spread and city trains and buses began operating, timetables determined people’s movements. Even in the 1880s sheep shearers worked to regulations based on precise hours of work, enforced by the estate bell. Government offices and banks would open and close at standard times, and other businesses quickly followed. Factories began their days with the blast of a siren.

As early as 1873 the state regulated hours of work for women, and in factory acts passed between 1891 and 1901 these became more prescriptive and eventually included men. A series of laws from 1892 to 1922 prescribed shop closing and tea breaks. A Saturday half-holiday was accepted, and extended shopping hours on Friday nights became a New Zealand institution. Eventually in 1936 the 40-hour week became mandatory in all factories and employment agreements, and the ‘Kiwi weekend’, when everything was closed, had arrived.

Time off

Leisure was also affected by this new consciousness. As early as 1881, licensing acts prescribed pub opening hours. Six o’clock closing was brought in during the First World War. The call, ‘Time, gentlemen please’ became familiar in pubs around the country.

Movies, horse races and rugby games all started at precise times. Indeed, organised rugby was dependent upon the ability to measure game halves of exactly 40 minutes. Many a game became tense as the minutes on the grandstand clock ticked down. At home, mothers were taught by the child health reformer Frederic Truby King to feed and put their babies to sleep by the clock, and they followed recipe books with exact cooking times. Children learnt to tell the time at school. And following the establishment of a national education system in 1877, teachers were tested on their ability to draw up timetables.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Timekeeping - Time and society, 1870s–1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006