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Why Our Calendars Skipped 11 Days in 1752

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Six and a half million Britons went to bed on September 2, 1752, and woke up on September 14. The reason? The Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, of course.

Now, your average Brit had as much knowledge of Parliament then as we do of day-to-day life in the 1750s, so this might need a little unpacking. You see, it’s all to do with calendars—the way we tabulate time—and how Britain fell out of sync with the world, and felt the need to catch back up. And what’s more, it goes back 170 years prior to 1752.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII was 10 years into his reign as leader of the Catholic church. He had a problem with Easter. The Julian calendar that the church (and large swaths of the world) used at the time measured a year as 365 days and 6 hours long.

That’s close, but not quite right. The average length of a year is 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes. The 11 minutes difference might not seem like all that much, but compounded over 1300 years, it begins to add up. So on February 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII released a papal bull—a declaration from the leader of the Catholic church—decreeing that those under the dominionship of his church would have to skip some days. Spain, large parts of Italy (which was not yet unified), the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Poland and Lithuania (who were at the time tied under a commonwealth) all adopted Gregory’s bull that year.

Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, and Prussia all followed in the next 50 years, so that large parts of Europe were now ticking off days on their shiny new Gregorian calendars.

Land of Hope and Glory

Britain (England until 1707) was a holdout. It had a large empire, and enough power to feel like it didn’t immediately need to cop to the Catholic calendar (bear in mind, too, that when Gregory made his switch, England’s church was only 50 years out from a nasty split with the Catholic church). But it all got rather confusing: People often headed up letters they wrote with two dates—one using the new Gregorian calendar in fashion in mainland Europe, and the other using the old-fashioned Julian calendar.

Eventually, Britain capitulated and instigated its Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750. Within the legislation, the government admitted that the old-style calendar had caused “divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom.

“In and throughout all his Majesty’s dominions and countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, belonging or subject to the crown of Great Britain,” the act continued, “the second day of September in the said year one thousand seven hundred and fifty-two inclusive; and that the natural day next immediately following the said second day of September shall be called, reckoned, and accounted to be the fourteenth day of September, omitting for that time only the eleven intermediate nominal days of the common calendar.”

The Final Holdouts

And so, with that act of Parliament, Britain (and its colonies) joined most of the rest of Europe in using the Gregorian calendar. September 3 through September 13 were skipped altogether for 1752, and life went on. Despite what some people say, there was little backlash from the public.

Britain wasn’t the last holdout for the new form of calendar, either—not by a long shot. Russia didn’t change over until 1918. Greece refused to switch until 1923. By then the synchronisation had become so bad that the two countries needed to skip 13 days, rather than 11. It’s one of the only ways that people can skip forward in time until we invent the time machine.

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Why Was February Chosen for Black History Month?
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Every February since 1976, the United States has celebrated the achievements of African-Americans during Black History Month. The month-long celebration puts those accomplishments and milestones in focus via the media and in classrooms.

But why February? Was that part of the calendar chosen for any specific purpose?

It was. Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” a label applied by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Woodson was bothered by the fact that many textbooks and other historical reviews minimized or ignored the contributions of black figures. Along with his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—later the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—Woodson earmarked the second week in February to raise awareness of these stories.

Woodson chose that week specifically because it covered the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (February 14) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12). The ensuing publicity led many mayors and college campuses to recognize the week; through the years, the groundswell of support allowed the occasion to stretch throughout the entire month.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month official, saying that he was urging everyone to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

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Philibert Louis Debucourt, Detail from "Calendrier républicain" // Public Domain
211 Years Ago Today, the French Abandoned Their Decimal Calendar
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Philibert Louis Debucourt, Detail from "Calendrier républicain" // Public Domain

In 1793, the French switched to French Revolutionary Time, creating a decimal system of time. A day had 10 hours, 100 minutes per hour, and 100 seconds per minute. The system was elegant, doing away with the complex math required for time calculations under a 24 hour/60 minute/60 second system. But it also brought huge headaches.

French Revolutionary Time came alongside the French Republican Calendar, a further attempt to rationalize time. Months were divided into three 10-day weeks, and there were 12 months. The leftover days needed to add up to 365 or 366 for the year were tacked onto the end of the year as holidays. This was a bit inelegant (days and years being hard to divide cleanly by 10), but at least it was less confusing than trying to sort out what time "noon" was (it was 5 o'clock).

French Revolutionary Time only lasted 17 months. By April 7, 1795 (in the Gregorian calendar), the time system became optional. Decimal clocks and decimal/standard hybrid clocks continued to be used for years, but for practicality, France returned to the same system of time as its neighbors.

The French Republican Calendar lasted far longer. It began in late 1793 and ran all the way through the end of 1805 (again in the Gregorian reckoning). On December 31, 1805, the French government chucked the system—in the year XIV, by Republican reckoning. This was due, of course, to the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte as Emperor. (Incidentally, his coronation occurred on 11 Frimaire, Year XIII of the French Republican Calendar—also known as 2 December, 1804. It took him more than a year to roll back the revolutionary calendar.) In any case, January 1, 1806 rolled around using the Gregorian calendar and the rest is history.

Of course, all this calendar-nerd stuff leads to the fact that you could still choose to use the French Republican Calendar. Indeed, Wikipedia will tell you the current day and year using the system, although you'll want to read up on the exquisite problems related to leap years (also helpfully detailed on Wikipedia).

For a bit more on decimal time (including several modern variants), check out our article Decimal Time: How the French Made a 10-Hour Day.

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