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Image Virginia Time Ways: The Cavalier Idea of “Killing the Time”

In the year 1732, William Byrd was visiting his lands in a “retired part of the country,” and stayed the night at Tuckahoe, the home of the Randolph family. After supper another guest brought out a copy of The Beggar’s Opera and the assembled company amused themselves by reading the play aloud. “Thus,” Byrd wrote in his diary, “we killed the time.”1

This notion of “killing the time” set the Virginians apart from the people of Massachusetts. The destruction of time was not an idea which sat well with the builders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Whenever the hours hung heavily upon a New Englandconscience, the people of that northern region attempted to “improve the time”—an attitude far removed from the temporal folkways of Virginia.

The temporal differences between these two English cultures were remarkable in their complexity. By comparison with New England, the time ways of the Chesapeake were in some ways more relaxed, but in other respects more rigid. The people of Virginia were less obsessed than New Englanders with finding some godly purpose for every passing moment, but their lives were more tightly controlled by the rhythms of a rural life.

Time in seventeenth-century Virginia meant mainly the pulse of nature and the organic processes of life itself. Even among great planters the language of time was sometimes closer to that of American Indians than to English Puritans. William Byrd reckoned the passing of time in expressions such as “many moons together.” The rhythms of nature played a significant part in his own way of reckoning time.2

The most important of these natural rhythms might be called crop time, which in the Chesapeake arose primarily from the growing season of tobacco. In 1800, a merchant named William Tatham described in detail the tobacco cycle in Virginia. It began “as early after Christmas as the weather will permit,” with the sowing of seedbeds. The seedlings sprouted slowly, and were not ready for the fields until five months had passed. Then the farmer awaited a “planting season.” Tatham explained:

the term, season for planting, signifies a shower of rain of sufficient quantity to wet the earth … these seasons generally commence in April, and terminate in what is termed the long season in May; which (to make use of an Irishism) very frequently happens in June. … when a good shower or season happens at this period of the year … the planter hurries to the plant bed, disregarding the teeming element which is doomed to wet his skin.3

Once planted, tobacco required unremitting care. The young plants needed “hilling” and “weeding until the lay-by,” which was the happy moment when that heavy work could cease. At precisely the right moment, the plants also had to be “primed,” “topped” and “suckered.” Always they needed watching for the

“rising” of the worm. When these dreaded enemies appeared, Tatham noted, then the “whole force is to be employed in searching round each plant, and destroying this worm.” Then came the harvest—another difficult moment. If the leaf was cut a week too early it could rot in the cask; if only a few days late it might not be cured properly. In the eighteenth century, expectant planters waited anxiously for a moment when the leaves took on a slightly greyish cast, and began to feel thick and brittle between the fingers. When these signs appeared, the crop was instantly harvested. Next the curing began, another long and arduous cycle with disaster lurking at every turn.

This tobacco cycle exercised a complete temporal tyranny over the lives of Virginians. It created alternating periods of crisis and calm, and culminated in climactic moments of frantic intensity. Major events such as the lay-by and the harvest were celebrated with high enthusiasm by masters and slaves alike. For many years, Chesapeake planters kept the ancient custom of largesse or harvest-home when servants paid homage to the master and mistress, and carried round the house a pair of painted ram’s horns, trimmed with flowers.4

Natural rhythms were not the only determinants of Virginia’s time ways. Imposed upon the crop cycle was a cadence of cultural time which was regulated by the Christian calendar. Accounts were settled and rents were due on Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer’s Day (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas Day, in both Virginia and southern England. Events such as Twelfth Night, Shrovetide, Lent, Easter, Ascension and Lady Day were also times of high celebration. Whitsunweek was a long holiday. So also was Easter Monday and Hock Tuesday, the second Tuesday after Easter. Many saints’ days were also observed in the Chesapeake.5 The climax of the year was Christmas, a happy season of parties, dances, visits, gifts and celebration. On Christmas Eve, for example, Philip Fithian noted that “Guns were fired this Evening in the Neighborhood, and the negroes seem to be inspired with new Life.”6

The most elemental acts of life were regulated by these rhythms. The season of marriage in Virginia, for example, was determined by the Anglican calendar and the crop cycle. The favored time for marriage fell in the period between Christmas and Ash Wednesday when Lent began. Few Virginians married during Lent; the eight weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday were a period when marriage had long been prohibited to Anglicans. After Easter, the number of marriages rose moderately, but remained far below the winter peak. They continued at a low level in the planting season, revived after the harvest, and then fell again in the weeks before Christmas, which was another period when marriage was prohibited in the Church of England. This rhythm was different from the marriage cycle in Puritan Massachusetts and Quaker Pennsylvania, but it was the same as in the south and west of England. In the Chesapeake it was highly stable, recurring every year from the mid-seventeenth century to the late eighteenth. In this historian’s Maryland family, it has persisted even into the mid-twentieth century.7

Fertility also had a distinctive rhythm in Virginia. Babies were made in the spring, more than in any other season. This pattern also appeared in most parts of British America, but its magnitude was exceptionally large in the Chesapeake colonies—larger than in Puritan Massachusetts or Quaker Pennsylvania. In one parish of tidewater Maryland, twice as many babies were conceived in the peak months of May, June and July as in February, March or April when conceptions fell to their lowest level through the year. The cause was a complex interplay of many factors—nutrition, morbidity, the crop cycle and the Christian calendar. The amplitude of this fertility cycle demonstrates that the people of Virginia lived closer to the seasons than did the Puritans in New England or Quakers in Pennsylvania.8

The Virginians regulated their lives more by these natural and cultural rhythms than by mechanical clocks or mathematical calendars. They also thought in much the same way about the life cycle itself. In a generation when Puritan ministers in Massachusetts normally defined old age in quantitative terms as life after sixty, Virginians took a very different view of the subject. “Age,” wrote William Byrd II, “should be dated from the declension of our vigor, and the impairing of our faculties, rather than from the time we have lived in the world.”9

These general time ways in Virginia were marked by many variations. In particular, the temporal lives of individuals varied according to their social rank. Time was hierarchical in Virginia. Gentleman demonstrated their status by making a great show of temporal independence. The diaries of gentry in Virginia and England during the seventeenth century displayed a cultivated contempt for temporal regularity. An example was the time of rising from bed. The diary of Bullen Reynes, kept alternately in French and English, was very interesting in that respect. One morning he might rise at six or earlier; on another he would stay abed till noon or even later. Early risings tended to be recorded in English; late sleepings were noted in a fractured French:

Je dormi tout le matin [sic].

Je dormi jusqua deux heures [sic].10

This English gentlemen kept his insouciant schedule not merely because it pleased him. It also demonstrated his independence—a condition fundamental to the status of a gentleman.

Very different was the temporal condition of servants and slaves. Their time was not their own. It belonged to their masters, who decreed that a field slave must work from “day clean” to “first dark.” A slave had very little control over daylight time except on Sundays and holidays which were days of riotous celebration. Some such hierarchy of time has existed in most cultures, but rarely has it been as stark as in Tidewater Virginia.11

The temporal hierarchy of Virginia ranked people largely by their ability to regulate their own time whenever and however they pleased. Time-killing thus became an expression of social rank. Through many centuries, when the people of Virginia found a moment of leisure, they “killed the time” with any lethal weapon that came to hand. A dice box did nicely, or a pack of playing cards, or a book of dramatic readings, or long conversation at table in the gathering dusk of a Chesapeake “evening”—a word which was enlarged in this culture to include the entire afternoon. The progeny of the New England Puritans, on the other hand, preferred to “improve the time” by inventing alarm clocks and daylight saving time and by turning every passing moment to a constructive purpose. Here were two distinctly different time ways which lay very near the heart of regional cultures in British America.

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