Murray Melbin *
Night as Frontier **
American Sociological Review
Vol. 43, February 1978, 3-22
While the settlement of some of the world’s land areas was coming to an end, there began an increase in wakeful activity over more of the 24-hour day. This trend of expansion in time is continuing, especially in urban areas. The hypothesis that night has become the new frontier is supported by the premise that time, like space, can be occupied and is treated so by humans. A set of evidence, including results of several field experiments, show that nighttime social life in urban areas resembles social life on former land frontiers. The research data refers mainly to contemporary Boston and to the U.S. West a century ago.
Humans are showing a trend toward more and more wakeful activity at all hours of day and night. The activities are extremely varied. Large numbers of people are involved. And the trend is worldwide. A unifying hypothesis to account for it is that night is a frontier, that expansion into the dark hours is a continuation of the geographic migration across the face of the earth. To support this view, I will document the trend and then offer a premise about the nature of time and its relation to space. Third, I will show that social life in the nighttime has many important characteristics that resemble social life on land frontiers.
We were once a diurnal species bounded by dawn and dusk in our wakeful activity. Upon mastering fire, early humans used it for cooking and also for sociable assemblies that lasted for a few hours after darkness fell. Some bustle throughout the 24-hour cycle occurred too. Over the centuries there have been fires tended in military encampments, prayer vigils in temples, midnight betrothal ceremonies, sentinels on guard duty at city gates, officer watches on ships, the curing ceremonies of Venezuelan Indians that begin at sundown and end at sunrise, innkeepers serving travelers at all hours. In the first century A.D., Rome was obliged to relieve its congestion by restricting chariot traffic to the night hours (Mumford, 1961:217).
Yet around-the-clock activity used to be a small part of the whole until the nineteenth century. Then the pace and scope of wakefulness at all hours increased smartly. William Murdock developed a feasible method of coal-gas illumination and, in 1803, arranged for the interior of the Soho works in Birmingham, England to be lighted that way. Other mills nearby began to use gas lighting. Methods of distributing coal-gas to all buildings and street lamps in a town were introduced soon after. In 1820 Pall Mall in London became the first street to be lit by coal-gas. Artificial lighting gave great stimulus to the nighttime entertainment industry (Schlesinger, 1933:105). It also permitted multiple-shift factory opera-
* Boston University
** I thank the Center for Studies of Metropolitan Problems, National Institute of Mental Health, for grant MH-22763 through which the research and the preparation of this essay was supported; and Earl Mellor of the Bureau of Labor Statistics for providing interpretive help and data tables from the 1976 Current Population Survey. I also thank my research assistants William O. Clarke, Ann Getman, Shelley Leavitt, Lee Parmenter, Alan Rubenstein, Melanie Wallace, and Marilyn Arsem for field observations at all hours in rain and bitter cold was well as mild weather; and my colleagues Paul Hollander and Anthony Harris of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for serving as recipients in the lost-key test.
tions on a broad scale. Indeed by 1867 Karl Marx (1867:chap. 10, sec. 4) was to declare that night work was a new mode of exploiting human labor.
In the closing decades of the nineteenth century two developments marked the changeover from space to time as the realm of human migration in the United States. In 1890 the Bureau of the Census announced that the land frontier in America had come to an end, for it was no longer possible to draw a continuous line across the map of the West to define the edge of farthest advance settlement. Meanwhile, the search for an optimum material for lantern lights, capable of being repeatedly brought to a white heat, culminated in 1885 in the invention of the Weisbach mantle - a chemically impregnated cotton mesh. The use of the dark hours increased thereafter, and grew further with the introduction of electric lighting.
Here and there one may find documentation of the trend. During the First World War there was selective concern, expressed by Brandeis and Goldmark (1918) in The Case Against Night Work for Women, about the impact of off-hours work. A decade later the National Industrial Conference Board (1927) published a comprehensive survey with an account of the characteristics of the off-hours workers.
The most systematic evidence of steadily increasing 24-hour activity in the U.S. is the growth of radio and television broadcasting. Broadcasters authorize surveys to learn about the market that can be reached in order to plan programs and to set advertising rates. The number of stations active at given hours and the spread of those hours around the clock reflects these research estimates of the size of the wakeful population - the potential listeners. Table 1 [HHC: not displayed] shows trends in the daily schedule spanning the entire periods of commercial broadcasting for both radio and television. Although not shown in the table, television hours in Boston ended at 11:30 p.m. in 1949, and then widened to include the Late Show and then the Late Late Show in the intervening years until 1974. Each medium has moved increasingly to 24-hour programming and mirrors the growth in nighttime activity.
In the present decade, for the first time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1976: Table 1) asked about the times of day that people worked. In 1976, of 75 million in
the work force, 12 million reported they were on the job mainly after dark and 2.5 million of those persons worked a full shift beginning about midnight. Since these figures do not include the clientele that used such establishments as restaurants, hospital emergency wards, gambling rooms, and public transportation, these numbers are conservative estimates of how many people are up and about at night.
Today more people than ever are active outside their homes at all hours engaged in all sorts of activities. There are all-night supermarkets, bowling alleys, department stores, restaurants, cinemas, auto repair shops, taxi services, bus and airline terminals, radio and television broadcasting, rent-a-car agencies, gasoline stations. There are continuous-process refining plants, and three-shift factories, post offices, newspaper offices, hotels, and hospitals. There is unremitting provision of some utilities - electric supply, staffed turnpike toll booths, police patrolling, and telephone service. There are many emergency and repair services on-call: fire fighters, auto towing, locksmiths, suppliers of clean diapers, ambulances, bail bondsmen, insect exterminators, television repairers, plate glass installers, and funeral homes.
The trend of nighttime expansion is under way outside the United States as well. In Great Britain since the Second World War, the yearly increase in the percentage of the manual labor force on shifts in manufacturing has been about 1% a year, and greater increases have been noted in vehicle manufacture and in the chemical industry (Young and Willmott, 1973:175). Meier (1976:965) observes that Singapore is becoming one of the most intensive 24-hour cities. Data on around-the-clock activity in Peru, France, U.S.S.R. and eight other nations is provided in a volume on The Use of Time (Szalai, 1972:appendices).
Time, like space, is part of the ecological niche occupied by a species. Although every type exists throughout the 24-hour cycle, to reflect the way a species uses its niche we label it by the timing of its wakeful life. The terms diurnal and nocturnal refer to the periods the creatures are active. We improve our grasp of the ecology of a region by recognizing the night-time activity of raccoons, owls and rats, as well as by knowing the spatial dispersion of these and other animals. The same area of a forest or meadow or coral reef is used incessantly, with diurnal and nocturnal creatures taking their active turns. We make geographic references to humans in a similar way. We refer to an island people or a desert people, or the people of arctic lands as a means of pointing out salient features of their habitats.
This similar treatment of time and space rests on the assumption that both of them are containers for living. Consider the dictionary definition of the word occupy: “2. To fill up (take time or space): a lecture that occupied three hours” (American Heritage Dictionary, 1970:908). Geographers study activities rather than physical structures to decide whether and how people occupy space (Buttimer, 1976:286). The mere presence of buildings and related physical structures in places like Machu-Pichu, Petra, and Zimbabwe do not make us believe they are habitations now. The once-boisterous mining centers in the American West that have become ghost towns are settlements no longer. Conversely, we say a farming region in which people are active is inhabited even though buildings are few. The presence of human-built structures is not the criterion for occupying a region, it is people and their activities.
Like rural settlements, the occupation of time need not be dense. For example, London Transport lists 21 all-night bus routes. On many of these routes “all-night” service means no more than once an hour. Yet, even though the bus does not pass during the intervening 59 minutes, the schedule is said to be continuous. If an active moment interacts with quiet moments around it, the entire period is taken as occupied.
Of course, no time has ever been used without also using it in some place. No space has ever been used without also using it some hours of the day. Space and time together form the container of life
activity. We forget this in the case of former frontiers because expansion then occurred so dramatically across the land. Less notice was paid to the 16 hours of wakefulness because the daily use of time was rather constant as the surge of geographic expansion kept on over the face of the earth. As time use remained unchanged, it was disregarded in human ecological theory. In different eras, however, expansion may proceed more rapidly in either space or time. Recently expansion is taking place in time. Since people may exploit a niche by distributing themselves and their activities over more hours of the day just as they do by dispersing in space, a frontier could occur in the time dimension too.
A settlement is a stable occupation of space and time by people and their activities. A frontier is a pattern of sparse settlement in space or time, located between a more densely settled and a practically empty region. Below a certain density of active people, a given space-time region is a wilderness. Above that point and continuing to a higher level of density, the presence of people in activities will make that area a frontier. Above that second cutoff point the further denseness of active people turns the area into a fully inhabited region. In a given historical period the frontier’s boundaries may be stable or expanding. When expanding the frontier takes on the aspect of venturing into the unknown and is often accompanied by novelty and change.
Two kinds of evidence would support the hypothesis of night as frontier. One is that the forces for expansion into the dark hours are the same as those resulting in expansion across the land. That is, a single causal explanation should account for the spread of people and their activities, whether in space or in time. I offered such an outline in another essay; it includes enabling factors, demand push, supply pull, and stabilizing feedback (Melbin, 1977). The other line of evidence is that the same important features of social life should be found both in time and in space frontiers. The rapid expansion in after-dark activity has been taking place mostly in urban areas. Therefore the culture of the contemporary urban nighttime should reveal the same patterns and moods found in former land frontiers.
I have chosen to review life in the U.S. West in the middle of the nineteenth century along with the present-day nighttime. Of course there were other land frontiers and the hypothesis should apply to all of them. However there are good reasons to begin by demonstrating it for the U.S. West. One is that the archives holding information about this westward flow are thorough, well organized, and readily available. Another reason is that the U.S. West has continuity with expansion into the night. The movement westward reached the California coast. California’s main cities have since become areas of great activity in the dark hours, as if the flow across the continent swerved into the nighttime rather than spilling into the sea.
Specifically, the land frontier to be discussed is the area west of the Mississippi River during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, about 1830-1880. The urban nighttime will be any major urban area during the stretch from about midnight to 7:30 a.m. during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of my examples will be findings from a recent study of Boston. There are many aspects in which social life at night is like the social life of other frontiers.
There is a succession of steps in colonizing any new region. People ventured into the western outskirts “in a series of waves... the hunter and the fur trader who pushed into the Indian country were followed by the cattle raiser and he by the pioneer farmer” (Turner, 1965:59; 1893:12, 19-20). Life styles were distinctive in each stage as well. The hunters and trappers did not dwell like the miners who followed, and they in turn lived differently from the pioneer farmers who came later (Billington, 1949:4-5). Although living conditions were generally crude then, there was a decided increase in comfort
for the farmers settled in one place compared with the earlier-day trappers who were usually on the move.
There is also a succession of phases in settling the nighttime. Each stage fills the night more densely than before and uses those hours in a different way. First came isolated wanderers on the streets; then groups involved in production activities, the graveyard-shift workers. Still later those involved in consumption activities arrived, the patrons of all-night restaurants and bars, and the gamblers who now cluster regularly by midnight at the gaming table in resorts.
The rates of advance are unequal in both cases. Population gains and development are not unbroken. In the West economic growth was erratic. Periods of depression, dry seasons and other hardships drove many people to abandon their homesteads and move back east. Similarly, during the oil embargo of 1973-1974 there was some retreat from nighttime activity, as restaurants and auto service stations and other businesses cut back hours of serving the public.
At first only a few people venture into the new region. The frontier line in the U.S. West was drawn by the Census Bureau through an area of density of two to six inhabitants per square mile. The other side of the line was tabbed the “wilderness.” The demographic composition of the western frontier was mostly vigorous young males with proportionately fewer females and aged persons than found in the populations of the eastern states (Riegel, 1947:624; Godkin, 1896: 13; Dick, 1937:7, 232). This demographic picture fits the night as well. There are fewer people up and about and most of them are young males.
A crude comparison between a frontier line in the nineteenth-century West and a time interval in the twentieth-century nighttime is possible if the map of Figure 1 [HHC: not displayed] is scanned from right to left and the graph of Figure 2 [HHC: not displayed] is scanned from left to right. In this view both figures show similar graded densities. In Figure 2, the period after
midnight until 7 a.m. is sparsest and stands in the same relation to the rest of the day as the region west of the Mississippi stands in relation to the East in Figure 1. The figures also show that the proportion of males in the population is higher on the frontiers. Just as this part of the total is largest in the Plains and Mountain States (71%), males comprise the largest part of the street population (89%) in the middle of the night.
Estimates of the ages of passersby were
also made during the field observations that yielded the data for Figure 2.  Whereas people of all ages were on the streets during the day, no one over 59 was seen between midnight and 5 a.m.; and from 2 to 5 a.m. no one over 41 was seen.
The land frontier offered tranquillity, a place for relief from feelings of being hemmed in. “Fur traders... were psychological types who found forest solitudes more acceptable than the company of their fellow men” (Billington, 1949:4). It was appealing to escape into the wilderness, to leave deceit and disturbance, and vexing duties and impositions of the government behind (Robbins, 1960:148). “‘Oh, how sweet,’ wrote William Penn from his forest refuge, ‘is the quiet of these parts, freed from the troubles and perplexities of woeful Europe’” (Turner, 1893:262). Even later the West was “a refuge... from the subordination of youth to age” (Turner, 1932:25). The outer fringes offered escape from persecution too. Mormons and Hutterites both made their ways westward to avoid harassment from others.
In a parallel way, many have enjoyed the experience of walking at night along a street that is ordinarily jammed during the day. Individuals who are up and about then report a feeling of relief from the crush and anonymity of daytime city life. The calm of those hours is especially appealing to young people, who come to feel that they possess the streets. (A test of this proposition must of course control for the fear of criminal assault in the dark; I will discuss this further in items 7 and 8 below.) Also, a portion of the people out at night are those avoiding social constraints and perhaps persecution. Street people and homosexuals, for example, find more peace in the dark because surveillance declines. Some night owls are urban hermits. Some individuals who are troubled or stigmatized - such as the very ugly or obese - retreat from the daytime to avoid humiliation and challenge. They stay up later, come out when most others are gone, and are more secure as they hobnob with nighttime newsdealers and porters and elevator men. In this way the night affords an outlet. Like the West it serves an insulating function that averts possible tensions from unwanted encounters.
Initially migration beyond the society’s active perimeter is scattered. The land frontier settlements were small and apart from one another. There was little communication across districts and much went on in each in a self-sufficient way. People in the East did not think of the relevance of borderland activities for their own existence and the pioneers were indifferent to outside society (Billington, 1949:96, 746).
As the city moves through phases of the day it switches from coordinated actions to unconnected ones. Pockets of wakeful activity are separated from one another, are small scale compared to daytime events, and there is less communication between the pockets. The people of the daytime give little thought to those active in the dark and do not view them as part of the main community.
Whatever high-level group may decide the laws and policies for a nation or a community, outside the purview of superiors there are subordinates who make decisions that would otherwise be the domain of the higher-ups or subject to their approval. As the land frontier moved farther from the national center of policy making, the interpretation of the law and judicial decisions were carried out by individuals who were rarely checked on and who rarely consulted with their superiors. Hollon (1973:96) notes that events took place “remote from the courts
1. A comparison of the age estimate made by an observer and the answer to an age query made of 696 passersby yielded a correlation (within two years) of .96 for the six observers, with the lowest coefficient for an observer being .93. Populations at these sites are somewhat younger than the city’s census average.
of authorities... [and] the frontiersmen not only enforced their own law, they chose which laws should be enforced and which should be ignored.”
Today, although many organizations and cities are continually active, their primary administrators - directors, heads of departments, mayors - are generally on duty only during the daytime. At night they go to sleep and a similar decentralization of power follows. To some extent this is an explicit delegation of authority. But discretion is stretched for other reasons too. Night nurses decide not to wake up the doctor on duty because he gets annoyed at being disturbed for minor problems (Kozak, 1974:59). Shift supervisors choose not to bother the plant manager for similar reasons. Lesser officials make decisions that in the daytime are left for higher-ranking administrators. The style and content of the way the organization or the city is run at night changes accordingly. For example, for the same types of cases, decisions by police officers at night will be based less on professional role criteria and more on personal styles. This results in more extreme instances of being strict and lenient, arbitrary and humane.
Both land and time frontiers show more individualism because they are remote, the environment is unusual (compared with the centers of society), and others subjected to the same conditions are tolerant. Those who traveled to the western borders broke from ordinary society. The casual observance by others, the constituted authority, and the familiar settings and the norms they implied were gone. This left room for unconventional behavior. Easterners thought westerners were unsavory. The president of Yale College said, “The class of pioneers cannot live in regular society. They are too idle, too talkative, too passionate, too prodigal, and too shiftless to acquire either property or character” (cited in Turner, 1893:251). Another traveler in the same period wrote, “It is true there are worthless people here [in settlements hundreds of miles from any court of justice] and the most so, it must be confessed, are from New England” (Flint, 1826:402). He did go on to say that there were also many who were worthy.
Deviance was also created out west. Many pioneer wives lived on the plains for extended periods without ordinary social contacts, especially when their husbands left on journeys for days or weeks. These women often became withdrawn and untalkative, so shy and uneasy with strangers that they would run away when one approached (Humphrey, 1931:128). From the evidence at hand, these were normal, happy women in the cities when they were growing up, but they were affected by the frontier environment. On the western boundary people were used to this behavior on the part of lonely, isolated women and accepted it. In the eastern cities the same conduct would have been taken as odd.
There is also a popular image of the night as the haunt of weirdos and strange characters, as revealed in comments like “I don’t know where they hide during the day but they sure come out after dark.” Moreover, at night one can find people who, having lived normal lives, are exposed to unusual circumstances that draw them into unconventional behavior. Becker (1963:79, 97, 98) gives such an account of jazz musicians. They work late in the evening and then associate with very few daytime types in their recreation after midnight. The milieu harbors a deviant subculture that is tolerated and even expected.
Both land frontier and the nighttime have reputations as regions of danger and outlawry. Interestingly, both do not live up to the myths about them, for the patterns of aggression are selective and localized.
On the one hand there is clear evidence of lawlessness and violence. Walter P. Webb observed that the West was lawless “because the law that was applied there was not made for the conditions that existed... It did not fit the needs of the country, and could not be obeyed” (cited by Frantz and Choate, 1955:83). There
was also a lack of policemen and law enforcement agencies were few (Riegel, 1947:627; Billington, 1949:480). There was violence in the gold fields (Hollon, 1974:211). In the cow towns, mining camps and boom towns in the early days, practically everyone carried guns. Fighting words, the ring of revolvers, and groans of pain were common sounds out there. Some western settlements were renowned for concentrations of gamblers and gougers and bandits, dance-hall girls and honky-tonks and bawdy houses. Horse thieving was widespread. The stage coach was held up many times. There was habitual fear of attack from either Indians or renegades. In the face of this, the people practiced constant watchfulness and banded together for self-protection (Billington, 1954:8; Doddridge, 1912:103). Towns had vigilante groups. The covered wagons that crossed the plains were accompanied by armed convoys.
Yet the violence was concentrated in certain places; otherwise killings and mob law were remarkably infrequent. Such infamous towns as Tombstone and Deadwood, and the states of Texas and California had more than their share of gunfights (Frantz and Choate, 1955:83; Billington, 1949:63; Hollon, 1973:96). But the tumult in the cow towns was seasonal, and took place when the cowboys finally reached Abilene, Ellsworth, and Dodge City after the long drive. And the mayhem was selective. Flint (1826:401) wrote, “Instances of murder, numerous and horrible in their circumstances, have occurred in my vicinity... in which the drunkenness, brutality, and violence were mutual... [Yet] quiet and sober men would be in no danger of being involved.” W.T. Jackson (1973:79) adds, “Homicides and murders occurred so infrequently that when they did the community was shocked and outraged.” Concerning violence, Hollon (1973:97-8) concludes that there was
a natural tendency to exaggerate the truth and emphasize the exception... not a single shoot-out took place on main street at Dodge City or any of the other Kansas cow towns in the manner of the face-to-face encounter presented thousands of times on television.
Why, then, did the land frontier have the reputation of a “Wild West?” One reason may be that outlaw killers were drifters, so the same person may have contributed exploits over large areas. Another reason was boredom. The stories of violence persisted and spread because there was little to do or to read about in pioneer homes. The tedium of daily life was countered by exciting stories told and retold around the stove in the general store.
It is plausible that western desperados and nighttime muggers would have similar outlooks. Both believe there is less exposure, which improves their chances for succeeding at the risks they take. One relied on dry-gulching; the other uses the dark to set an ambush. Escape is easy because both could move from the scene of the crime into unpopulated areas and elude pursuers.
The nighttime has been noted also as a place of evil. It is thought of as crime-ridden and outside of ordinary social control. Medieval and Renaissance cities had no public illumination. Assaults by ruffians and thieves were so common after dark that wayfarers took to paying others to precede them through the streets carrying lighted torches. In the seventeenth century this escort-for-hire was called a “link boy” in London, and a “falot” (lantern companion) in Paris. Deliveries of black market goods to stores, such as fuel oil to gasoline stations during the oil embargo of 1973-1974, was accomplished under cover of darkness. Lawlessness is possible then because police coverage is sparse (Boston Globe, 1977:1). In addition, the officers on duty make themselves unavailable by sleeping in their cars, an old custom in New York City where the practice is called “cooping” (New York Times, 1968). The same was informally reported to me about Boston police as well; they are found snoozing in their police cars in the Arboretum by the early morning joggers.
In Boston today, carrying arms is more common at night. For fear of mugging or rape, escort services are provided on many college campuses for women returning to their dorms at night, or for women on the evening shift going from their places of work to the parking lot or subway station. An escort is provided for
nurses at Boston City Hospital because of an increase in robberies in that area. And some apartment houses, with their sentries at the door, become vertical stockades to which people in the city retreat at night.
However, like the former West, lawlessness and violence at night are concentrated in certain hours in certain places and are otherwise uncommon. Fights reach their peak about midnight, as shown in Figure 3 [HHC: not displayed], but are least frequent from 2:30 to 11:00 a.m. The area of Boston in which many brawls and muggings take place, where prostitution is rampant and bars and lounges feature nude go-go dancers, is called the “combat zone.” A large transient population of relatively young males come into the area to patronize the moviehouses featuring X-rated films and become drunk and aggressive in bars and on the streets. Although this description may approximate what was once reported of mining towns in the West, these combat zones do not function so after 2:30 a.m. or during the daytime. In the daytime the areas are parts of business districts. Many people shop at department stores nearby, or otherwise pass through and patronize eating places and businesses there. So the combat zone designation refers to these places only at certain hours and is not true for all the city all night.
Hollon (1974:211-2) remarks that “For every act of violence during the frontier period, there were thousands of examples of kindness, generosity, and sacrifice…” He quotes an English traveler who said, “‘Even the rough western men, the hardy sons of the Indian frontier, accustomed from boyhood to fighting for existence, were hospitable and generous to a degree hard to find in more civilized life.’”
Reports of life on the land frontier are replete with accounts of warmth toward strangers, of community house building and barn raisings, and of help for those in need (Darby, 1818:400; Frantz and Choate, 1955:64; Billington, 1949:96, 167; Riegel, 1947:81). “Neighbors were ready to lend anything they possessed. No man driving along with an empty wagon on a good road would pass another on foot without inviting him to ride” (Dick,
1937:512). Travelers returning from the outskirts said they were treated more kindly than they had been in the cities (Flint, 1826:402-03; Hollin, 1974:212).
At first these stories of openhanded western hospitality may seem inconsistent in the face of the high risks of thievery and violence. But the circumstances are actually related to one another. Dick (1937:510) observed that “As the isolated settlers battled against savage men, and loneliness, they were drawn together in a fellowship.” BIllington (1972:166) added,
Cooperation is normal within every in-group, but accentuates when the in-group is in conflict with an out-group and group solidarity is strengthened. This was the situation in frontier communities where conflicts with Indians, with raw nature, and with dominating Easterners heightened the spirit of interdependence.
That people want to affiliate under such conditions with others like themselves was demonstrated experimentally by Schachter (1959). He showed that the greater the risk people thought they were facing, the more anxious they were; and the more anxious they were, the more they wanted to be with others - even strangers - facing the same risk. Schachter (1959) concluded that being with others in the same boat served to reduce anxiety, and also provided an opportunity to appraise one’s own feelings and adjust them appropriately to the risk. With less emotional uncertainty and with the knowledge that others share the circumstances, individuals feel better about confronting a stressful situation.
Because the night is a time of more violence and people feel more vulnerable then, those up and about have a similar outlook and behave toward others as pioneers did in the West. At night people are more alert to strangers when they pass on the street. Each tries to judge whether the other is potentially dangerous. Upon deciding that the other is to be trusted, one’s mood shifts from vigilance to expansiveness. If not foe, then friend. Aware that they are out together in. a dangerous environment, people identify with each other and become more outgoing. The sense of safety that spreads over those together at night in a diner or in a coffee shop promotes camaraderie there.
Also, on both frontiers people may be more hospitable because they have time to devote to strangers. Pioneers had plenty to do; yet often they had nothing to do. They were not closely synchronized in daily tasks as people were in the eastern cities, and the norm of punctuality was not emphasized. One man who grew up in the West
… recalled the boredom he could never escape... [T]he worst time of all was Sunday afternoon, when he had nothing to do. There were no newspapers to read and no books other than the family Bible, there was no one his age to talk with, and the nearest store was miles away. (Hollon, 1974: 196)
In the city during the day, the mood of pressured schedules takes hold of folk and makes their encounters specific and short. The tempo slows markedly after midnight. The few who are out then hurry less because there are fewer places to rush to. Whereas lack of time inhibits sociability and helpfulness, available time clears the way for them.
I checked on these ideas by four tests of people’s helpfulness and friendliness at various times in the 24-hour cycle. The tests are modest situations, not emergencies to which one has to respond under stress, but part of the common stream of social events. The ratings for degree of helpfulness and friendliness were established by asking sets of individuals to act as judges (ten judges for Test 3, six each for Tests 1, 2, and 4).
Test 1: Asking for directions. [HHC: description of test not displayed]…
Test 2: Requesting a brief interview. [HHC: description of test not displayed]…
Test 3: Finding a lost key. [HHC: description of test not displayed]…
Test 4: Being sociable in the supermarket. [HHC: description of test not displayed]…
To summarize, over 2,500 people were observed in various parts of central Boston throughout the 24-hour cycle and were rated on how they responded to four situations: giving directions when asked, consenting to be interviewed when asked, returning lost keys they found, and being sociable with strangers during the focused moment of paying for goods at a supermarket checkout counter. Four tests were used so that several different behaviors would help define and give face validity to what is being studied. While these do not cover the entire range of helpfulness and friendliness, showing some warmth, cooperating with another’s modest appeal, and expanding the scope of interaction are the initial conditions of such relationships.
The samples of people among the tests are not the same. Tests 1 and 2 used a periodic selection of passersby following a random procedure adjusted to street population density. Test 3 focused only on persons who carried keys away. Test 4 involves only single customers at the checkout register in always-open supermarkets. Nevertheless, direct time comparisons are appropriate, for the tests are all based on random sampling designs for the same intervals around the clock. The issue for evaluating the hypothesis will be the sizes of the differences found among times of day within each test and the consistency of results by time of day across the four tests.
The results of the tests are shown in Table 2. [HHC: not displayed] There is impressive consistency for three of the tests, with nighttime scores being highest. Not only does nighttime show up best in these three cases, there is no other time of day consistently
16 [HHC: Table 2 not displayed]
second best. In some instances the differences between nighttime and its nearest competitor are not statistically significant, even though the analysis of variance yields significant results when all times are compared. Although differences among hours are small in given instances, the cumulative effect of these practices would make a noticeable difference in the social mood at various times. The overall pattern supports the prediction that nighttime is a period of more helpfulness and friendliness than other portions of the day.
In that light the outcome of the key test is surprising. The night had by far the lowest rate of helpfulness. The lowest proportion of keys were returned (50%) and the least extra effort, beyond dropping keys unwrapped into the mailbox, was made then. This finding is so clear-cut and contrary to expectations that it must be significant. Its interpretation would benefit from information still to be presented, and I will postpone comment about its bearing on the frontier hypothesis until later.
The pattern of findings for all four tests does reject a rival hypothesis: fear determines people’s conduct toward strangers at night. We know the night is viewed as a dangerous time to be outside one’s home in the city (U.S. Office of Management and the Budget, 1974:58-9, 73). If fear of criminal assault dominated social behavior then, it should be greater in face-to-face encounters than for the passive, anonymous appeal to find a key tagged “Please return.” We would expect people to be more guarded towards others at night, to shun approaches by strangers, but to be more helpful in the low-risk situation of dropping a lost key into the mailbox. Table 2 tells us that just the opposite happened. Nighttimers were more helpful and friendly towards strangers face to face. And yet, of the keys picked up, they returned the fewest.
Westward expansion began long before anyone officially recognized the land frontier’s possibilities for our society. It took years to realize even that the U.S. West was habitable. At one time the land west of the Missouri River was labeled on maps as the Great American Desert. Almost no one thought that some day many people would want to migrate and settle there (Hicks, 1948:508). Nor was the catch phrase “Manifest Destiny” applied to colonizing the West until 1845, centuries after the effort had been under way. In 1837 Horace Greeley introduced the slogan “Go West, Young Man, go forth into the Country.” He looked upon such migration as a means of relief from the poverty and unemployment caused by the Panic of 1837. By 1854 Greeley was urging, “Make the Public Lands free in quarter-sections to Actual Settlers... and the earth’s landless millions will no longer be orphans and mendicants” (cited in Smith, 1950:234-5). In 1862, with the passage of the Homestead Act, it became a deliberate policy of the U.S. government to use the western territory to help relieve the conditions of tenant farmers and hard-pressed city laborers. A member of Congress declared, in support of the Homestead Act, “I sustain this measure… because its benign operation will postpone for centuries, if it will not forever, all serious conflict between capital and labor in the older free states” (Smith, 1950:239). The policymakers finally saw the exploitation of western space as a means of solving social problems.
Similarly, in the first 150 years after Murdock’s coal-gas illumination was introduced, there was no national consciousness in England or the United States about colonizing the nighttime. People went ahead, expanding their activities into the dark hours without declaring that a 24-hour community was being forged. Now in the 1970s policy makers have begun talking about cheap time at night the way they once spoke of cheap western land. V.D. Patrushev (1972:429) of the Soviet Union writes that “Time... is a particular form of national wealth. Therefore it is imperative to plan the most efficient use of it for all members of a society.” Daniel Schydlowsky (1976:5), an economist who specializes in development in Latin America and who recently ended a three-year study there, has concluded that multiple-shift work would
produce remarkable gains in reducing unemployment and improve the economies of overpopulated developing cities. His claim for the use of time echoes the attitudes of nineteenth century proponents of the use of western lands as a solution for those who were out of work.
The advocates of westward expansion also saw it as a way to draw off great numbers of people from the cities and forestall crowding there (Smith, 1950:8, 238). Today Dantzig and Saaty (1973:190-3) recommend dispersing activities around the clock as a means of reducing congestion. And Meier (1976:965) writes, “Scarce land and expensive human time can also be conserved by encouraging round-the-clock operation... By such means people can live densely without stepping on each other’s toes.”
As the U.S. frontier matured, the population became more aware of its own circumstances and organized to promote its own concerns. Turner (1893:207; 1965: 54) remarked that the West felt a keen sense of difference from the East. He wrote:
…[F]rom the beginning East and West have shown a sectional attitude. The interior of the colonies was disrespectful of the coast, and the coast looked down upon the upland folk... [The westerners finally] became self-conscious and even rebellious against the rule of the East... [I]t resented the conception that it was merely an emanation from a rival North and South; that it was the dependency of one or another of the Eastern sections... It took the attitude of a section itself. (1932:25-30)
Sections are geographically-based interest groups. One hundred years ago the West gave rise to such pressure groups and farm bloc organizations as the Greenback Party, the National Grange, and the Populists. The Granger movement, for example, grew with the westerners’ problems with transportation in their region. There were no significant river or canal systems out west and so the settlers were at the mercy of railroads. But the rates in the newer regions of the West were far higher than those in the East, and it was protest against this disparity that aided the movement in the 1870s (Robbins, 1960:271).
The night also isolates a group from the main society. Antagonism may develop as daytimers deprecate the nighttimers and the latter resent the neglect shown by the others. People active after dark find their life style differing from that of daytime society, become aware of having a separate identity, and evolve into interest groups. New alignments in the tradition of sectionalism begin to emerge. This has already happened for two groups usually linked with the nighttime: homosexuals and prostitutes. The Gay Liberation Front is one nationwide organization devoted to the rights of homosexuals. Prostitutes also have a union. Appropriately they adopted the name of a creature renowned in the U.S. West for howling at night - the coyote. COYOTES (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) seek legislation to decriminalize their activities and protest courtroom discrimination against women who earn their living by prostitution (Boston Globe, 1976a).
An actual day vs. night contest has already been fought in Boston. The city’s airport is flanked by residential neighborhoods and its afterdark activity became a nuisance to people wanting an undisturbed night’s sleep. In 1976 dwellers in those neighborhoods, as private citizens and through two organized groups - Fair Share, and the Massachusetts Air Pollution and Noise Abatement Committee - made a concerted effort to stop airplane flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. It led to counterarguments by the business community stressing the economic benefit of continuing the flights. The pro-nighttime group was a coalition among commercial interests, airline companies, unions, and airport employees holding jobs at night (some of whom lived in those very neighborhoods). This group argued that the curfew would result in the loss of thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in sales, and further would discourage business investment in the New England area. Joined by the governor, the mayor and many legislators, the coalition successfully won a decision from the Massachusetts Port Authority that the nighttime flights should
be kept going. (Some proposals for noise reduction during the night accompanied the decision.) A month later, Eastern Airlines announced it was adding an airbus and expanding its staff at the airport “as a direct result of the recent decision... not to impose a night curfew at Logan [airport].” As one businessman put it, “The curfew decision was regarded as the shootout at the OK Corral” (Boston Globe, 1976b; 1976c).
The evidence bears out the hypothesis that night is a frontier. That nighttimers are less likely to return the keys they find also supports the idea. While the outcome of Test 3 seems to deny the claim that more help is given on a frontier, the lost-key experiment differs from the other tests in that it is the only one in which people do not meet face to face. It is a test of anonymous helpfulness. During the nighttime, strangers identify more readily with one another. A young man told me, “At 4 a.m. if someone sees you walking the streets at the same time he does, he must think, ‘Gee, this guy must be part of the brethern, because no one else is awake at these times.’ ” However, if someone finds a key and does not know the owner, he would guess that everyone who passed that way is equally likely to have lost it. Nighttimers, knowing they are few, assume on the weight of numbers that the person who lost the key is a daytimer. In item ten above, I suggested that the feelings of nighttimers toward daytimers resembled the attitudes of westerners toward easterners a century ago. They perceive they are different and resent the neglect shown by the day people toward them. The nighttime in-group feels comradely within itself but indifferent or antagonistic toward the out-group (see Sumner, 1906:27). Whereas frontier people readily help others whom they meet on the frontier, their sense of difference from unknown daytimers leaves them less concerned about the others’ plights and they do not return many lost keys.
I cannot think of an equally plausible rival explanation, compatible with the rest of the evidence, for this finding. This interpretation makes sense of the complete set of outcomes in Table 2 and fits the analysis in the preceding section. Revealing patterns stand out. One is the connection between violence and helpfulness and friendliness, a condition that emerges on the frontier because of fear there and solidarity among those who believe they share the dangers together. Another is the pairing of sectional attitudes and helpfulness, so that assistance is given selectively to those with whom the individuals identify.
The experiments confirm what we know about life on frontiers, but I did not explore wholly the causes of behavior here. The findings may be compared with research on helpfulness reported by Bryan and Test (1967), Feldman (1968), Latané and Darley (1970), Milgram (1970), Wispé and Freshley (1971), Darley and Batson (1973) and others. There is a problem of comparability because different times of day were not treated systematically in those studies. Yet some of the insights may work well together. The findings about available time, at least, agree with each other. Darley and Batson varied the degree to which their subjects were hurrying to an appointment when they came upon a person coughing, groaning, and apparently needing help. Of several possible influences that were measured, including what was in the subjects’ thoughts at the moment (some of them were preparing to discuss the Good Samaritan parable!), only the degree of hurry was related to helping. A mere 10% of those who were late to their appointments stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who had ample time stopped to give aid to the crouching and suffering man.
What is the gain in thinking of night as a frontier? A single theoretical idea gives coherence to a wide range of events: the kind of people up and about at those hours, why they differ from daytimers in their behavior, the beginnings of political efforts by night people, the slow realization among leaders that public policy might be applied to the time resource.
Even the variety of endeavors becomes understandable - from metal smelting plants to miniature golf courses, to mayor’s complaint offices, to eating places, to computerized banking terminals that dispense cash. The niche is being expanded. Bit by bit, all of society migrates there. To treat this as a sequel to the geographic spread of past centuries is to summarize the move within familiar ecological concepts of migration, settlement, and frontier.
Though I have reviewed materials for one period in U.S. history, these conditions are features of all frontiers. They should apply to the Russians crossing the Urals, to the Chinese entering Manchuria during the Ch’ing dynasty, to the Boers settling South Africa, to Australians venturing into the Outback, to present-day Brazilians colonizing the Amazon interior, as well as to Americans migrating into the night. The patterns are confirmed by essays in Wyman and Kroeber’s anthology on frontiers.
We should also consider the uniqueness of this new frontier. Each settlement beyond established boundaries has its own qualities. Here are some differences between the West and the night: (1) On the land frontier settlers lived rudely with few services at hand. At night a large portion of the total range of activities is services. (2) Utilities cost more on the western fringes; at night the fees for telephone calls, electricity, and airplane travel are lower. (3) While western settlements were in remote contact with the East, day and night are joined so that either can be affected quickly by events in the other. Twenty-four hour society is more constantly adjusting, more unstable. (4) Looking westward, pioneers saw no end to the possibilities for growth, but we know that expansion into the night can only go as far as the dawn. (5) The land frontier held promise of unlimited opportunity for individuals who ventured there. Miners and pioneers endured hardships because they lived for the future. They hoped to make their fortunes, or at least a better life. At night there are large numbers of unskilled, menial, and dirty tasks; but charwoman and watchman and hospital aide and porter are dead-end jobs. Many people so employed are immigrants or members of minority groups and this expanding margin of society is a time ghetto. The ghetto encloses more than minorities and immigrants, for ultimate control in 24-hour organizations remains with top management in the daytime. Policy making, important decisions, employee hiring, and planning are curtailed during off-hours. Since evening and night staffs are prevented from taking many actions that would lead to the recognition of executive ability, and since their performance is not readily observable by the bosses, all have poorer chances for advancement. (6) The western frontier’s natural resources were so extensive that we became wasteful and squandered them. At night there is nothing new to exploit but time itself, so we maximize the use of fixed assets and become more frugal. (7) Migrating westward called for rather significant capital investment - outlays for a covered wagon, mining equipment, cattle, the railroad. There is little extra capital required for a move to the night. Instead, the incessant organization’s need for more personnel reflects a swing toward more labor intensive operations. So the night frontier may appeal to developing countries with meager treasuries and teeming populations of unemployed.
This expansion is also unusual because it happens in time rather than in space. We change from a diurnal into an incessant species. We move beyond the environmental cycle - alternating day and night - in which our biological and social life evolved, and thus force novelty on these areas. (8) In the past a single set of minds shut down an enterprise one day and started it up the next. It permitted easy continuity and orderly administration. For coverage around the clock, we introduce shifts of personnel. Several times a day another set of minds takes over the same activity and facilities. (9) A physiological upset is imposed on people who work at night and maintain ordinary recreation and social life on their days off. Each time they switch their active hours they undergo phase shifts in body rhythms such as heartbeat, temperature, and hormonal production. The several days’ malaise that results was known to such
workers long before air travel across time zones popularized the phrase “jet fatigue.”
Ibsen’s (1890: Act II) character, Eilert Lövborg, describes the two sections of the book he has written, “The first deals with the... forces of the future. And here is the second forecasting the probable line of development.” We may believe we understand the forces, the conditions under which humans enlarge their niche, but what is the probable line of development? Forecasting is called for despite the difficulties of social prediction. We should consider the possibilities of an era in which unremitting activity is even more commonplace. What is the carrying capacity of the 24-hour day? What will happen when saturation occurs? Time will have extraordinary leverage as it gets used up, for time is a resource without direct substitute. It is unstretchable; we cannot do with it as we did with land by building up toward the sky and digging into the ground. Time is unstorable; we cannot save the unused hours every night for future need.
In his essay “The Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner (1893:38) reviewed the impact of the advance into western lands upon our society and remarked, “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the constitution, the frontier has gone.” But it has not gone. During the era that the settlement of our land frontier was being completed, there began - into the night - a large-scale migration of wakeful activity that continues to spread over the world.
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