In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Time(scapes) in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Calendars, Clocks, and Timekeeping
  • Labor
  • Sociability: Enlightenment and Entertainment
  • Policing, Transgression, and Violence
  • Slavery
  • Sleep
  • Timescapes as Analytical Categories

Atlantic History Time(scapes) in the Atlantic World
Adrian van der Velde
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0381


Timescapes are integral to understanding the rhythms of daily life in the Atlantic world between the 17th and 19th centuries, and they both intersect with and help define the major historical movements connected to the early modern and modern eras such as the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Despite this, they are an understudied subsection of the historiography. Due to increased urbanization, the processes of globalization, and changes in technology and production, the ways in which people interacted with and understood time evolved between the 16th and 19th centuries. Cities were unlike rural areas in that they did not push waking and sleeping patterns to meet the luminance demands of agricultural production. Instead, people expanded the usability of the day by shifting work and sociability patterns outside daylight hours. The sailors who connected the Atlantic world to the rest of the globe worked through days and nights that were split into shifts determined by time, not light. Temporal exactness increased in importance with the proliferation of clocks and watches. New lamps and fuels provided brighter, cheaper, and cleaner light. This could be for labor—such on sugar plantations, in cloth mills, or in the home—or for social interactions, including in coffeehouses, residences, or theatres. And with the growth of the modern state, cities began to systematically police the night, using lighting technology from streetlamps in a way to see and control parts of the population that had historically remained hidden. As an analytical concept, the idea of “timescapes” incorporates multifaceted notions of stasis and movement, blurred temporal boundaries, intersections between individual and collective memory, social divisions between public and private life, and questions of place. Historians and philosophers have discussed the difficulty of dividing time, such as differentiating between day from night during the hazy boundaries of twilight. Within the confines of a day, people have divided time into recognizable sections such as morning or evening, but rather than being immutable these are often relative to an individual’s social or political context. Most historical analysis of time has focused on the night and activities related to it including entertainment, sleep, and technology, a fact reflected in this bibliography.

General Overviews

The analytical category of timescapes, especially in the Atlantic world, holds considerable room for development in Atlantic world historiography. As such, there are no comprehensive overviews of the concept. Instead, the central focus has been on the binary of day/night. Because the diurnal is generally assumed as the norm in many histories, nocturnality has functioned as the primary analytical concept in these overviews. One of the earliest approaches to this can be seen in Schivelbusch 1988 and a key innovation was how it connected developments in lighting technology in the 19th century to cultural shifts in nighttime sociability. Schlör 1998 focuses upon urban spaces and considers both everyday and subversive activities in three of the biggest cities in Europe from the mid-19th to early 20th century. Concentrated on the early modern era, Ekirch 2005 examines nocturnal life and posits that the 18th century marked a key turning point that came about due to changes in technology and religion. Koslofsky 2011 pushes the temporal examination back further, interacting with daily life and intellectual understandings of nocturnality, and argues that authorities at the end of the 17th century began to use streetlighting in urban spaces to colonize the night. Shifting focus to 19th-century cities in the United States, Baldwin 2012 shows that their rapid growth—coupled with the development of modern technologies and labor methods—led to a new night that differed significantly from its past.

  • Baldwin, Peter C. In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    Nightlife in major cities of the United States, including New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, is examined in relation to topics such as labor, law, lighting, policing, and sociability. Looks at contemporary discourse, which tended to demonize nocturnal activity and often portrayed the night as inherently dangerous. Demonstrates that the night did not offer equal opportunities for everyone, and that it especially remained unsafe for women and children.

  • Ekirch, A. Roger. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. New York: Norton, 2005.

    A cultural examination of the place of the night in early modern Europe. Points to a shift in 18th-century perceptions of nocturnality, partly due to proliferation of public lighting, lessening of fear of evil spirits, and increase in nocturnal sociability, some tied to the rise of a consumer society and the Industrial Revolution. Argues for the existence of a unique culture of night, with its own spaces, practices, and values.

  • Koslofsky, Craig. Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511977695

    Explores the multifaceted nature of the night, considering contemporary ideas that connected the night to sin, Christian devotion, authority, and the Enlightenment. In relation to streetlighting, a central argument is that the light of streetlamps was a key to colonizing the night, and a result of this was the creation of a bourgeois public sphere as the nocturnal practices of lower classes and rural peasantry were pushed aside or criminalized.

  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

    The multifaceted nature of the night is considered here, beginning with modern lighting technology and progressing through streetlighting, shopping, and private and public sociability. Argues that streetlighting was a way for modern governments to deal with fear of the night and its hidden illegal or transgressive activities. The 19th century provided a shift from privatized lighting to public lighting, and this also transformed the relationship between the individual and the collective.

  • Schlör, Joachim. Nights in the Big City: Paris, Berlin, London 1840–1930. Translated by Pierre Imhof and Dafydd Roberts. London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

    Centralizes urbanity in the discussion of the modern night and examines three major themes related to nocturnal conflict: security, morality, and accessibility. Considers the source of contemporary reporting on nightlife, which often originated from members of institutions that attempted to control such activity, such as police. Includes images from the era which depicted the night, including dancing, lighting lanterns, theatre, walking, and more.

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