September 3, 1752 The Day that Never Was

When you went to bed last night, it was September 2.  This morning when you got up, it was September 14.  The days in-between just ‘disappeared’. 

Had you lived in England 266 years ago, or one of her American colonies, this day did not exist.  Neither, for that matter, did the better part of the next two weeks.  When you went to bed last night, it was September 2.  This morning when you got up, it was September 14.  The days in-between just ‘disappeared’.

The reason goes back nearly two thousand years.

For seven hundred years, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. The body was known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.


When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way they handled their calendar. Ol’ Julius hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days,  more accurately tracking the solar, rather than the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said.  The new “Julian” calendar went into effect in 46BC.

The problem was, that ¼-day.  The Julian calendar miscalculated the solar cycle by 11 minutes per year, resulting in a built-in error of a day for every 128 years. By the late 16th century, the seasonal equinoxes were ten days out of sync, causing a problem with the holiest days of the Catholic church.

In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius, to devise a new calendar and correct this “drift”. The “Gregorian” calendar was adopted in 1582, omitting ten days that October, and changing the manner in which “leap” years were calculated.


The Catholic countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and much of western Europe, followed suit. England and its overseas colonies continued to use the Julian calendar well into the 18th century, resulting in immense confusion. Legal contracts, civic calendars, and the payments of rents and taxes were all complicated by the two calendar system.

Between 1582 and 1752, some English and colonial records included both “Old Style” and “New Style” year. The system was known as “double dating”, and resulted in date notations such as March 19, 1602/3. Others merely changed dates.

Perform a keyword search on “George Washington’s birthday” for instance, and you’ll be rewarded with the information that the father of our country was born on February 22, 1732. The man was actually born on February 11, 1731, under the Julian Calendar. It was only after 1752 that Washington himself recognized the date of his birth as February 22, 1732, reflecting the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

Tragically, the number of historians’ and geneologists’ heads to have exploded over the difference, remains uncertain.

virginia-almanack-1752The “Calendar Act of 1750” set out a two-step process for adopting the Gregorian calendar. Since the Roman calendar began on March 25, the year 1751 was to have only 282 days so that January 1 could be synchronized with that date. That left 11 days to deal with.

Thus it was decreed that Wednesday, September 2, 1782, would be followed by Thursday, September 14.

You can read about “calendar riots” around this time, though those appear to be little more than a late Georgian-era urban myth.  Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a prime sponsor of the calendar measure. Stanhope’s use of the term “Mobs” was probably a description of the bill’s opponents, in Parliament.

Even so, some genuinely believed that their lives were being shortened by those 11 days, and others who considered the Gregorian calendar to be a “Popish Plot”. The subject would become a very real campaign issue between the Tories and the Whigs, in 1754.

There’s a story concerning one William Willett, who lived in Endon. Willett wagered that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights, starting his jig about town the evening of September 2nd, 1752. Willett stopped the next morning, and went out to collect his bets. I was unable to determine, how many actually paid up.

The official beginning of the British tax year was changed in 1753, so as not to “lose” those 11 days of revenue. Revolution was still 23 years away in the American colonies, but the reaction “across the pond”, could not have been one of unbridled joy.

ben franklinBenjamin Franklin seems to have liked the idea, writing that, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.

The Gregorian calendar gets ahead of the solar cycle by 26 seconds every year, despite some very clever methods of synchronizing the two cycles. Several hours have already been added but the issue will have to be dealt with, around the year 4909.

I wonder how Mr. Franklin would feel, to wake up and find that it’s still yesterday.

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