Where does the two-day weekend come from? In this standalone episode of Conflicted, we trace the historical trajectory of that oasis of leisure and free time we call “the weekend”. From its mystical beginnings in the religions of antiquity to its hard-fought development in Gilded Age America, we’ll untangle the surprising origins of everyone’s favorite part of the week.
Where does the two-day weekend come from? In this standalone episode of Conflicted, we trace the historical trajectory of that oasis of leisure and free time we call “the weekend”. From its mystical beginnings in the religions of antiquity to its hard-fought development in Gilded Age America, we’ll untangle the surprising origins of everyone’s favorite part of the week.
Hunnicutt, Benjamin. Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream. 2013.
Onstad, Katrina. The Weekend Effect. 2017.
Loomis, Erik. A History of America in Ten Strikes. 2018.
Murolo, Priscilla. Chitty, A.B. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend. 2001.
Green, James. Death in Haymarket. 2006.
Brecher, Jeremy. STRIKE! 1972.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980.
Thomas, Gordan. Morgan-Witts, Max. The Day the Bubble Burst. 1979.
BBC. (2019, September 5). Who invented the weekend? BBC Bitesize.
Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Presidential Speeches: Downloadable Data.” Accessed Feb 19, 2023. data.millercenter.org
Captivating History. The Industrial Revolution. 2020.
Grossman, Jonathan. “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage.” Monthly Labor Review 101, no. 6 (1978): 22–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41840777.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted,
The history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
On this show, we usually traffic in controversial historical topics. Conflicts or events that are often misunderstood, or rarely discussed, or just flat-out confusing. Subjects that challenge our preconceptions or undermine our assumptions about the world. In fact, the word “controversy” is even in the show’s unofficial tagline: “Untangling history’s greatest controversies”.
But the topic of today’s episode, on a surface level, is not controversial at all. In fact, it’s probably the one thing on planet earth that everyone seems to agree on.
The topic of today’s show is…. the weekend.
Not the singer, the recording artist, The Weekend. But THE weekend. That little 48-hour oasis at the end of every week. The two days out of seven that we take for ourselves. The time when we see friends and family, when we unwind or relax or pursue our hobbies. The fleeting free time that always seems to disappear just a little too fast. And then on Monday, we go back to work and restart the process all over again.
For five days we work, and for two days we rest. Lather-rinse-repeat.
Granted, not everyone follows that rhythm. All kinds of people have all kinds of jobs with all kinds of schedules, but for the vast majority of the global economy, there is a weekend. A two-day period where our work stops and we rest.
How, you might ask, could something like the weekend inspire conflict or controversy? The concept itself is so benign, so innocuous, so…normal, that we barely question it. There seems to be an ancient, primal certainty to it. The sun rises in the east, it sets in the west, and Saturday nights are awesome. How could things be any other way? The weekend, and the 40-hour work week that precedes it, are so seamlessly woven into our cultural DNA at this point, especially in the Western world, that we don’t even think about it.
And yet. It was not always so.
Less than 150 years ago, if you had told someone you were excited for the weekend, you would have received a blank stare in return. The word itself, “weekend” did not even exist until the 1870s.
The concept of a two-day weekend, Saturday and Sunday, is younger than the telephone, or the traffic light. Washing machines, photography, the internal combustion engine - all of these are older than the weekend as we know it.
And that’s just if you’re talking about the social concept of the two-day weekend; If you add an additional layer of technicality onto it, and start counting from when it was officially chiseled into the annals of American law, the two-day weekend is younger than Coca-Cola, the helicopter and Crayola Crayons.
In short, it is a very new concept.
But the weekend did not just spring into existence fully-formed, without resistance or debate. It had to be fought for, bargained for, killed for. There was a time when the weekend was one of the most divisive and discussed things in American life; When people marched in the streets, raised signs, and threw bombs. All to secure a little sliver of time when we are free from bosses and clocks and punch cards. A little time to call our own.
So, in today’s episode, we are going to trace the historical trajectory of the two-day weekend. It may be a very young concept, but its roots twist down deep into the soil of antiquity. Our story today will send us hurtling through space and time, skipping across historical eras like a stone on a pond.
This is the history of an idea.
We’ll travel from the bloody streets of 19th century Chicago, to the lavish promenades of ancient Babylon. We’ll hear the shouts of Soviet factory workers, the dry heaving of hungover Japanese salarymen, and the tranquil birdsong of Parisian gardens. In all of those places, we will scoop up the jigsaw pieces of a century-spanning puzzle that, once assembled, will help us understand why we have this thing called “the weekend”.
And just how fragile it actually is.
But to understand where the weekend comes from, we have to understand where the 7-day week itself comes from, and so that is where we will begin.
Now, with all that table-setting out of the way, let’s get started.
Welcome to 40 Hours to Freedom: The Invention of the Weekend
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Our story begins 230 years ago.
It is a time of uncertainty, fear and death. Society has been turned upside down and inside out. The gutters are choked with blood, the cobblestones are crowded with beggars, and the promise of a glorious tomorrow is somewhat overshadowed by the stench of trash and rotting bodies.
The year is 1793. And we are in the city of Paris, France.
It is the fourth year of the French Revolution. The King is dead. The Queen is dead. Their children are dead, or deposed. The heads of state are no longer attached to the necks of state.
Like hundreds of other nobles and aristocrats, they have fallen under the merciless blade of the guillotine. The very last sounds the King and Queen of France heard on this earth were the screeching of a crowd, the pull of a lever, and the quick descent of an 85-pound steel blade. The French monarchy, an institution stretching back hundreds of years, has been swept aside.
In its place, rising like a sapling toward the sun, is a new government: The French National Convention. It is a democratic government. A secular government. A rational government. A beacon – at least, in theory - of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
749 men from the middle roads of life – businessmen of every parlance and persuasion – assemble in Paris to debate the future of their country. Many issues come before the National Convention. They have to vote on matters of trade and diplomacy, on domestic affairs and international relationships. They vote ‘yay’, they vote ‘nay’, they vote unanimously and they vote in opposition. Factions fragmenting, cliques coalescing, over and over. All the grotesque beauty of a young democracy in motion.
But one day, in the fall of 1793, a very unusual motion comes before the Convention. The hands go up. The gavel falls. And the motion passes.
On that day, 749 men voted to destroy time itself.
Before 1793, everyone in Paris knew that there were 7 days in week, 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute. The week began on Monday and it ended on Sunday. These were facts of life. Unconscious, involuntary processes. Like respiration, or a healthy heartbeat.
But with a few quick flicks of a quill, the 749 men in that stuffy, sweaty chamber voted to unravel the laws of time and space. To unlearn centuries of cultural precedent. To tear down and destroy what they saw as the last vestiges of the old-world order.
In 1793, the National Convention of the French Republic decided to throw out the old 7-day calendar and create a brand new one, entirely from scratch.
The new “French Republican Calendar” – as it was called – would be based on the number 10. Why 10? Well, 10 was a rational number. An even number. Easily divided and effortlessly multiplied. A cornerstone of modern mathematical principle. Essentially, they were applying the recently developed metric system to timekeeping. Across the city, a baffled Parisian public slowly became aware of their new reality.
Instead of 7 days in a week, there would be 10.
Instead of 24 hours in a day, there would be 10.
Instead of 60 minutes in an hour, there would be 100.
And instead of 60 seconds in a minute, there would be 100.
The days of the week would no longer be called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Instead, they would be numbered, in Latin, 1-through-10. “Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, Quartidi, Quintidi, Sextidi, Septidi, Octidi, Nonidi, Decadi”
Naturally, even the staunchest supporters of La Revolucion were a little peeved at this inconvenient new policy. After all, their entire lives were set to the familiar tempo of the seven-day week. Everything revolved around it – commerce, trade, social engagements, festivals, holidays, work schedules – everything.
And because the new week was longer than the old week, the names of the new days did not correspond to the names of the old days. Monday could be a Primidi, but the Monday after that would be an Octidi, and the Monday after that would be a Quintidi.
And then there was the hourly and minute-by-minute subdivisions of those days.
If someone said, “I’ll meet you back here in an hour”, what they really meant was, “I’ll meet you back here in two-point-four regular hours.” Breakfast would be at 2 o’clock. Lunch would be at 3:30. You’d be in bed by 7 and waking up at 10. To make matters worse, minutes were now 100 seconds instead of 60, so if your favorite recipe called for a cook time of 15 minutes, now you had to take it out of the oven a full 600 seconds earlier than before, or risk burning it to a crisp.
If this is all starting to sound a bit confusing…well, it was.
It threw the French capital into a state temporal chaos. Appointments were missed. Business deals disintegrated. Clock makers and watchmakers worked feverishly to produce timepieces that reflected the new 10-hour system, but only a handful were actually made. You can actually still see some of them on display in European museums.
Most people at the time, of course, simply refused to adhere to the nonsensical new system. Some newspapers solved the issue by printing the old Gregorian dates beneath the new Decimal dates. But at the end of the day - whenever that was - Parisians were confused, irritated and very, very late. As for the people in the countryside, well they just ignored it entirely.
Suffice to say, the French Republican Calendar did not stick.
On paper, it was a rational system. It made sense in a mathematically precise sort of way. But the old rhythms of life were too deeply ingrained, too important to the culture and the economy. Yes, like the French Revolution itself, the new calendar’s days were numbered – pardon the pun. It limped along for a few more years, before Napoleon Bonaparte eventually came along, crowned himself Emperor, and restored the old Gregorian calendar in 1805.
So, what is the point of this story? Why start our exploration of the weekend with this short-lived 18th century experiment?
Well, I like it because it dramatically illustrates the sheer incredible durability of the 7-day week. Even in a time and place where every norm and structure and law was being questioned; in an era that was effervescent with political and social change at almost every level, the people of France still could not, would not, give up the 7-day week.
As they say, old habits die hard.
But just how old is that habit? How long have we been organizing our lives into seven-day chunks, and why? Well, the most important thing to understand about the 7-day week is this:
We made it up.
There are certain units of linear time that rest on physical, mathematical certainties. A day is the time it takes for the sun to rise, set, and rise again. A month is (roughly) the time it takes for the moon to wax and wane. A year is the time it takes for nature to cycle through the four seasons. These are empirical realities. But the week itself is an artificial construct. As historian Eviatar Zerubavel writes:
“The week is not a part of nature, but rather, a cultural artifact that rests on social convention alone. Unlike the day and the year, the week is an artificial rhythm that was
created by human beings total independently of any natural periodicity.”
The Canadian-American academic Witold Rybczynski elaborates:
What does the week measure? Nothing. At least nothing visible. No natural phenomenon occurs every seven days – nothing happens to the sun, the moon, or the stars. The week is an artificial, man-made interval. […] The week mocks the calendar and marches relentlessly and unbroken across time, paying no attention to the seasons.”
So where does it come from come from? And more specifically…why seven? Even today, the number seven has a ubiquitous mystique in our pop culture. As Rybczynski writes, it
“continues to find resonances in our subconscious. There were seven deadly sins. And the seven seas. Today we have Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Seven Sisters, The Group of Seven, We buy 7-UP at 7-Eleven. There are also an unusual number of movie titles that include the number seven: The Seven Year Itch, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven.”
Even Monica from Friends just loves the number seven, seven, seven.
So, what happened? Did we just gather our tribe around a fire one day and pick a number out of a mammoth-skin hat? Well, no. The answer to that question can be found in a cluster of old ruins about 50 miles south of modern-day Baghdad.
Four thousand years ago, give or take, the city of Babylon sprung up along the banks of the Euphrates River. In the place we now call Iraq, the ancient Babylonians looked up at the night sky and saw seven luminous shapes moving across the cosmos. These seven wanderers, these travelers drifting through a sea of stars, were assumed by the Babylonian astronomers to be powerful deities. Seven gods governing the universe. In fact, they’re still up there right now. But today, we call them Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the sun and the moon.
If the Babylonians had been equipped with powerful telescopes, they would’ve seen other celestial bodies up in the sky, like Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto. And if that were the case, we might very well be talking about the history of the 10-day week. But the Babylonians were only able to see seven, and as a result, that number became imbued with a sacred, mystical significance in the ancient world. All across Mesopotamia, Eviatar Zerubavel writes, “the number seven played a prominent role in liturgy, ritual, magic and art.”
But the Babylonians were not just starry-eyed astronomers. They had earthly appetites as well. And sometime around the 6th century B.C.E, the eyes of Babylon turned west to the small kingdom of Judah, the ancient home of the Hebrews. With conquest in their hearts and blood on their spears, the Babylonian army swept into the Jewish kingdom, demolishing the great temple in Jerusalem and clapping thousands in chains.
Flush with loot, the Babylonians marched their Jewish captives across the desert, through the riverlands, deep into the heart of Mesopotamia. And for 50 long years, during what is called the Babylonian Captivity or the Babylonian Exile, thousands of Jews were held in Babylon as prisoners and slaves.
But the story of the Jews, as we all know, did not end in the mines and fields of Babylon. All kingdoms have to fall eventually, and Babylon was no different. In the game of empires, there’s always a bigger fish. And in the late 6th century B.C.E, the Persian Empire swept in and crushed Babylon like a bug, freeing all its subjugated nations and peoples in the process. The Jews went home to Judah, but they brought back a little Babylonian souvenir with them: The number 7.
“7”, of course, occupies a central position in the Jewish creation myth.
Most of us know the story, right? God made the earth in six days. And on the seventh, satisfied with his labors, he rested. Because even omnipotent deities need a little PTO, now and again.
The Mesopotamians undoubtedly revered the number 7, but it was the Jews who built a recurring weekly cycle around it. As Eviatar Zerubavel writes: “A continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the moon and its phases is a distinctively Jewish invention.”
And the focal point of that seven-day week was a day of worship called “the Sabbath”, which literally means “to rest” in Hebrew. The Jewish week was essentially an endlessly recurring reflection of the Creation myth. For six days we work, and on the seventh we rest, just as God did. As historian Benjamin Hunnicutt puts it:
“The reward for working hard six days a week was the Sabbath. The reward for a lifetime of hard work was an "Eternal Sabbath" when "man works no more.”
And so, in a tiny corner of the Middle East, the seven-day week was born. Of course, at that time, no one could’ve guessed that the Jewish seven-day week would eventually become the preferred measure of cyclical time for the entire world. During that period, there were all kinds of weeks with all kinds of lengths in all kinds of cultures.
The ancient Colombians had a 3-day week, revolving around the time it took to travel to and from local markets. Ancient Indochina had a 5-day week built around the same principle.
In ancient Rome, they had an 8-day week. The Chinese had 12-day weeks. The Egyptians and Peruvians, separated by centuries and an entire ocean, both preferred a 10-day weekly cycle.
But out of all those systems and rhythms, it was the 7-day week that just happened to catch the right cultural slipstream that would propel it into global ubiquity.
The Jewish religion proved to be extremely fertile theological ground, and it gave rise to two very successful spin-offs: Christianity and Islam. But the new kids on the block were not content to just pick up the Sabbath from whole cloth. When you’re the new, up-and-coming religion, you need distinguish yourself from the old-school; you need to carve out your own traditions, your own vibe, your own rhythms.
The Jewish Sabbath traditional falls on a Saturday. So, the early Christians, wanting to differentiate their shiny new faith from its progenitor, picked Sunday as their holy day of rest. A few centuries later, Islam, needing to differentiate itself from Christianity and Judaism, snatched up Friday as its holy day. And so, we see this cluster of sacred days beginning to coalesce, days of rest and repose, back-to-back-to-back; a kind early proto-weekend, if you will.
As Katrina Onstad writes in her book, The Weekend Effect: “All three monotheistic religions have anointed one day per week as spiritually significant and set apart from work, and all three of those bump up against one another: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The outline of the weekend is etched in the sacred.”
Being the hot new trends that they were, Christianity and Islam spread rapidly across the world. The former washed over the European continent, slowly supplanting the old pagan pantheons with a gentler, move benevolent god. The latter and younger religion, Islam, spread at turbo speed, leaping out in every direction, into Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.
The cult of the 7-day week was on the move.
Before long, Christianity and Islam held sway over huge chunks of the globe. Trade routes and missionaries pumped those teachings in and out of cities, through towns, and across empires. Then came the Age of Discovery, with its ships and sails and compasses, bringing monotheism and the seven-day cadence to even more far-flung corners of the earth.
Across the world you can see the fingerprints of the seven-day cycle in language itself. As Eviatar Zerubavel writes: “In many languages, the word “week” is either identical to, or directly derives from, the word “seven”. The Arabic “isbu’u”. The Greek “hebdomas”. The Gaelic “seachduin”. The Persian “haftah”. The Hungarian “Het”. On and on.
So in 1793, when the cultural arsonists of the French National Convention attempted to gaslight their citizens into tossing the 7-day week aside like a moldy croissant, they were trying to dislodge something ancient. The French Revolutionaries found out the hard way that deeply ingrained social rhythms, especially ones reinforced by religious belief, are incredibly resilient.
No one was going to take those Holy Days away, no matter how many necks they put under a guillotine. As a Bishop named Henri Gregoire had scoffed at the time: “Sunday has existed before you, and it will survive you.” He was right.
But still, there was no “weekend”.
Muslims had Friday, Jews had Saturday, and Christians had Sunday. There were festivals and seasonal holidays, remnants of old pagan systems and astrological calendars. But there was no universally recognized weekend. And the holy days were we just that: holy. You may not have been pulling a plow or hauling a net or chopping a tree, but you were working. You were laboring. You were praying and singing and bowing and begging for the health of your very soul.
A dedicated chunk of free time and leisure, off-limits to bosses and priests and rabbis and imams – that did not exist yet. Not really.
To arrive at the modern incarnation of the two-day weekend, the world would have to experience a radical and seismic revolution. Civilization would have to travel through a gauntlet of steel and steam and coal. Through a hellish era of metal and smog, assembly lines and 14-hour days.
To achieve the weekend as we know it, we would have to lose everything. And in losing everything, we would learn how to fight for a little something. Clawing back one inch, one break, one hour at a time.
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It’s November 11th, 1887.
We’re in the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago, Illinois.
On most days, this building is calm and benign. Three stories of clerks and lawyers and judges and visitors. A dry, dreary beacon of American law where the wheels of justice turn reliably, if a bit slowly.
But today, the mood is anything but calm. Across the city of Chicago, the atmosphere is grim and anxious, permeated by a sense of uneasy dread. People are nervous; scared, even. And the epicenter of that anxiety is the Cook County Courthouse.
If you were to walk up to the building on that crisp November morning, it would’ve looked more like a military base than a government office. One eyewitness, a reporter named Charles Edward Russell, remembered: “The jail itself was guarded like a precarious outpost in a critical battle. Around it, lines of policemen were drawn; from every window policemen looked forth, rifles in hand; the roof was black with policemen. The display of force was overpowering.”
Massive crowds have packed the streets surrounding the courthouse, pressing and squeezing and pushing to get a bit closer to the building. Hundreds of reporters, about 250 in all, have lined up at the entrance, nervously gripping their pens and notepads. In a few moments, the guards will let them inside. None of them want to miss their opportunity to report on what’s about to happen.
Because inside the Cook County Courthouse, four men are about to die.
In the bowels of the courthouse, a gallows platform has been erected. Four empty nooses hang down from the beam, waiting patiently for their future occupants. The reporters, witnesses, guards and jurymen have all gathered in the room, whispering amongst themselves. And then finally, they hear, according to one witness: “the tramp, tramp of men’s foot-steps”
The condemned men had “begun their march of death.”
Led out by the bailiffs, the four prisoners shuffle single-file up onto the gallows. They are all dressed in plain white robes. Their names are Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fisher. Before the men can utter their last words to the gathered crowd, the bailiff pulls white hoods over their heads, binds their ankles with leather straps, and loops the nooses around their necks.
Just before the executioner cuts the cord that will open the trap doors beneath their feet, one man speaks in a shaky voice through the thin fabric of his white shroud: “The time will come, when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
The trapdoors open and the condemned men drop.
Some of the reporters, no strangers to a public hanging, listen for the telltale crack, the confirmation of a snapped neck and a quick death. But that does not happen. All four nooses fail to snap their occupants’ necks, and for the next several minutes, the white-shrouded prisoners twitch and twist in mid-air, while the reporters shift uncomfortably in their seats. Finally, after seven-and-a-half awful minutes, the last hanged man stops shaking. A Daily News reporter remembered:
“As the white forms hung in startling relief against the dark background of the wall behind the scaffold, the sight was more ghastly than at any previous stage of the grim proceedings.”
What had these men done to deserve death? What was their crime? Well, these four convicted criminals were considered extremely dangerous; grave threats to public order. They were at the vanguard of a new and terrifying movement in American life; a rising chorus of voices that sent chills down the spines of politicians, industrialists and corporations. These men were part of a worker’s coalition that was demanding something unthinkable
: An 8-hour work day.
Today, the 8-hour work day is the norm. The standard. Table stakes. About as spicy as 2% milk. But back in the late 19th century, it was a very contentious subject. For decades, a culture war had been raging between labor activists and industrialists over just how much time employers could legally force their employees to spend at work. The four bodies dangling from the gallows were just the latest casualties in slow-burning conflict that was fast approaching a climactic turning point.
But to understand that conflict – and to understand why those four men in the Cook County Courthouse had to die – we need to wind back the clock a bit.
For the vast majority of human history, people have been making stuff. You make stuff, and then you sell or trade that stuff for other stuff. You use the stuff you get in return to sustain yourself and make more stuff. That’s trade. That’s economics. And it’s as old as the hills.
And for the first 200,000 years or so of human existence, we made stuff with our hands. Or simple tools. Or with the help of animals, wind and water. And it all worked just fine. Nothing was wrong with it. But it worked slowly, and on a small scale.
But then, about 300 years ago, in 18th century England, something astonishing happened. Humanity gave birth to the mechanized economy. Using scientific knowledge, natural resources, and a whole lot of trial-and-error, we transformed inanimate metal and coal and chemicals into accelerants for civilization.
I’m referring, of course, to the Industrial Revolution.
It began with modest inventions. Niche gizmos with highly-specific purposes. Someone wanted a way to spin yarn faster, so they built a machine that could do it for them. Someone wanted to pick the seeds of out cotton fibers without scratching up their fingers, so they built a machine that could do it for them. Pie-in-the-sky curiosity mingled with scientific ingenuity, giving rise to a dizzying deluge of ingenious devices.
Throughout the late 1700s, new inventions were being churned out at the rate of software updates today. Steam engines and machine tools and ironworks and power looms. Reverberatory furnaces and lead chamber processes, cantilevered machines and calcium hypochlorite. It was all about bigger, better, faster, cheaper. And it changed…everything. Through mechanized industry, people could make products 40 times, 100 times, 200 times as quickly. 1 person could produce in an hour, what used to take 50 people an entire week.
It was a very exciting time.
For eons, human beings had been slaves to scarcity. But now, things were going to be different. As historian Benjamin Hunnicutt describes the thinking at the time: “Since Adam's fall, humans had been condemned to earn a living by the sweat of their brows. However, it was apparent […] that God was gradually lifting the original curse.” These machines were the key to casting off what Hunnicutt calls the “chains of material necessity.”
What legendary economist John Maynard Keynes would call “the primordial curse”.
The European and American intellectual classes seemed positively giddy about the possibilities. It was a champagne high of blue-sky thinking. Famines and crop failures and starvation would become things of the past. With all their material needs met by mechanized industry, people could focus less on manual labor and more on the things that really mattered. As an 18th century American theologian named Samuel Hopkins wrote:
“It will not be then necessary for any men or women to spend all or the greatest part of their time in labor in order to procure a living, and enjoy all the comforts and desirable conveniences of life. It will not be necessary for each one to labor more than two or three hours in a day, . . . and the rest of their time they will be disposed to spend in reading and conversation, ... to improve their minds and make progress in knowledge.”
That may sound naïve and utopian to modern ears, but that’s only because history unfolded the way it did. At the time, many people were absolutely convinced that very, very soon, people would be would not have to work more than a few hours a week. Technology and science were divine gifts, unlocking untold abundance that would allow men and women to pursue the cultivation of their minds and bodies, rather than participate in the endless grind of material production. As a Unitarian preacher named William Ellery Channing put it:
“It cannot be the design of the Creator that the whole of life should be spent in drudgery for the supply of animal wants. […] With the increase of machinery, and with other aids which intelligence and philanthropy will multiply, we may expect more and more time will be redeemed from manual labor for intellectual and social occupations.”
The redemption of time is a key theme in this kind of thinking. Getting time back for ourselves. To do whatever we want with. To read, to write, to hike, to cook, to play games or visit friends, to raise our children or participate in public life. Even American founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin dreamed about a future of near-limitless leisure:
”If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something thing useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life, want and misery would be banished out of the world, and the rest of the twenty-four hours might be leisure and happiness.”
All of this technology had the potential to rewrite the rhythms that governed our lives; even the 7-day week itself could be inverted. As the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote:
The order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh should be man's day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul, in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.”
This hope, this dream, persisted well into the 19th and early 20th centuries, as an American poet named Percy MacKaye wrote:
"The machine will become [democracy's] ultimate salvation ... by reducing to its minimum the time expended in all joyless labor, and by increasing to its maximum the time devotable to the imaginative labor of leisure."
But, as we all know, that is not what happened.
In fact, pretty much the exact opposite happened. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed our relationship with work, but not in the way we hoped or expected. And the biggest casualty of the change was time, specifically free time. As Benjamin Hunnicutt writes:
The traditional workday (meaning pre-industrial revolution) had always included generous measures of nonwork activities: leisurely meals with the family, naps, conversations, stories, side trips, social drinking, games, and so on. The workweek included frequent breaks: festivals, fairs, marriages, frolics, and wakes. In Europe the church calendar marked as many as 156 holidays before the Reformation. Modern work discipline began with the systematic elimination of such nonproductive uses of time.
Katrina Onstad expands on that idea in her book:
“The clock became the ubiquitous new boss. Previously, workers tended to complete their work organically, in accordance with natural laws: the fisherman’s tasks beholden to the tides; the farmer’s to the seasons. But with industrialization, clocks now determined the task, and the measure of productivity was how much labor could be wrung out of a worker over a period of time. As historian E. P. Thompson wrote, it was the moment when work went from “task time” to “clock time.” Time had a dollar value, and became a commodity, not to be wasted. “Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent,” wrote Thompson. Clocks in factories would often mysteriously turn forwards and backwards. Bosses were stealing unpaid hours from workers, who feared to carry their own watches for, as one factory worker wrote in his memoirs in 1850, “it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the science of horology.”
Utopian dreams of abundance slammed against the hard realities of mechanized factory work. As smokestacks stretched into the sky and cities expanded, the promise of steady jobs and reliable wages drew huge amounts of people to those urban centers of industry; like metal shavings clumping around a magnet. And what they found in those factories was, for lack of a better word, squalor. Katrina Onstad writes:
“As the Industrial Revolution changed the very nature of work, things got worse. The new machines required uninterrupted tending to avoid the costs of starting and stopping. Dickensian misery abounded. Windowless factories locked in darkness. Rats scurrying. The deformities of child laborers with soft, bendable bones and knees pointed inward from standing in the cotton mills.”
Workers toiled in abysmal conditions for 12 hours, 13 hours, 14 hours straight. Accidents were common, injuries were gruesome, and worker’s compensation was non-existent. From sunup to sundown, the workers labored to the cacophonous drone of wheels and gears and pistons and cranks. One wrong step could cost you a finger, an arm, a leg, or simply grind you into a pulp before your coworkers even realized what had happened. The days, Benjamin Hunnicutt writes, “often started and ended in darkness.”
The factories were austere cathedrals dedicated to the indifferent iron god of Productivity. Lawless exploitation was the norm, rather than the exception. To the factory owners, workers were not so much flesh-and-blood humans as numbers on a page. Expendable squiggles of ink that could be discarded and dismissed, bullied, bribed or broken. Children, in particular were prized as employees for their small hands and pliable wills.
In short, this was not the future that the starry-eyed dreamers had envisioned. As the English romantic poet Lord Byron proclaimed in an impassioned, if slightly bigoted, speech to the House of Lords in 1812:
“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.”
But workers, chained though they were to the brave new world of the mechanized industry, had small ways of fighting back. In Great Britain, factory employees developed an unofficial practice called “Keeping Saint Monday”; which sounds devout and vaguely sophisticated, but mostly just involved getting absolutely wasted on Sunday and refusing to come into work the next day.
At that time, if you worked in a factory, you were usually working from Monday morning to Saturday night. Sunday, being the Christian day of worship, was your only free day. So, after you were done with church, Sunday evening was your one opportunity to cut loose and blow off a little steam. As Katrina Onstad writes:
“Binge work leads to binge play, and many workers were hungover on Mondays, recovering from bar games at alehouses, outdoor dogfights, and boxing matches. They were paid on Saturday, and stuck in church on Sunday, so they stole that Monday to burn through their paychecks and have some fun.”
“Vast numbers of employees didn’t bother to show up on Monday, playing the religious holiday card by saying they were “keeping Saint Monday” (there is no Saint Monday, it turns out). Benjamin Franklin rather prissily bragged that as a young man he got promoted simply by showing up on Mondays for his job in a London printing house: “My constant attendance (I never making a St. Monday) recommended me to the master.”
For the underpaid and overworked factory employees, it was a satisying middle finger to their time-crunching, penny-pinching bosses. As Witold Rybczynski writes:
“It was directly linked to industrialization, since it was a way for workers to redress the balance between their free time and the longer and longer workdays being demanded by factory owners.”
Naturally, the Saint Monday practice put factory owners in a bit of a bind. Rybczynski continues:
“It was impossible to plan production properly – and profitably – when a good part of the work force might at any time disappear, without notice, to participate in some local celebration.”
So, the factory owners made a deal. They agreed to give their employees a half-day on Saturday, in exchange for a guarantee that the workers would actually show up on Monday morning, sober and ready to do their jobs. “Factory owners,” Rybczynski writes, “were prepared to trade a half-day holiday on Saturday for a commitment to regular attendance on the part of their employees.”
This gentlemen’s agreement is essentially the first weekend as we know it. As, Rybczynski concludes: “It was a premonition of what was to come […] There was now a special time for leisure, as well as a special place. [This was] something new: a strict demarcation of a temporal and physical boundary between leisure and work.”
The factory owners may have owned your body and soul from Monday morning to Saturday afternoon. But Saturday night and Sunday belonged to booze, the devil, family, and God – in that order. There’s a colorful vaudevillian song from the time period that really captures that sense of longing for the end of the week, and its lyrics will ring true to any modern-day 9-to-5 employees:
“Sweet Saturday night, when your work is over,
That’s the evening you make a throng
Take your dear little girls along.
Sweet Saturday night.
But this hour is Monday morning,
To work you must go
Though longing, I know
For next Saturday night.”
It is around this time, that the very first instance of the word “week-end” appears in the English language. In 1879, the British magazine Notes & Queries defined a “week-end” as:
“If a person leaves home at the end of his week's work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at so-and-so."
In England, an uneasy peace had been struck between the factory owners and their employees. But across the pond, in the United States, a different sort of fight was raging. American workers were more concerned with shortening the workday itself. After all, what good was a few extra hours on Saturday if you were too exhausted from a 14-hour shift to even enjoy it?
The Industrial Revolution originated in Great Britain, but the knowledge that sparked it spread rapidly throughout the Western world. By the late 1700s, the technological windfall had come to the shores of Britain’s favorite former colony, bringing with it all the seismic sociological changes that had shaken England to its foundations. The same exploitation, the same dangerous conditions, the same unremitting hours.
In America, industrial workers were angry. And they had plenty to be angry about, but they prized one thing above all others. As Katrina Onstad writes:
“Free time was a defining political issue. The first instance of American workers rising up in unity wasn’t about child labor, or working conditions, or salaries—it was about shrinking long work hours. Those who came before us fought—and died—for time.
As one New England labor leader wrote in a fiery manifesto from 1835:
“We have too long been subjected to the odious, cruel and unjust and tyrannical system which compels the operative Mechanic to exhaust his physical and mental powers by excessive toil, until he has no desire but to eat and sleep, and in many cases he has no power to do either from extreme debility.”
That 19th century worker was articulating something that many of us feel every day, even now. We work our ass off from morning to evening, and by the time we get home, we barely have the energy to do anything except scarf down some dinner, lay on the couch for a few hours, and collapse into bed. And that’s a 9-to-5; These workers were doing something closer to 5-to-9. One Massachusetts woman named Huldah Stone railed against long hours in an 1840s editorial:
“Is it necessary that men and women should toil and labor twelve, sixteen and even eighteen hours, to obtain mere sustenance of their physical natures? Have they no other wants which call as loudly for satisfaction ... ? Call ye to this life-to labor, eat, drink, and die without knowing anything?”
Is there no deeper point to our lives, she was asking, than to eat, sleep, and work? Are we really content to live out our existence either at work or recovering from it? She continues:
“When I hear people say they have not time to read, how does the thought come home to my heart-"in heaven's name what do they live for?" What in mercy's name do they do for thoughts, for the ever active and restless mind to feast upon from day to day! What do they do with the starving intellect ... ? Is it possible that any can be satisfied to exist only in a physical sense, entirely neglecting the cultivation of the noblest powers which God has given them?
Labor activists began talking to each other in stirring, radical - even revolutionary - language. As one activist named “Juliana” wrote in 1847:
Awake and arise from the low groveling charms of dollars and cents, to a knowledge of your own high and holy duties and destinies. Awake and resolve from this time forth to live, not merely to gain a bare subsistence, but to live for nobler, worthier objectives. Live, not to wear out and exhaust your physical energies in obtaining a few more paltry shillings, but to adorn and beautify the minds and intellects which a kind Father hath conferred upon you.”
A coalition of Philadelphia carpenters made the same point:
"All men have a just right, derived from their Creator, to have sufficient time each day for the cultivation of their mind and for self-improvement."
Workers were starting to really, seriously consider their circumstances, and what they wanted out of life, what they thought was fair, an unfair. As a contemporary writer named Henry George commented in the late 19thcentury:
The civilized world is trembling on the verge of a great movement. Either it must be a leap upward, which will open the way to advances yet undreamed of, or it must be a plunge downward which will carry us back toward barbarism. . . .
And so, a second American revolution exploded into consciousness among the factories, mills and stockyards of the United States. A revolution whose primary objective was nothing more than clawing back a little free time at the end of the day. As Benjamin Hunnicutt writes:
“Whereas America's Revolutionary generation had struggled to overthrow the tyranny of England and claim their natural right to govern themselves, workers after the 1820s attempted to throw off their new industrial chains, demanding their fair share of the wealth they produced and their "just right, derived from their Creator," to sell as much or as little of their own time as they wanted-to be free of bosses and "wage-slavery" and have some time each day to call their own.”
This goal of shorter hours, more important than wages and safety and all the other adjacent concerns that plagued industrial workers, animated the American Labor movement. As historian Daniel Rodgers observed:
“Workers dreamed of a workday short enough to push labor out of the center of their lives.... How much of a man's life should work consume? No work-related question was as important as this.'
A latter-day Union leader named George Meany even went so far as to say:
"The progress toward a ... shorter work week is a history of the labor movement itself.”
But like all progress, the march towards shorter hours was a slow and incremental project, constantly assailed by soldiers of the status quo. The titans of industry looked out on their angry workers and didn’t see people just like them, worthy of dignity and respect; they saw a heaving, unwashed mass of anarchists, immigrants, and agitators; moochers and whiners and layabouts.
These bums should be on their knees; the factory owners thought; they should be on their knees thanking me they have a job, thanking me for their 14-hour shift. After all, these were unskilled laborers, as replaceable and interchangeable as the machines they operated. Who cares what they want. Who cares how they feel? They should show up, buck up, and shut up.
But little by little, inch by inch, the growing American Labor movement gained ground. Its ranks swelled with every caste, creed and community. Italian Catholics and Russian Jews, Irish and Germans and Slavs and Greeks. Every profession and trade seemed to have its own Union or organization.
There were the United Metal Workers, the United Dry Clerks, the Lumber Workers Union, and more. From Boston to Philly to New York to Texas, they took to the streets and walked out of factories. Machinists and blacksmiths marched alongside sewing girls and grocery baggers. Tanner, tailors, and saddlers. Brewers, butchers, and bakers. (No confirmation on the candlestick makers)
And what did all these people want? A shorter day and decent pay. The Labor movement, as diverse and scattered as they were, all wanted one thing and one thing in particular. An 8-hour work day. As historian James Green writes:
Eight-hour visionaries looked forward to a new day when wage earners no longer lived just to work, and simultaneously looked backward to a time when people toiled together under the sky and close to the earth, passing the time of day without clocks and factory whistles, without machines or foremen to govern their pace. The Knights of Labor [a particular labor organization] opened and closed their meetings and rallies with songs that evoked this desire for freedom from the long arm of the job. Their anthem was the “Eight-Hour Song.”
We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.
The rising tide of 8-hour sentiment reached its fever pitch in the city of Chicago, in May of 1886. Here, in the “city of smoke”, the great showdown between the forces of Labor and the forces of Gilded Age capitalism would reach its bloody, tragic climax.
Years earlier, a prominent labor union had passed an obscure resolution that if the 8-hour workday was not the law of the land by May 1st, 1886, then workers should throw down their tools, walk off the line, and strike nationwide. And when the sun rose on the morning of May the first, that’s exactly what they did. As James Green writes: “350,000 laborers from coast to coast joined in a coordinated general strike for the eight-hour day.”
And Chicago was the epicenter of it all. At this time, the windy city was a nexus of mechanized money, of smokestacks and stockyards and slaughterhouses, a place where labor agitation burned the hottest. As James Green continues:
In a city where industry slaughtered millions of animals, blotted out the sky with smoke, poisoned the river with blood and guts and ground up fingers of factory hands like sausage stuffing, workers yearned to save part of themselves and to reclaim part of their day from the chaos of Chicago industry and from what Kipling called its “grotesque ferocity.”
But on May 1st, 1886, the skies abo ve Chicago were clear and blue and sunny. No smoke choked the clouds, no smog filled the air; the factories were silent and empty. The workers, almost 40,000 of them, were marching in the streets. As one reporter remembered:
“The streets were thronged with people, the manufactories were silent, and business in general was almost at a standstill. No smoke curled from the tall chimneys of the factories, and things assumed a Sabbath-like appearance.”
The sheer force of the strikes and the celebrations seemed to melt the wills of the factory owners like ore. A local Labor publication wrote:
“It is an eight-hour boom, and we are scoring victory after victory. Today the packinghouses of the Union Stock Yards all yielded…Men are wild with joy at the grand victory they have gained”
The atmosphere was electric. As James Green writes:
Striking workers joined their neighbors and shop mates dancing polkas and waltzes in music halls and drinking beer and whiskey in thousands of saloons uptown and downtown, from Swedish beer gardens on the North Side to the Irish pubs in Bridgeport.
But the jubilation would not last. As workers poured into the streets, the Chicago authorities were on high alert. The marches may have been entirely peaceful, but an undercurrent of distrust and disdain was humming at city hall. Fear was in the air.
The Chicago labor movement, peaceful though it was, harbored a large faction of anarchists, political activists who, according to historian Erik Loomis, “rejected the power of the state entirely and argued for the use of violence in fomenting revolution.”. This absolutely terrified the powers-that-be in Chicago, and they responded in kind.
The Chicago Police department oiled their revolvers and polished their badges. The National Guard drilled in the streets and unboxed a new, freshly-assembled Gatling Gun. And the Chicago Press, always hungry for a sensational story, hyped a showdown between the legions of labor and the sentinels of laissez faire capitalism.
On May 3rd, just 48 hours after the triumphant march, they got it.
The goodwill and high spirits eventually curdled into outright violence. At the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, union activists clashed with strikebreakers and police. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, several activists were dead and more were injured, broken under the wooden clubs of Chicago police. This absolutely infuriated the Union activists, particularly the Anarchist faction of the movement, as one wrote in a publication that day:
“You have for years endured the most abject humiliations; you have endured the pangs of hunger and want; you have worked yourself to death; your children you have sacrificed to the factory lords. If you are men, “f you are the sons of grand sires who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you. To arms!”
The next day, May 4th, at Haymarket Square, a crowd of activists, strikers and workers gathered to protest the police brutality. It was a dreary, drizzly evening, and after a few hours the crowd and dwindled to just a few hundred people. But scattered throughout the crowd, watching, waiting, and listening, were several plain clothes detectives, sent ahead to by the Chicago police to gauge the mood and size of the protest. But they were just the scouts; Half a block away, six companies of police, about 200 men in all, were arming up. Their orders were clear and simple: Break up the protest, disperse the crowd and “don’t spare the powder”.
And at 10:20pm, it all went to hell. As James Green writes:
A tremor passed through the crowd as people saw through the dim gaslight an advancing column of blue coats that stretched across the entire width of Desplaines Street. George Brown, a young Yorkshire-born shoemaker, observed what he described as “a great company of police with their revolvers drawn, rushing into the crowd which parted to make way for them.”
The column covered the 180 feet from the station to the wagon in what seemed like a few heartbeats. The police commander, Captain William Ward, cried halt to his men and, with Inspector Bonfield at his side, exclaimed, “I command you in the name of the people of the state of Illinois to immediately and peaceably disperse.”
As those words echoed cut through the cold Chicago night, something else rose up into the air. It was small, and sparking, and hissing. A round object, sailing towards the police formation.
It was a bomb.
There was a huge flash, a loud explosion, followed by a wave of screams and shouts. In a matter of seconds, Haymarket Square was transformed into a whirling maelstrom of smoke, gunfire, and panic. The police unloaded their revolvers into the crowd, and several protesters returned fire. As one witness recalled: “Everybody was running, and people fell, struck by bullets, right and left.”
“Wild carnage” ensued, according to one reporter. In the confusion, the police began firing into their own ranks: “it was every man for himself,” he wrote, and “the policemen emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.”
Over the next few days, the newspapers told the story of a shocking and brutal massacre. Untold people were injured, at least three civilians were killed, and seven – SEVEN – Chicago police officers were dead. Almost every major publication was baying for blood, labeling the Haymarket protest as “a murderous Communist conspiracy” that had snuffed out the lives of half a dozen hero cops.
The truth, of course, was more complicated, of course. The bomb, thrown by a member of the crowd, had been the spark, gunfire had been exchanged, but the police had mostly killed each other.. Complicated stories, however, do not sell newspapers. Within 24 hours, public sentiment had completely turned against the strikers. They were “bloody monsters” who had butchered the “gallant platoons” of “dead heroes”.
The Haymarket Affair, or the Haymarket Incident, as it came to be known, was considered at the time to be “the worst crime committed in the United States since the assassination of Lincoln”, according to James Green.
No one knew who threw the bomb for sure, but in the following days, 8 prominent anarchists were rounded up, branded as cop killers and charged with murder. A lengthy, but heavily-biased trial followed. And in November of 1887, 18 months after the bomb had sailed through the air in Haymarket Square, four of the accused men were dangling from the gallows at Cook County Courthouse, twisting like life-sized windchimes.
And as for the 8-hour movement? That, too, seemed dead as a doornail.
The bombing was a boon to the opponents of the 8-hour day, a way to paint the Labor movement with a broad, unflattering brush, labeling them all as dangerous, fire-breathing radicals. As a worker and writer named Oscar Ameringer put it “The bad news from Chicago fell like an exceedingly cold blanket on us strikers.” “The bomb”, one paper wrote, “was a godsend to the enemies of the labor movement”.
Emboldened by public sentiment, the government cracked down hard on Unions. The 8-hour strikes fizzled, dried up, and went underground. And for years, the dream of shorter hours, free time, and the weekend went into hibernation.
But many decades later, in a new century, the idea would come surging back to life, stronger and more urgently than ever before. And this time, it would stick.
All it would take was an economic cataclysm.
---- MUSIC BREAK -----
It’s September 29th 1929.
We’re in Moscow. The heart of the Soviet Union.
And tomorrow, life for everyone in the USSR is about to change. From the bustling cities in Ukraine, to the dunes of Kazakhstan, to the cold wastes of Siberia, a new, and mandatory, way of life is about to begin.
Seven years earlier, in 1922, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR as it was more commonly known, had sprang from sea foam into existence. World War One had gutted Russia’s economy and eroded confidence in the monarchy, setting the stage for a full-fledged revolution. Like all revolutions, it left a trail of political casualties in its wake, but by 1929, one man had scaled the mountains of bodies and planted his blood-red flag at summit.
In 1929, Joseph Stalin reigned supreme over 22 million square miles and 150 million people. The posters and propaganda may have depicted the “man of steel” as tall, dashing visionary, but in person, Stalin was somewhat less impressive. As historian Ian Kershaw writes, the leader of the Soviet Union was “diminutive and squat, his face dominated by a big walrus mustache and heavily pitted from smallpox.”
He may not have been an Abercrombie model, but Stalin was the poster boy for one of the most powerful nations in the history of the world. And he acted like it. Stalin’s autocratic regime was repressive and violent; he abided no challengers and accepted no dissent. Russia, and all its ancillary republics, were his world now – to do with as he wished.
And now that he had the big job, Comrade Stalin had some big changes in mind. Chief among them, was the notorious Five-Year-Plan, Stalin’s ambitious and ill-fated attempt to industrialize the Soviet Union on a massive scale. At the time, the USSR was primarily an agrarian society – farmers, peasants, and huge patches of undeveloped land. But the Man of Steel envisioned a mighty, mechanized society. He envisioned an industrialized Russia that could compete with the West, brimming with factories and assembly lines and legions of loyal workers.
Somehow, he had to pack decades of industrial development into a handful of years. But the Man of Steel and his adoring cohort had an idea. A way to accomplish this seemingly impossible goal. And it involved – what else? – the weekly cycle.
At the time, Soviet Russia had a 7-day week, just like everywhere else. People worked for six days, then rested on the seventh. It was a cadence Russians had lived and died to for centuries. There was just one little problem: It was inefficient. At least to the Communist Party. Stalin looked at the 7-day week and saw nothing but wasted man-hours. Every seven days, industry shut down, factories emptied, and the machines fell silent.
But what if there was a way to keep those factories open? What if he could twist the fabric of time itself to juice the Soviet machine? And as an added bonus, what if there was a way to sever the ties to the old Christian monarchy in the process?
Just like that, Stalin and his cronies had their Eureka moment. Or more accurately, they’re “NepreryvkaMoment” (Nee-pre-ruuvka)
Nepreryvka is a Russian word that means “uninterrupted”, and in October of 1929 the Soviet Union implemented a completely new weekly system that would allow for continuous, ceaseless industrial production. They called it the “Interrupted Production Week”
The new Soviet week would be five days instead of seven. The working population would be divided into five groups, and each group would be assigned a specific day that they would not have to go to work. The old weekly days – Monday, Tues, Wed, and so on – would be abandoned and given new “revolutionary names”, names like Lenin, Party, Hammer, or Sickle.”
Workers would rest every fifth day, and be assigned one of five colors. Yellow, Pink, Red, Purple, or Green. The Soviets printed color-coded posters that you can actually look up online and see the schedule.
On paper, it sounded nice enough. Technically, a shorter weekly interval meant more days off. You get every fifth day off instead of every seventh. Well, as Soviets put this new system into practice, the theory began to slam into some real-world obstacles.
On any given day, 80% of the population was working. So on your assigned rest day, you might find yourself lonely and bored, without friends or family, wives or brothers. As Eviatar Zerubavel writes: “On days when workers had a day off, only about 20 percent of the people they knew would be available for socializing.”
As one disgruntled worker complained: “What is there for us to do at home if our wives are in the factory, are children are at school and nobody can visit us. It is no holiday if you have to have it alone.”
The father of Communism, the controversial thinker Karl Marx, once said: “The realm of freedom actually begins only where labor, which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations, ceases”. It was ironic, that the torchbearers of his ideology in Russia attempted to create a world in which work literally never ceased.
In the end, the Soviet five-day week was just about as popular as the French Revolutionary 10-day week had been 140 years earlier. Stalin stuck with it for about 11 years, before scrapping the whole idea and going back to a 7-day week. The Man of Steel could shape his nation effortlessly; he could kill his rivals, crush his enemies, and silence his critics…but he could not kill the seven-day week.
But across the ocean, in America, seismic changes were happening to the work week as well. Changes that would directly lead to the two-day weekend as we know it.
Since the bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, the 8-hour movement had staggered on in various pockets of labor activism throughout the country. Some employers chose to acquiesce the workers’ demands, some did not. Any laws that were passed were localized, sporadic, and poorly enforced. In 1919, Pennsylvania steel workers were still grinding for 12 hours a day, six days a week. But slowly, surely, the old industrial norms of 10 and 12-hour days were being chipped away and eroded by the patient tides of progress.
Nowhere was that progress more evident than in the gleaming factories and clockwork assembly lines in the city of Detroit Michigan. Rising up from the banks of the Detroit River, the Motor City was the nerve center of some of the most profitable manufacturing operations in the western hemisphere. And if Detroit was a kingdom, there was only one king.
His name was Henry Ford, president of the Ford Motor Company.
Picture, if you will, a wiry 66-year-old man with pinched face, silver hair, and bright eyes. In photographs, he is usually dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, with a crisp, starchy collar. He doesn’t smile at the camera; he smirks at it. That’s Henry Ford.
In 1929, Henry Ford was probably one of the most famous men on the planet. Not to mention one the richest. Welped on a humble Michigan farm, Henry was an ambitious tinkerer, and in a matter of decades he had tinkered his way to the top of American society. His claim to fame was the Ford Model T, a ubiquitous automobile that was as affordable as it was innovative.
Ford was, for lack of a better word, an extremely weird dude. He was a baffling bundle of eccentricities. To name a few… He liked to communicate with his wife through bird calls. He often said he planned to live to the age of 150 thanks to a diet that included obscene amounts of carrot juice and absolutely no beef. He believed his was literal reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci. Not to mention, he was a raging, unapologetic anti-Semite.
But despite his flaws and peculiarities, Henry Ford was a media darling. According to Thomas and Morgan-Witts: “If he had a cough, the media printed his remedy; if he bought a new necktie, the store was described; any angle that could drag in Ford, or his name, was guaranteed space.”
The man who’d basically invented the automobile industry was always worthy of an adoring headline.
The Model T may have been the jewel in Ford’s crown, but his real pride & joy, the real secret sauce of his entire operation was something much more intangible. Just like Joseph Stalin, the mustachioed tyrant across the sea, Henry Ford ran his fiefdom with an iron fist. He had a penchant for precision, the soul of stopwatch, and he insisted on a factory system that made his competitors look like caveman hammering on rocks in the dark. As historians Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts write:
Cleanliness was one of Ford’s many obsessions. Five thousand men were engaged continuously in keeping the plant spick-and-span. Every month they used eleven thousand gallons of eggshell white and five thousand gallons of machine-blue paint; the colors were chosen by Ford, who believed them beneficial for maintaining “order and morale,” another of his fixations. He also specified the amount of soda to be mixed with the boiling water for scrubbing floors. Trash cans were emptied, on his orders, every 120 minutes, on the dot, around the clock.
A multiplicity of bells, locks, shields, signs, and blood-red paint warned of danger on all machinery capable of cutting or crushing a worker. While Ford had not been able to ban the fatigue and monotony of the shop floor, he had the best safety record in the industry, and probably in the whole country.
A worker returning from the World War said there were more casualty stations at Ford’s than he’d seen on the battlefield of France. A well-staffed hospital, the envy of any outside community, was on permanent standby close to the assembly lines.
Even the natural elements came under Ford’s scrutiny. He ordered a uniform temperature for all drinking water: between 55° and 60°. Ford also calculated that every worker needed thirty cubic feet of fresh air each minute in order to work at full capacity. Ducts ensured the Rouge atmosphere changed sixty times an hour. Well arranged, managed, and maintained, the plant was an extension of its owner,
Gone were the early, ugly days of the Industrial Revolution, where sooty children and dead-eyed workers were being chewed into pulp by unsafe machines. Henry Ford changed the game, and he did it by treating his workers like people. Or at least machines with feelings. Not to say that he was particularly compassionate; he once told a reporter that he never talked to a worker longer than five minutes because it might impact production. But Ford understood something that the Gilded Age tycoons did not. When workers are paid fairly and treated with decency, they will work their asses off for you. As Katrina Onstad writes:
In 1914, Ford raised the daily wage in his factories from $2.34 per day to $5.00. It was a radical move, and a PR sensation. Thousands showed up hoping for work, causing a near riot that was damped down when the police department turned firehoses on men in bitter winter.
But most crucially for our story, Henry Ford did something that none of his predecessors and contemporaries ever thought to do. In 1926, he gave his employees a five-day work week. The 40-hour prize that men had hung for in Chicago, now belonged to tens of thousands in Detroit. Ford’s policies went a long way to normalizing the concept of a five-day schedule with a two-day weekend. But Henry Ford did not give his workers a weekend out of the kindness of his heart. He recognized, according to Katrina Onstad, a “contradiction that sits at the heart of the weekend as we have come to know it: it’s both a time of rest and a time of consumption.”
By giving his workers more money and more time to spend it, Henry Ford transformed his workers into customers as well. Many a Ford factory worker spent his weekend cruising in a Model T. To paraphrase the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, business creates the wants it seeks to satisfy. As Ford himself explained:
“It is the influence of leisure on consumption which makes the short day and the short week so necessary.... Business is the exchange of goods. Goods are bought only as they meet needs. Needs are filled only as they are felt. They make themselves felt largely in leisure hours.... “
The US government agreed with Ford’s analysis. A report from the Committee on Recent Economic Changes conceded that:
"Leisure which results from an increasing man-hour productivity helps to create new needs and new and broader markets. […] Wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied ... it would seem that we can go on with increasing activity.... Our situation is fortunate, our momentum is remarkable."
And so, American workers were gradually granted more leisure and free time, not because of the force of their convictions or the righteousness of their cause…but because of the contents of their wallets. The weekend, business leaders realized, could become a driver of economic growth. But just as that limitless consumer economy was roaring to life…the unthinkable happened.
In October of 1929, the very same month that the bizarre five-day system was introduced in the Soviet Union, the American stock market collapsed like an old souffle; billions of dollars evaporated, thousands of banks closed their doors, and life savings were wiped out. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 heralded a new era of desperation and poverty called the Great Depression.
Sidenote: If you want to know more about the causes of the catastrophe on Wall Street, we actually did an entire three-part series on it last year; So feel free to check that out.
The 1929 Stock Market Crash was one of several ruinous developments that sucked the United States and Europe into a crater of economic depression. By 1932, one out of every four people in the United States was unemployed. Wages dropped 37%. Factories fell silent and assembly lines became tombs; mausoleums to yesteryear’s prosperity. As historians Priscilla Murolo and A.B Chitty write: “15 to 17 million people were jobless, about a third of the labor force.”
Even the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford’s world-famous enterprise, laid off about 70% of its work force by 1931. When thousands of unemployed workers marched on Ford’s factory demanding their jobs back, city police and Ford’s strikebreakers fired into the crowd, killing five people. Needless to say, the social impact of all this upheaval was absolutely devastating; Murolo and Chitty continue:
“Encampments of homeless people sprang up on public or vacant land on the outskirts of cities across the country. Many households dissolved, their children sent to friends, relatives, or homes run by charities. Legions of desperate women kept themselves afloat, and sometimes supported whole families, by turning to prostitution. Hunger was common, and malnutrition encouraged the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and pellagra.”
To combat the stratospheric unemployment, some companies experimented with work-sharing programs. Rather than fire a bunch of people, they’d cut their hours by 10, 20, 30%. That way, you could allow more people to still earn some kind of living, meagre though it was. “Fewer hours for some,” Katrina Onstad writes, “would mean more work for others.” In short, it was better than nothing.
But still, it wasn’t enough.
The nationwide plague of financial desperation fueled violent clashes between the government, businesses, the unemployed and underemployed alike. In San Francisco, the National Guard faced off against thousands of dockworkers. There were sit-downs in Ohio, strikes in North Carolina, and marches in Minneapolis. Tear gas filled the air and bayonets glinted in the streets.
Things were getting bad. Very bad.
But then, in 1933, the United States inaugurated a brand new President. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR had a plan; a plan to jumpstart the flatlining American economy back to life like a pair of shock paddles. He called this plan the New Deal. And in many ways, it was just a reaction to the excesses and oversights of the previous decades. As Murolo and Chitty write:
The New Deal was a mixed bag of reforms and emergency measures. It tightened government regulation of banks and the stock market. It created hundreds of thousands of jobs through public works projects. It revived state and local relief programs with massive federal grants that extended aid to some 27 million people—about a fifth of the nation’s population—by 1934.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. The New Deal had its blind spots and flaws, its detractors and critics, but it served as a crucial lifeline during one of the darkest times in American history. But for our purposes, it did one other very important thing. The New Deal paved the way for, yes you guessed it, the Weekend. According to Katrina Onstad:
Guided along by organized labor, with President Roosevelt signing off, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 enshrined the modern weekend: Americans were now promised the eight-hour day, and the forty-hour workweek.
On the evening June 24th, 1938, millions of Americans huddled around their radios to hear the President speak. For five years, FDR had been giving periodic radio addresses; They were intimate, approachable updates on the state of the union that his administration brilliantly branded as “fireside chats”. The public loved them, and on that stifling summer evening in 1938, President Roosevelt delivered a message that would change life forever for American workers. He announced that the following day, he would be signing a transformative bill into law.
3:20 in audio file
Here is a snippet of that fireside chat:
(2) After many requests on my part the Congress passed a Fair Labor Standards Act, what we call the Wages and Hours Bill. That Act --applying to products in interstate commerce -- ends child labor, sets a floor below wages and a ceiling over hours of labor.
Except perhaps for the Social Security Act, it is the most far-reaching, the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted here or in any other country. Without question it starts us toward a better standard of living and increases purchasing power to buy the products of farm and factory.
Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000.00 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company's undistributed reserves, tell you -- using his stockholders' money to pay the postage for his personal opinions -- tell you that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. Fortunately for business as a whole, and therefore for the Nation, that type of executive is a rarity with whom most business executives most heartily disagree.
The next day, FDR touched pen to paper, and placed his signature on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It effectively ended child labor in the United States. It set a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour – not bad for the time. And it set a maximum number of weekly hours at 44, which would decrease to 42 the next year, then 40 the year after that.
With the touch of that pen, the 40-hour work week and the weekend as we know were etched into law. If Hollywood ever made a movie about it, this would be the moment where everyone would leap up in triumph. When congressmen hug and shake hands, when workers cheer in the factory, when an adorable little kid is hoisted into the air by his smiling steelworker father.
But, as with all things, there are two sides to every coin. And it was no different with the Fair Labor Standards Act. A 1945 Canadian publication called it: “one of the most bitterly contested pieces of legislation that ever went through Congress.” In the nasty fight to squeeze the tortured bill through the pinhole aperture of Congressional nitpickery, the provisions had been twisted and hammered into something that was incredibly compromised. The final bill was riddled with a swiss-cheese patchwork of exceptions, exemptions and caveats. Only about 1/5 of the American work force was actually covered by it.
The Wages & Hours Bill, as Roosevelt called it, was an important step forward. And sometimes that’s what progress looks like: painful, pathetic little shuffles towards what we know is right, while the forces of opposition hook chains into your back, trying to keep you tethered to the status quo, or even drag you backward. As the 19th century economist George Gunton observed:
“Man is essentially a conservative (small c) as well as a social being, and only yields to changes when opposition becomes more painful than acquiescence. It is for this reason that his wants and character change slowly, and progress is by slow degrees."
But the proliferation of the weekend was anything but sluggish after the signing of that landmark bill. America recovered from the Great Depression; Europe followed suit. World War 2 was no picnic, but the nations of the world recovered from that too. And in the decades that followed, the two-day weekend spread rapidly across the planet. As Katrina Onstad writes:
The weekend skipped across the globe over the next several decades. By 1955 the two-day weekend was standard in Britain, Canada, and the United States, and short Saturdays were common across Europe. By the 1970s, no European country exceeded a forty-hour workweek—many worked less—and all observed the weekend. In the Middle East, Friday-Saturday weekends became the norm over the last half of the twentieth century, while some Gulf and North African countries booked off Thursday and Friday. But as economies have reoriented from local to global, the financial boon to a country that keeps hours in line with the West has altered the shape of the weekend.”
And so - the weekend had been won. It was the result of a 100-year struggle against the forces of industrialized business, championed by an unorthodox alliance of religious tradition, radical labor movements, and pioneering profiteers.
But as time passed, and the world experienced new technological revolutions, new ways of working quicker, faster, easier - from anywhere and at anytime…the peripheries of the weekend became porous. As the internet age bathed the workplace in a glow of lightning-fast productivity, things began to change once again. An army of emails and pings and texts and phone calls set up camp at the weekend’s borders, and settled in for a long siege. Today, many people are willingly, even gleefully, surrendering what so many activists fought and died for.
In fact, in some parts of the world, people have died not in support of the weekend and the 40-hour week, but in the tragic abdication of it.
The nation of Japan, for example, has one of the most demanding and inflexible work cultures anywhere in the world. The enduring image of salarymen, slumped over in their slacks and ties, curled up in the middle of the street, is so ubiquitous that it has honestly become a cliché. But it’s a real problem. And since the late 1970s, It has gotten worse and worse. Some of these guys work 60, 70, even 80-hour weeks; not because they want to, but because that is what is expected of them if they want to keep their jobs. And at some point, their bodies just break down. The stress and the mental exertion literally kills them.
The Japanese actually have a word for that phenomenon. It’s called “Karoshi”, and it means “death from overwork”. The South Koreans have a similar word, “gwarosa” (gwa-rolsha). In China, it’s “guolaosi” (goo-lau-suh). But the end result is the same. A dead body, hunched over a keyboard. Someone who placed their life on the altar of employment and got an early grave / toe-tag in return. As Katrina Onstad writes:
Literally dying from all that work—sometimes just dropping at the desk—is a phenomenon real enough that 813 families were compensated by insurance companies for “karoshi deaths” in 2012. For a legally designated “karoshi death,” the government may pay surviving family members around $20,000 a year.
Now those are, of course, extreme examples.
But the behavior behind it. The dynamics that drive it. The pressures that perpetuate it…those are not so alien or exotic. How many of us have stayed at the office a little later to ease our conscience? Or logged in on Sunday evening to make our Mondays a little less hectic? How many of us have worked late nights, just to stay above water? To meet that deadline? To appease that executive? Performing what one writer called,“theater of busy-ness, the optics of exhaustion”. As it turns out, quite a few of us. According to Katrina Onstad:
Nearly 40 percent of employees report working 50 or more hours per week. They don’t stop on Friday, either. According to time-use surveys in the U.S. and abroad, 29 percent of Americans said they perform paid work on weekends, more than three times the rate among Spanish workers. Then there’s all the un-noted work time added on to the week when we check our phones or speed-type an email while in line at the grocery store. Britain comes in a close second with four in ten managers saying they put in more than 60 hours a week—that “American disease.”
Now, none of this is to say that work is bad. Far from it! Work can give our lives shape and purpose and meaning. As the 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote:
“Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time.” – Hannah Arendt
Work is fundamentally necessary, historian Witold Rybcznski writes:
“It is work that makes rest possible – not the other way around.”
Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, an expert in labor history and a champion of free time, heartily agreed. He told an interviewer:
“It’s not that work is a bad thing at all; work is absolutely essential for the human creature. But after a certain point, after you get enough, acquire enough, it’s time to move on to those things that are more important, things that constitute the best of the possibility of our humanity.”
But perhaps the worst part of those long hours and grueling work schedules, is that they don’t’ even, well, work. In the mid-20th century a study on productivity was conducted by the British government, using data on munitions workers from WW1 . And the results surprised them. As Onstad writes:
The British government asked researchers at the Health of Munition Workers Committee (HMWC) to crunch data gleaned from munition workers to explore ways to maximize productivity. Their conclusion, a half century ago, was that workers needed to work less to produce more. Output was relatively easy to measure, as workers were paid by the piece. But there was a non-linear relationship between working hours and output. After a fifty-hour workweek, employee output—the number of weapons produced—fell. After fifty-five hours, it crashed. Putting in seventy hours produced no more munitions than fifty-five; those fifteen hours were the definition of wasted time. Researchers from 1917 noted that Sunday labor, in particular, caused a decrease in productivity, and increased sickness rates, writing that “the effect of long hours, much overtime, and especially Sunday labor, upon health is undoubtedly most deleterious.”
But despite its inefficacy, overwork tends to be fashionable. Martyrdom is chic. Onstad continues:
The original team of Macintosh designers wore T-shirts that read: “Working 90 hours a week and loving it!” It’s a nerd brag of the first order, yet productivity experts estimate the first Mac might have been completed about a year earlier if they’d worked half as many hours per week instead.
For many of us, the weekend and the 40-hour week that makes it possible seems unassailable. As natural and vital as respiration. And yet, we let the edges of it erode, we make compromises, or acquiesce to managers, or make small concessions to the companies that employ us, thinking that at the end of the day, the weekend is an invincible Newtonian truth, like gravity. Sadly, that is not the case. Anything that is given, can be taken away. Especially if it is given away freely. As historian Eviatar Zerubavel writes:
“Nothing evades our attention so persistently as that which is taken for granted.[…] obvious facts tend to remain invisible”
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed that Fair Labor Standards Act in June of 1938, he drew a line in the sand. But the thing about lines in the sand, is that it only takes a few well-placed kicks, or a stiff breeze… and then it’s gone.
Since the early 20th century, the momentum behind the quest for shorter and shorter hours has largely evaporated. There have, of course, been quite a few experiments with 4-day work weeks or 30-hour work weeks, but these are mostly novelties; overseas curiosities or fodder for think-pieces. Even as technology has progressed, hurtling us further in an era of instantaneous productivity, we’re still working just as much, if not more, than our grandparents were. In some ways, muses historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, free time is the forgotten American dream:
“I have come at last to the simple conclusion that one of the most important reasons for the end of shorter hours, the recent decline of leisure, and the substitution of the rhetoric of perpetual need for the traditional language of "abundance" is something like a nationwide amnesia. We have forgotten what used to be the other, better half of the American dream. In our rushing about for more, we have lost sight of the better part of freedom.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m gonna go kick back, have a beer and read a book. Maybe I’ll go for a walk. Honestly, I haven’t decided yet.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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