We take the seven-day week for granted, rarely asking what anchors it or what it does to us. Yet weeks are not dictated by the natural order. They are, in fact, an artificial construction of the modern world.
For this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek interviewed David M. Henkin, the Margaret Byrne Professor of History, about his book, The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms that Make Us Who We Are. With meticulous archival research that draws on a wide array of sources — including newspapers, restaurant menus, theater schedules, marriage records, school curricula, folklore, housekeeping guides, courtroom testimony, and diaries — Henkin reveals how our current devotion to weekly rhythms emerged in the United States during the first half of the 19th century.
Reconstructing how weekly patterns insinuated themselves into the social practices and mental habits of Americans, Henkin argues that the week is more than just a regimen of rest days or breaks from work, but a dominant organizational principle of modern society. Ultimately, the seven-day week shapes our understanding and experience of time.
Excerpts from the interview are included below (with questions and responses edited).
Listen to this interview as a podcast below, or listen and subscribe on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.
What are the different ways people have thought about the week?
The seven-day week does many things for us in the modern world, but we tend to focus exclusively on one of them, and that’s the idea that we have a unit of time that divides weekdays and weekends, work from leisure, profane time from sacred time. The week creates two kinds of days. But by its very structure, the week also divides time into seven distinct, heterogeneous units. Every day is fundamentally different from the day that precedes or follows it. The names we use for the days of the week suggest no numerical relationship between days. The week also lumps time together for us in interesting ways. We talk about what we did this week, what we hope to get done next week. What the week does most conspicuously and powerfully for us in the modern world is coordinate our schedules. It sequesters or regulates the timing of certain activities, especially activities that we try to do in conjunction with strangers.
How did people begin to use the week for stranger sociality?
The best example might be a market day, where you want to only have a public market every so often, and you want to make sure everyone can be there. And everyone remembers when it is and it doesn’t conflict with other things. That’s one model for it. But I argue in the book that it was really only in the early 19th century that large numbers of people began to have schedules that were different from one day of the week to another.
The institutions that helped produce that are varied. They included things like mail schedules, newspaper schedules, school schedules, voluntary associations (like fraternal orders or lodges), and commercial entertainment, like theater or baseball games. The more people lived in large towns and cities, the more they were bound to patterns of mail delivery or periodical publication, and the more likely they were to have regular activities that took place every seven days, or on one day of the week or another. Once they had that, it was a self-perpetuating cycle, because then you’ll begin to schedule other activities so as not to conflict with them, or to be memorable and convenient. The weekly calendar began to be used to organize these regularly recurring activities, typically that involved strangers and were open to the public.
Today, we often think about having the work week, and then the weekend, if we are so lucky. What are the ways that historians think about this division of either week and weekend, based on work or leisure?
Historians haven’t really thought too much about the weekly calendar at all, but to the extent that they have, they have focused exclusively on this question of the work week. Most commonly, they’ve studied the ways in which organized labor or capital have sought to control or regulate the length, pace, and even the timing of the work week.
The Industrial Revolution brought about a hardening of the boundaries between work and leisure, rather than having leisure bleed into Monday, or having work bleed into Saturday or Sunday. Something industrial the week has done for for centuries, even for millennia, is from biblical origins. The concept of a Sabbath is essentially an industrial one, which says there’s a time for work, and a time for rest or “not work.” That’s how historians have written about it.
Historians have not paid much attention to the role of leisure in organizing weekdays. They have paid attention to the role of leisure in giving special meaning to Sunday, and the great debates over how one should spend one’s Sunday — whether it should be in church, or going to the theater, or whether it must not involve alcohol, or whether it can involve sex, or whether the mail can be delivered. That all features prominently in the historiography of 19th-century America. But few have noticed that people’s lives have these other weekly rhythms, too.
What were the sources you drew upon to come to your conclusions about how the week is shifting and changing?
There were two kinds of sources. The first is a bit boring, but phenomenally important, which is that if you look at any newspaper or city directory, or anyone’s account of their lives, you suddenly realize how many activities they engage in that are pegged to the week, whether it’s going to musical societies or temperance lectures or anti-slavery organizations. You notice that they’re organizing by the week. It’s glaring at you and in plain view, but if you don’t ask the question, then you won’t actually see it. We know that newspapers typically came out once a week, but on which day of the week did they come out? Was it the same? Did it vary? Things like that don’t require a huge amount of digging. It just requires asking the question. You can basically ask that question to almost every public document from the first half of the 19th century in the United States, and those documents that register life in an urban or semi-urban society create a thick catalogue of weekly activities, obligations, and habits.
You also look at diaries. What are some of the insights you can get from diaries, and how did the practice of diary-making change during the period of time you’re looking at?
Diaries tell us what whether people went to French class on a Wednesday or not, but the cool thing that they do, along with correspondence and other kinds of recollections, is allow people to narrate their own experiences. Those are fascinating because you can not only see what they did, but how they remembered — or sometimes failed to remember — what day of the week it was. One of the things I came to be especially impressed by during the course of my research for this book was the link between the week and memory. We can use diaries as the main example, because that’s probably the single source type that I immersed myself in most most deeply. Diaries are not hard to find. They are everywhere. The challenge there was to spend years looking at as many of them as I could, then thinking about the various kinds of archival biases I needed to overcome to make sure I was looking at a broad range of diaries.
Diary-keeping is a very old activity. I would say it became a mass practice in the United States in the early 19th century. In New England, it was somewhat widely practiced even in the 18th century, but became much more so in the 19th century, and the 19th century also saw the rise of the pre-formatted diary book. It had been introduced as a consumer good in the United States in the 1770s, but totally bombed. No one really wanted such a thing. Instead, people used almanacs with a standard format of calendar as a material artifact. Almanacs are organized around the month, and they tend to focus on naturally observable things, like the weather. People didn’t really see any need for a pocket diary that you could write stuff in. But by the 1820s, these were suddenly quite popular. The most common format was six days to a spread, sometimes seven. It conditioned people to thinking about their lives in chunks of time that were much smaller than a month, but bigger than a day.
You mentioned that a lot of historians of industrial capitalism have focused on the work day. What do your insights about the week have to bear against the focus on the hour?
The hour is by far the time unit that has been of greatest interest not only to historians of labor, but also to historians of time, who have been far more interested in the clock than the calendar, in part because the clock is a mechanical device, and we tend to look for technologies to explain fundamental changes in temporal consciousness, whereas calendars don’t seem to be that kind of technology. The week is not measured any more precisely today than it was 100 years ago, or even 500 or 1000 years ago. The hour is very much associated with punctuality, and with discipline. The 19th century is really also when large parts of the world began calculating hours the way we do today, which is to conceive of it as 60 minutes, and as 1/24 of a full daily cycle, which is not how most societies used to define which they define it, which was as 1/12 of the variable amount of daylight.
When you read about the week, you realize that you’re looking at a unit of time that doesn’t fit into any of the big paradigms that have drawn our interest to the hour. We’re interested in the hour because we think that pre-modern time was natural and observable. Modern time is homogeneous. It’s arithmetically calculable, and fundamentally alienated from nature. But the week is equally artificial. It’s not actually rooted in natural rhythms, and it’s not confirmed or correctable by observable natural phenomena. It’s very rigid and artificial, but it’s also very, very old. So once you stop assuming that clock time is the way to look for the hallmarks of modernity, I think it opens up new ways of being interested in the week. The week wasn’t even a universal system of any kind in large parts of the world, including East Asia, which did just fine without thinking of the seven-day cycle as a timekeeping register of any kind. My research into the week makes me think of the hour as a less less apt symbol for the difference between modern and pre-modern timekeeping. The week is a heterogeneous timekeeping system. The homogeneity of time is a powerful feature of modern timekeeping, but the seven-day week says that no two days are alike. We speak about daily life, everyday life, but the week resists that whole notion. It insisted that no two consecutive days are substitutable. It would seem to correspond with pre-modern notions of time movement and heterogeneity that used to interest anthropologists about timekeeping in primitive societies, and yet it is fundamentally modern and has only now in the last 100 years become a global timekeeping system.
The week is more about the calendar that you keep, and not about the town square, which doesn’t raise a different flag on Mondays or Tuesdays. It raises the question about the way that the week has been seen to be subpar, or irrational. There have been different projects to try to remake the week into something that is more like a clock tower. What have some of those projects been?
There have been three big ones. They’re all big, because they all represent an attack on the seven-day week from very powerful, and in many other respects, successful revolutionary movements.
The first was the French Revolution, which sought to rationalize and standardize measurements of all kind, and succeeded. Many of the ways in which we measure things, especially outside the United States, are a product of the French Revolution and its belief in enlightened rationality. The French Revolution also had another gripe with the week, apart from the fact that it’s awkward and irrational, which is that it seemed to be the fundamental anchor of the power of the Catholic Church, in old regime France. So the French revolutionaries created a new calendar. They not only renamed months and years, but they also more radically introduced a 10-day week, called a decade. And it was fundamentally different from the seven day week. And it was a failed experiment.
The next big one was the Soviet attack on the week. Soviets were mostly interested in continuous production in factories, but they also wanted to undermine the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. They first went to a five-day week, then a six-day week, and then weeks were not coordinated. That was the part that had to do with continuous production, similar to a hospital or any other operation that seeks continuous operation: I have one day off, but my best friend or wife might have another one. That failed, in part because of resistance to having a non-coordinated week.
The third attack is less well known, but represents American and European corporate capitalism, and the rational reforms favored by big businesses that they largely succeeded in creating by World War One. It was a system of timekeeping that’s universal, that gave us things like time zones, where you can divide the world in the 24 zones, and also a line that marks where the day officially ends and begins somewhere in the Pacific Ocean that’s antipodal to Greenwich, England. Or daylight savings time, the idea that you can manipulate the clock for various social or economic benefits. All these things are product of what my colleague Vanessa Ogle calls the global transformation of time between 1880 and 1920.
The one thing that the many those same reformers wanted to do — and failed to do — was to tame the week by making it an even subdivision of months, and especially of years. And that’s not a very big change, right? They’re not making the week longer or shorter. They’re not making it non-coordinated. All they’re doing is saying that at the end of every year, there’ll be one day, or two if it’s a leap year, that are blank. Most proposals to tame the week as I would call it, or reform the week, simply asked for one or two blank days that would have no weekly value. And the purpose was so the cycle of weeks would be 364 days, not 365, and therefore divisible by seven, and therefore every January 28, would be a Monday. The League of Nations took it up and considered it, but rejected it. Many people assumed that this was the wave of the future, but instead it suffered the fate of Esperanto, and not the fate of timezones.
Meanwhile, the week was entering, without much resistance, all these societies that never had one. If I were a historian of Japan, I would really want to study, what was the cognitive process, the cultural process, and the political process by which a society that had never counted continuous seven-day cycles suddenly began organizing not only its work life, but life more generally, around this complete innovation? It’s not flashy like the internet. But it is a technology, and it was completely new in Japan. It’s a different story in the United States, where the technology was quite old. and was doing new things for people without anyone really commenting on it.