The invention of the weekend

Monica Hesse on the invention of the weekend:

Before weekends could be long, they first had to be weekends.

For most of the 19th century and part of the 20th, there were none — there were simply weeks that ended. The working class had Sundays off only. Because of this, many of them would spend the Lord’s day carousing, then call in sick on Mondays. This practice was observed with enough regularity that it was called “Keeping Saint Mondays.” Religious groups hated it, and so did bosses, writes University of Pennsylvania professor Witold Rybczynski in his leisure-time history, “Waiting for the Weekend.” Various special interest groups put their heads together to come up with a solution: Saturdays. Give the people Saturday afternoon off so they have less reason to be plastered Monday morning.

The term “weekend” first shows up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879; it wasn’t until the Great Depression that the Saturday-Sunday dynamic duo really became codified in the United States. Shorter hours were seen as a “remedy” for unemployment, Rybczynski writes. “Each person would work less, but more people would have jobs.”

via Giving Thanks — for Long Weekends – The Washington Post.

I think this is a little oversimplified.  Certainly the Biblical sabbath was the source of the practice of a day of rest, a dramatic example of the influence of Christianity on the civilization as a whole.  This account does explain adding Saturday, which, however, was the Jewish day of rest, not to mention Christian Adventist groups.  I wonder if the climate of immigration in the 19th century–all those Jewish immigrants who would not work on Saturday–contributed to the additional day off.

Nevermind that the commandment says “six days shall you labor,” as well as underscoring the one day thou shalt not.  I suppose Saturdays became the day people labored for themselves–fixing things around the house, tinkering with this and that, running errands, “getting things done”–as opposed for laboring for someone else for pay.  That doubtless helped carve out space for the individual and the home.

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About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Mole

    Underlying this discussion is a philosophical/moral issue that Rybczynski sums up nicely in Waiting for the Weekend.
    “All this has called into question the traditional relationship beween leisure and work, a relationship about which our culture has always been ambivalent. Generally speaking there are two opposing schools of thought. On the one hand there is the ideal, held by thinkers as disparate as Karl Marx and the the Catholic philospher Josef Pieper, of a society increasingly emancipated from labor. This notion echoes the Aristotelian view that the goal of life is happiness, and that leisure, as distinguished from amusement and recreation, is the state necessary for its achievement…….”
    “Opposed to this is the more modern (so-called Protestant) work ethic that values labor for its own sake, and sees its reduction – or, worse, its elimination – as an unthinkable degradation of human life.”
    Where do Lutherans stand on this issue? The German Lutheran tradition I grew up in emphasized work – “Arbeit macht das Leben suess” (Work makes life sweet). The rejoinder, which always appealed to me, was “Aber Faulheit staerkt die Glieder” (But laziness strengthens the limbs).

  • Mole

    Underlying this discussion is a philosophical/moral issue that Rybczynski sums up nicely in Waiting for the Weekend.
    “All this has called into question the traditional relationship beween leisure and work, a relationship about which our culture has always been ambivalent. Generally speaking there are two opposing schools of thought. On the one hand there is the ideal, held by thinkers as disparate as Karl Marx and the the Catholic philospher Josef Pieper, of a society increasingly emancipated from labor. This notion echoes the Aristotelian view that the goal of life is happiness, and that leisure, as distinguished from amusement and recreation, is the state necessary for its achievement…….”
    “Opposed to this is the more modern (so-called Protestant) work ethic that values labor for its own sake, and sees its reduction – or, worse, its elimination – as an unthinkable degradation of human life.”
    Where do Lutherans stand on this issue? The German Lutheran tradition I grew up in emphasized work – “Arbeit macht das Leben suess” (Work makes life sweet). The rejoinder, which always appealed to me, was “Aber Faulheit staerkt die Glieder” (But laziness strengthens the limbs).

  • rlewer

    Along with this go the Sunday laws against selling alcoholic beverages and having taverns closed on Sunday to keep the workers sober. This also meant that the workers could not drink on their only day off. This is also the reason the Sunday alcohol laws were often opposed by the working class. The workers did find ways around the laws.

  • rlewer

    Along with this go the Sunday laws against selling alcoholic beverages and having taverns closed on Sunday to keep the workers sober. This also meant that the workers could not drink on their only day off. This is also the reason the Sunday alcohol laws were often opposed by the working class. The workers did find ways around the laws.

  • Cincinnatus

    rlewer: I’ll be following this discussion with interest, but I need to jump in to correct something–or at least express deep skepticism. To wit, rlewer, I highly doubt that Sunday closings, blue laws, and the like are attempts by the managerial bourgeois to subdue the working class. Sobriety was the aim of such laws, but you’ll have more historical luck, I think, if you trace such laws to women’s temperance movements and other efforts at Prohibition. These were populist attempts to stifle vice, not heighten labor productivity. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on the subject, but I did grow up around blue counties, and Sunday drinking was highly frowned upon in my community.

  • Cincinnatus

    rlewer: I’ll be following this discussion with interest, but I need to jump in to correct something–or at least express deep skepticism. To wit, rlewer, I highly doubt that Sunday closings, blue laws, and the like are attempts by the managerial bourgeois to subdue the working class. Sobriety was the aim of such laws, but you’ll have more historical luck, I think, if you trace such laws to women’s temperance movements and other efforts at Prohibition. These were populist attempts to stifle vice, not heighten labor productivity. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on the subject, but I did grow up around blue counties, and Sunday drinking was highly frowned upon in my community.

  • SKPeterson

    One thing that did place the Lutherans in low regard in many parts of the country was the penchant of the faithful to retire after Sunday services to a picnic ground with a beer garden to while away the afternoon, something the teetotalers could hardly bear. Unfortunately, it resulted in anti-German animus that swept across much of the country during WWI, perhaps a partial precursor to the dark ages of Prohibition to come shortly thereafter.

  • SKPeterson

    One thing that did place the Lutherans in low regard in many parts of the country was the penchant of the faithful to retire after Sunday services to a picnic ground with a beer garden to while away the afternoon, something the teetotalers could hardly bear. Unfortunately, it resulted in anti-German animus that swept across much of the country during WWI, perhaps a partial precursor to the dark ages of Prohibition to come shortly thereafter.

  • rlewer

    #3 Didn’t mean to say that it was a deliberate attempt to “subdue” the working class. It did restrict their options on their only day off. The adding of Saturday to the “weekend” helped solve this as the article states.

    Of course, the Lutherans and Catholics (Germans and Irish) were looked down upon (and still are on the South) because they drank at any time, much less on Sunday. Down in Arkansas, The Church Of Christ sponsor of the high school DARE group tried to expel all the Lutherans because they “drank wine at church” (communion). It didn’t work since the majority of the board of education were members of our congregation and it was actually the Lutheran youth who had organized the DARE group.

  • rlewer

    #3 Didn’t mean to say that it was a deliberate attempt to “subdue” the working class. It did restrict their options on their only day off. The adding of Saturday to the “weekend” helped solve this as the article states.

    Of course, the Lutherans and Catholics (Germans and Irish) were looked down upon (and still are on the South) because they drank at any time, much less on Sunday. Down in Arkansas, The Church Of Christ sponsor of the high school DARE group tried to expel all the Lutherans because they “drank wine at church” (communion). It didn’t work since the majority of the board of education were members of our congregation and it was actually the Lutheran youth who had organized the DARE group.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Mole, that’s an interesting big picture account. We see, again, another application of the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Mole, that’s an interesting big picture account. We see, again, another application of the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.

  • fws

    Mole @1

    The Lutheran system of ethics is that the aim of God in enforcing the Law among men is to ultimately extort goodness and mercy out of us towards our neighbor.

    So the aim of Lutheran morality is not work or vocation or self sacrifice or personal happiness, per se.

    Work and vocation and sacrifice are said to be ALL about OUR death (ie mortification) ONLY in the fruit of Godly Goodness and Mercy produced for OTHERS.

    Think of Vocation, work, self sacrifice and all the virtues as a factory. Or think of your own Old Adam as a factory.
    The factory requires efficiency, discipline, industrial standards and organization and coordination/cooperation to work well.

    But the entire aim of the factories existence is not to do any of that! The entire purpose of the factory is to produce goods that make the lives of others better.

    This is precisely where moralism, the Pharisees and the religious get it wrong. Virtue , aka a well run factory, is a dead end if it does not produce Goodness and Mercy for others. That would be useless.

    This is why the Lutherans reject the dictum “Virtue is it’s own reward”. Virtue is not biblical morality. Goodness and Mercy done for others is, alone, biblical morality. Yet this Goodness and Mercy cannot exist without the practice of Virtue, that is, without each of us becoming a well, run factory.

    So then what about weekends and rest from labor?

    1)Time to focus on the Sabbath that is Christ that is our Life in the middle of our Vocation which is all about our Old Adam death).

    2) Time to focus on the important vocation of family which is about the discipline of leisure the produces Goodness and Mercy for others. And to remember that Mercy is always something undeserved. It is not the just reward for our labors or efforts.

  • fws

    Mole @1

    The Lutheran system of ethics is that the aim of God in enforcing the Law among men is to ultimately extort goodness and mercy out of us towards our neighbor.

    So the aim of Lutheran morality is not work or vocation or self sacrifice or personal happiness, per se.

    Work and vocation and sacrifice are said to be ALL about OUR death (ie mortification) ONLY in the fruit of Godly Goodness and Mercy produced for OTHERS.

    Think of Vocation, work, self sacrifice and all the virtues as a factory. Or think of your own Old Adam as a factory.
    The factory requires efficiency, discipline, industrial standards and organization and coordination/cooperation to work well.

    But the entire aim of the factories existence is not to do any of that! The entire purpose of the factory is to produce goods that make the lives of others better.

    This is precisely where moralism, the Pharisees and the religious get it wrong. Virtue , aka a well run factory, is a dead end if it does not produce Goodness and Mercy for others. That would be useless.

    This is why the Lutherans reject the dictum “Virtue is it’s own reward”. Virtue is not biblical morality. Goodness and Mercy done for others is, alone, biblical morality. Yet this Goodness and Mercy cannot exist without the practice of Virtue, that is, without each of us becoming a well, run factory.

    So then what about weekends and rest from labor?

    1)Time to focus on the Sabbath that is Christ that is our Life in the middle of our Vocation which is all about our Old Adam death).

    2) Time to focus on the important vocation of family which is about the discipline of leisure the produces Goodness and Mercy for others. And to remember that Mercy is always something undeserved. It is not the just reward for our labors or efforts.


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