Before the Industrial Revolution began to loom, the week consisted of six days of work and one day of rest, as described in the Bible.
The official reason for Sunday as a day of rest for Christians is the excuse of commemorating the Resurrection. “Sunday is the new Sabbath” was basically the slogan with which in the fourth century, with a fair share of anti-Semitism, Christianity codified Sunday as a day of rest in civil and ecclesiastical legislation, even though ‘Sabbath’ comes from the Latin sabbatum and this from the Hebrew šabbāth (‘day of rest’), which in turn derives from šābath (‘to rest’). Several centuries later Islam would determine that “Friday is the new Sunday”, so that no one would be confused.
But it was not precisely etymological concerns that led to the reinstatement of Saturday as a day of rest, but the unexpected threat of Holy Mondays.
Before the clockwork pace of industrialization arrived, Monday used to be an unofficial day of rest. Work was not measured in hours but in tasks, performed by a specifically convened group of people who worked intensely until completed and then got paid to do with their time as they pleased. The concept of working for regular pre-established periods of time, well differentiated from free time, was completely unknown.
When the machines arrived and the need to keep them running as long as possible was installed, the challenge was to get someone to show up for work on Monday. The excuse was to take the day in observance of Holy Monday, a phenomenon that Benjamin Franklin mentions in his autobiography as an explanation for his professional success: his perfect attendance “never taking a Holy Monday. Or, as Woody Allen would synthesize, eighty percent of success comes from simply showing up.
With all the rest crammed into one day, Monday morning was usually a hangover. Sunday after going to church the paycheck would vanish, usually to shows and bars. In the equation of time versus money, the option of taking a day off won out. It is the same equation we face today, but usually with the opposite outcome.
Desperate to recover productivity, in factories in the mid-19th century, what became known in the rest of the world as the “English Saturday” was installed: the work week would last until Saturday lunchtime, and Sunday could be devoted to recovering for Monday. Not least was religious support: the hope was that the measure would increase church attendance on Sunday afternoon.
With this timid extension of rest time was born the weekend, a concept that only appeared in writing in 1879 in a letter from a reader inquiring about its meaning in Notes and Queries, a magazine devoted to the study of the English language, with an awkward description, “It’s what happens when you go to visit someone on a Friday and then stay there on Saturday, and then stay there until Sunday and then…”
In case you have to explain it to one of those people who never worked a day in their life, you know the ones, the weekend is that thing we have to wait all week to do what we want to do because Monday through Friday we have to work.
The earth revolves around the sun once a year and it takes about 365.25 days. The sun rises and sets every twenty-four hours. But the week is something else. It is a completely original invention, which not only measures nothing but has little or nothing to do with nature.
Seven are the dwarfs, the sins, the musical notes of the major scale, the seas, Dante’s hells and the years Brad Pitt spends in Tibet. Seven were also the celestial bodies observed in ancient Babylon: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. From there probably the Jews took inspiration, during their exile in Mesopotamia, and determined that the seventh day was of rest or death. As to how much work was to be done, nothing was written.
At the beginning of the 18th century in the British colonies in America, the working day used to begin and end in the twilight. That’s why the first labor rights movements called for hours-and time off. The “Ten Hour Movement” of 1791 in Philadelphia had little impact, but it ignited the spark that led to America’s first general strike in 1835, which culminated in a law.
In barely a century, time became common currency and ceased to be something to be spent, and not to be wasted. Industrialization shifted the organic times of tasks – the tides in fishing, the seasons in agriculture – to the empire of the clock. The dispute, as the Welshman Robert Owen summed up in 1817, was over “eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, eight hours of rest”. Between 1881 and 1885 in the United States there were at least 142 strikes over working hours.
These same disputes were what shaped the school days, designed as a refuge for those who needed not only care in the absence of their parents but also to acclimate themselves to the arbitrary arrangement of their days and weeks around needs that had nothing to do with pedagogical objectives.
Probably the culmination of the demand was the strike of May 1, 1886, in which a group of workers in the city of Chicago called for the eight-hour workday. Nearly half a million workers demonstrated for four days throughout the country and labor rights went from being a mere abstraction, with a bloody cost impossible to ignore today, remembered today as International Workers’ Day, to a political reality.
This indissoluble relationship between time off and work was finally established in 1926 with the incorporation of the five-day work week in Henry Ford’s factories, convinced by his vice president, James Couzens, under the argument that more time, and more money, would lead to greater consumption by the workers. Oh, capitalism.
A few years later, with the Great Depression, other industries adopted the same measure to avoid layoffs, and in 1938 the five-day, 40-hour work week was established by law. In Argentina, the first labor law, in 1905, established Sunday rest in the City of Buenos Aires, and was later extended in 1932 to incorporate the “English Saturday”. The Argentine work week, however, is 48 hours.
One hundred years later, we are once again wondering what the fuck is the weekend. Not only did not having time become the norm, but we look with suspicion at those who have enough time to be bored.
We set out day after day, week after week, to conquer time before it conquers us and unsuspectingly celebrate the apparent effort of those who never take a weekend, because that’s how you beat it: “The key is to grab your free time, take it to the most secluded place in your house and empty the magazine to show your state of violent excitement. We’re going to die before we’re fifty, but with a phenomenal resume. Supposedly that’s how you achieve success and all that, what do I know.
As Katrina Onstad reminds us in The Weekend Effect (2017), not so long ago time off was the main political discussion, and the one that first united workers, not in rejection of child labor, not over working conditions, not even over wages, but over the reduction of long working hours.
Literally thousands of people had to die so that first half a day was freed, and then a whole day, so that today on the cover of newspapers and magazines there are smiling those who boast that resting is for losers. What can I tell you.
Even when working at times seems to be more of a privilege than a right, there’s a good reason why Adam and Eve didn’t look forward to the weekend. Without the exhaustion of the week making contrast the weekend loses its meaning. But so does work, with its delights and sorrows.
The weekend, if all goes well, allows us to assume a different rhythm. We sleep differently, maybe read a little, go for a walk, go to the movies, exercise, watch something. We even allow ourselves to be someone else.
It’s not always easy to understand how weekends work. In 1924, The Week-End Book was published in England, an immediate success, which served as a sort of encyclopedia with games, recipes, bird-watching information, instructions for various hobbies and even instructions on how to kiss someone underwater. It was not aimed at the working class, but at the incipient British middle class, which is why it was criticized in passing by Virginia Woolf, who found in its pages everything she detested about the superficial climate of her time.
Sometimes free time can deprive us of a certain freedom, as Witold Rybczynski points out, quoting G. K. Chesterton in Waiting for the Weekend (1991). In one of his 1927 columns, Chesterton comments that by leisure we can understand three things: “First, it refers to being able to do something. Secondly, it means being able to do anything. And thirdly, perhaps the rarest and most precious thing, to be able to do nothing.
And we have a hard time taking days off: while in the Middle Ages a peasant worked only 120 days a year, in the United States a third of the vacation days not taken are lost before they are claimed, and we can assume that something similar happens in the rest of the world.
In a way it is the weekend that enslaves us, not work. Many people act as if their workweek is an annoying obstacle to their real lives. Free time, even, seems to have forgotten its adjective. According to Rybczynski, people no longer play, but assign such seriousness to their non-work activities that they no longer even enjoy the mere experience but work at their recreational activities, and then brag about it.
As a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Invisible Monsters (1999) says: “The only reason we ask everyone else how their weekend was is so we can tell them about ours.”
Amateur, such a nice word that refers to the love for what one does, is thus seen as just a first stage towards professionalization. What could well be a compliment becomes a pejorative remark. The freedom of undirected time is lost in the obligation to do things “well”, to the detriment of Chesterton’s other observation: “If it is worth doing something, it is worth doing it badly”.
It is into this trap that Bertrand Russell seems to fall in his 1932 eulogy to idleness, where he challenges the belief that work is not only a virtue but the ultimate virtue.
According to Russell, the productive model that we have been dragging along since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, whose reduction of the working day seems to have stagnated a century ago despite the general increase in productivity, goes directly against the intuition that given more free time people would occupy that productive (or, arguably, unproductive) surplus in the pursuit of our curiosity and personal interests.
Without realizing it, Russell ends up displacing one type of productivity for another. Much more interesting seems to be to restore some of its charm to the workweek without letting it expand to take up everything. And so perhaps the weekend can be freed of expectations, and of clocks, one day recovering that original character of time outside of time.
And so, when Monday approaches us on Sunday afternoon, with the little music of Jaws, we will be able to face it better.