|Author(s):||Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline|
Published by EH.NET (September 1998)
Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, November 1996. x + 261 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-566
39-447-3; $24.95 (paper), ISBN: 1-56639-448-1.
Reviewed for EH.NET by
Robert Whaples, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.
Between the Civil War and World War II, the length of the American work week
. Since the end of World War II, the rate of decline has become positively
glacial. The five-day workweek with an eight-hour workday came to be seen as
the norm over a half a century ago and it is still seen as the norm today.
This development caught a
lot of attentive observers by surprise–for example, John Maynard Keynes in
1930 predicted that by 2030 a fifteen hour workweek would be sufficient for all
but the most extreme workaholics. The stabilization of the workweek at forty
hours continues to defy easy explanation. Benjamin Hunnicutt knows that the
explanation for this dramatic reversal is highly complex. In
Work Without End (1988), he offered a strikingly new and controversial
thesis that pinpointed the role of policy decisions during the
In Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, he examines the question from a fascinating
new angle–that of a work force which eagerly adopted the six-hour workday
during the Depression, but which reverted back to the eight-hour workday during
the postwar period.
Kellogg’s shift to the six-hour workday occurred on December 1, 1930.
Hunnicutt calls the shift an “instant success” (p. 1) because it attracted the
attention of the national media and Herbert Hoover’s administration.
The shift was the product of an unusual time and two unusual men. The first
unusual man was Lewis J. Brown, the company’s president. An English immigrant,
he was greatly influenced by Lord William Leverhulme, the successful soap
manufacturer from Lancaster, founder of “Liberation Capitalism,” author of
The Six-Hour Day & Other Industrial Questions
(1919) and advocate of shorter hours as a sound business practice and
liberating force in the life of workers. The second unusual man was W.K.
Kellogg, the company’s owner. W.K. was the younger brother of John Harvey
Kellogg, who had transformed the Battle Creek Sanitarium from a small
Seventh-Day Adventist retreat into a world-famous institution. John Harvey
Kellogg cultivated the image of an indefatigable superman. Poor W.K. “was
caught in a rush. He had taken a job as factotum for John Harvey, who worked
nearly to death” (p. 40). After they discovered how to make flaked cereal, the
brothers separated rancorously, slugging it out in court, and W.K. built his
cereal empire. A psychiatrist friend characterized W.K. as “deeply unhappy
and frustrated. … Possibly by the time he gained success at middle age, the
capacity for enjoyment of a rich life had atrophied” (p. 39). W.K. complained
that he had “never learned to play,” (p.
39) but in old age turned his attention to helping others overcome the
situation in which he found himself. He donated considerable money to local
recreational projects and encouraged his employees to use their spare time in
“worthwhile” activities. The
Great Depression gave these two men the necessary inducement to launch the
As the local unemployment rate shot upward, they cut the workday to six hours,
while eliminating breaks and terminating bonuses for unpopular shift times.
Workers were given a 12.5 percent hourly raise, so standard daily pay only
by about 15 percent.
Workers were initially very receptive and willing to “share the work” with the
unemployed. Hunnicutt has interviewed many employees who worked at Kellogg
‘s during this period. Many of them reminisce about how they used their new
“free” time: visiting friends over beer or coffee, participating in amateur
sports, hunting and fishing, doing family things together–gardening, canning,
school projects. In 19 37, Kellogg’s became unionized, W.K. Kellogg withdrew
from an active role in the business, and a new management team arrived which
was not committed to the 6-hour workday.
As part of the contract negotiations, the union conducted a secret ballot
in which two-thirds of workers registered their preference for the 6-hour
workday, with a few smaller departments opting to keep their 8-hour shifts.
By 1941, when the union struck Kellogg’s for the first time, a sizeable 8-hour
faction had emerged. During World War II, the company switched to a 48-hour
workweek, but promised to revert to 6-hour shifts after the emergency ended.
In mid-1946, employees reaffirmed their commitment to the short workday, with
87 percent of women and 71 percent of men voting for six hours. Over the
course of the next decade, however, the tide turned. By 1957 most departments
had opted to switch to the 8-hour shift, so that only about one-quarter of the
work force, mostly women,
retained the six-hour shift. Finally, in
1985, the last department voted to adopt an 8-hour workday.
What happened between the end of World War II and the late 1950s that caused
workers to change their minds about how much to work and how much to earn?
Hunnicutt points to a new approach by Kellogg’s management, part of a broader
trend in management during this period. Managers became coaches rather than
authoritarian drivers and tried to “sell” workers on the importance of doing
their jobs and seeing work as the center of their lives. Management began to
denigrate and “feminize” shorter hours.
National union officials were very willing to trade shorter hours for offers of
hourly wage increases. But most importantly many workers,
especially male employees, seem to have changed their tastes.
They became embarrassed by the short hours that they were working–shorter
than the shifts worked by men at other local jobs. They changed their
down-playing the freedom that leisure gave, and asserting that they were
“unable to afford” a six-hour shift, that longer hours were needed to “‘keep
the wolf from the door,’ ‘feed the family,’ and ‘put bread on the table'” (p.
140). Hunnicutt confronted some of his interviewees who made these assertions.
“If the author dared to ask, ‘You don’t really mean that you
would have starved to death if you kept on working six hours?’ the typical
response was defensive, as if the author had accused the speaker of lying
rather than of making his point strongly” (p. 140). In the end, most of
Hunnicutt’s witnesses are incapable of telling us why they decided that
eight-hour workdays were preferable to six-hour workdays. Moreover,
hyperbole seems just as evident in the responses of those favoring six hours
and lamenting its demise. They exaggerate–saying
that eight-hour advocates are willing to work themselves “to death” and
claiming that workers on a six-hour shift produced as much as those on an
eight-hour shift. It seems that the historical record is incapable of
explaining this shift in tastes (if
indeed there was a shift in tastes) because the actors have reinterpreted their
own earlier decisions, exaggerating either the marginal costs or the marginal
benefits, so that their choices can be more readily rationalized. Only a few
workers profess that the choice was a close call.
Ultimately, most men during the 1950s needed little convincing that eight-hours
and higher pay were preferable. Six-hour workdays wouldn’t let them keep up
with the Joneses and many men did not receive much enjoyment from
their marginal leisure hours. “Like management, senior male workers were
concerned about the loss of status and control. Several men told about the
friction that resulted when the men spent too much time around the house: ‘The
wives didn’t like the men
underfoot all day.’ ‘The wife always found something for me to do if I hung
around.’ ‘We got into a lot of fights.’ Many of the men confessed that they
were at loose ends when they were working six hours” (p. 142). In Hunnicutt’s
interpretation, it was a
combination of outside pressures and the inability of men (but not women) to
learn how to use their leisure time, that caused the reversion to eight-hours.
An alternative interpretation emphasizes broader macroeconomic events. In the
1930s and again in
1946 when soldiers returned to take back their old jobs, workers were willing
to accept shorter hours as a way of minimizing their odds of becoming
more altruistically, “sharing” work with unfortunates. During the 1950s,
the threat of unemployment evaporated and the moral condemnation for being a
“work hog” no longer made sense. In addition, the rise of quasi-fixed
employment costs (such as health insurance) induced management to push workers
toward a longer workday.
Although, Hunnicut t’s book is very thought provoking, it has some
disconcerting features. In many places, the author is overly
judgemental–painting six-hour advocates as enlightened heroes and eight-hour
advocates as selfish or unenlightened. He fails to grapple with the issue of
sample selection bias within his collection of interviews. He never discusses
broader changes in female labor force participation during this period and the
rise of part-time employment.
Nevertheless, this is an important book to be recommend ed to anyone interested
in the debate over the length of the workweek.
Robert Whaples Department of Economics Wake Forest University
Robert Whaples is Associate Director of EH.NET and author of “Winning the
Eight-Hour Day, 1909-1919,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 50, no.
|Subject(s):||Labor and Employment History|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: WWII and post-WWII|