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Hours of Work in U.S. History

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. Since then the workweek’s length has decreased considerably. This article presents estimates of the length of the historical workweek in the U.S., describes the history of the shorter-hours “movement,” and examines the forces that drove the workweek’s decline over time.

Estimates of the Length of the Workweek

Measuring the length of the workweek (or workday or workyear) is a difficult task, full of ambiguities concerning what constitutes work and who is to be considered a worker. Estimating the length of the historical workweek is even more troublesome. Before the Civil War most Americans were employed in agriculture and most of these were self-employed. Like self-employed workers in other fields, they saw no reason to record the amount of time they spent working. Often the distinction between work time and leisure time was blurry. Therefore, estimates of the length of the typical workweek before the mid-1800s are very imprecise.

The Colonial Period

Based on the amount of work performed — for example, crops raised per worker — Carr (1992) concludes that in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake region, “for at least six months of the year, an eight to ten-hour day of hard labor was necessary.” This does not account for other required tasks, which probably took about three hours per day. This workday was considerably longer than for English laborers, who at the time probably averaged closer to six hours of heavy labor each day.

The Nineteenth Century

Some observers believe that most American workers adopted the practice of working from “first light to dark” — filling all their free hours with work — throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century. Others are skeptical of such claims and argue that work hours increased during the nineteenth century — especially its first half. Gallman (1975) calculates “changes in implicit hours of work per agricultural worker” and estimates that hours increased 11 to 18 percent from 1800 to 1850. Fogel and Engerman (1977) argue that agricultural hours in the North increased before the Civil War due to the shift into time-intensive dairy and livestock. Weiss and Craig (1993) find evidence suggesting that agricultural workers also increased their hours of work between 1860 and 1870. Finally, Margo (2000) estimates that “on an economy-wide basis, it is probable that annual hours of work rose over the (nineteenth) century, by around 10 percent.” He credits this rise to the shift out of agriculture, a decline in the seasonality of labor demand and reductions in annual periods of nonemployment. On the other hand, it is clear that working hours declined substantially for one important group. Ransom and Sutch (1977) and Ng and Virts (1989) estimate that annual labor hours per capita fell 26 to 35 percent among African-Americans with the end of slavery.

Manufacturing Hours before 1890

Our most reliable estimates of the workweek come from manufacturing, since most employers required that manufacturing workers remain at work during precisely specified hours. The Census of Manufactures began to collect this information in 1880 but earlier estimates are available. Much of what is known about average work hours in the nineteenth century comes from two surveys of manufacturing hours taken by the federal government. The first survey, known as the Weeks Report, was prepared by Joseph Weeks as part of the Census of 1880. The second was prepared in 1893 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, for the Senate Committee on Finance, chaired by Nelson Aldrich. It is commonly called the Aldrich Report. Both of these sources, however, have been criticized as flawed due to problems such as sample selection bias (firms whose records survived may not have been typical) and unrepresentative regional and industrial coverage. In addition, the two series differ in their estimates of the average length of the workweek by as much as four hours. These estimates are reported in Table 1. Despite the previously mentioned problems, it seems reasonable to accept two important conclusions based on these data — the length of the typical manufacturing workweek in the 1800s was very long by modern standards and it declined significantly between 1830 and 1890.

Table 1
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked in Manufacturing, 1830-1890

Year Weeks Report Aldrich Report
1830 69.1
1840 67.1 68.4
1850 65.5 69.0
1860 62.0 66.0
1870 61.1 63.0
1880 60.7 61.8
1890 60.0

Sources: U.S. Department of Interior (1883), U.S. Senate (1893)
Note: Atack and Bateman (1992), using data from census manuscripts, estimate average weekly hours to be 60.1 in 1880 — very close to Weeks’ contemporary estimate. They also find that the summer workweek was about 1.5 hours longer than the winter workweek.

Hours of Work during the Twentieth Century

Because of changing definitions and data sources there does not exist a consistent series of workweek estimates covering the entire twentieth century. Table 2 presents six sets of estimates of weekly hours. Despite differences among the series, there is a fairly consistent pattern, with weekly hours falling considerably during the first third of the century and much more slowly thereafter. In particular, hours fell strongly during the years surrounding World War I, so that by 1919 the eight-hour day (with six workdays per week) had been won. Hours fell sharply at the beginning of the Great Depression, especially in manufacturing, then rebounded somewhat and peaked during World War II. After World War II, the length of the workweek stabilized around forty hours. Owen’s nonstudent-male series shows little trend after World War II, but the other series show a slow, but steady, decline in the length of the average workweek. Greis’s two series are based on the average length of the workyear and adjust for paid vacations, holidays and other time-off. The last column is based on information reported by individuals in the decennial censuses and in the Current Population Survey of 1988. It may be the most accurate and representative series, as it is based entirely on the responses of individuals rather than employers.

Table 2
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, 1900-1988

Year Census of Manu-facturing JonesManu-

facturing

OwenNonstudent Males GreisManu-

facturing

GreisAll Workers Census/CPS All Workers
1900 59.6* 55.0 58.5
1904 57.9 53.6 57.1
1909 56.8 (57.3) 53.1 55.7
1914 55.1 (55.5) 50.1 54.0
1919 50.8 (51.2) 46.1 50.0
1924 51.1* 48.8 48.8
1929 50.6 48.0 48.7
1934 34.4 40.6
1940 37.6 42.5 43.3
1944 44.2 46.9
1947 39.2 42.4 43.4 44.7
1950 38.7 41.1 42.7
1953 38.6 41.5 43.2 44.0
1958 37.8* 40.9 42.0 43.4
1960 41.0 40.9
1963 41.6 43.2 43.2
1968 41.7 41.2 42.0
1970 41.1 40.3
1973 40.6 41.0
1978 41.3* 39.7 39.1
1980 39.8
1988 39.2

Sources: Whaples (1990a), Jones (1963), Owen (1976, 1988), and Greis (1984). The last column is based on the author’s calculations using Coleman and Pencavel’s data from Table 4 (below).
* = these estimates are from one year earlier than the year listed.
(The figures in parentheses in the first column are unofficial estimates but are probably more precise, as they better estimate the hours of workers in industries with very long workweeks.)

Hours in Other Industrial Sectors

Table 3 compares the length of the workweek in manufacturing to that in other industries for which there is available information. (Unfortunately, data from the agricultural and service sectors are unavailable until late in this period.) The figures in Table 3 show that the length of the workweek was generally shorter in the other industries — sometimes considerably shorter. For example, in 1910 anthracite coalminers’ workweeks were about forty percent shorter than the average workweek among manufacturing workers. All of the series show an overall downward trend.

Table 3
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, Other Industries

Year Manufacturing Construction Railroads Bituminous Coal Anthracite Coal
1850s about 66 about 66
1870s about 62 about 60
1890 60.0 51.3
1900 59.6 50.3 52.3 42.8 35.8
1910 57.3 45.2 51.5 38.9 43.3
1920 51.2 43.8 46.8 39.3 43.2
1930 50.6 42.9 33.3 37.0
1940 37.6 42.5 27.8 27.2
1955 38.5 37.1 32.4 31.4

Sources: Douglas (1930), Jones (1963), Licht (1983), and Tables 1 and 2.
Note: The manufacturing figures for the 1850s and 1870s are approximations based on averaging numbers from the Weeks and Aldrich reports from Table 1. The early estimates for the railroad industry are also approximations.

Recent Trends by Race and Gender

Some analysts, such as Schor (1992) have argued that the workweek increased substantially in the last half of the twentieth century. Few economists accept this conclusion, arguing that it is based on the use of faulty data (public opinion surveys) and unexplained methods of “correcting” more reliable sources. Schor’s conclusions are contradicted by numerous studies. Table 4 presents Coleman and Pencavel’s (1993a, 1993b) estimates of the average workweek of employed people — disaggregated by race and gender. For all four groups the average length of the workweek has dropped since 1950. Although median weekly hours were virtually constant for men, the upper tail of the hours distribution fell for those with little schooling and rose for the well-educated. In addition, Coleman and Pencavel also find that work hours declined for young and older men (especially black men), but changed little for white men in their prime working years. Women with relatively little schooling were working fewer hours in the 1980s than in 1940, while the reverse is true of well-educated women.

Table 4
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, by Race and Gender, 1940-1988

Year White Men Black Men White Women Black Women
1940 44.1 44.5 40.6 42.2
1950 43.4 42.8 41.0 40.3
1960 43.3 40.4 36.8 34.7
1970 43.1 40.2 36.1 35.9
1980 42.9 39.6 35.9 36.5
1988 42.4 39.6 35.5 37.2

Source: Coleman and Pencavel (1993a, 1993b)

Broader Trends in Time Use, 1880 to 2040

In 1880 a typical male household head had very little leisure time — only about 1.8 hours per day over the course of a year. However, as Fogel’s (2000) estimates in Table 5 show, between 1880 and 1995 the amount of work per day fell nearly in half, allowing leisure time to more than triple. Because of the decline in the length of the workweek and the declining portion of a lifetime that is spent in paid work (due largely to lengthening periods of education and retirement) the fraction of the typical American’s lifetime devoted to work has become remarkably small. Based on these trends Fogel estimates that four decades from now less than one-fourth of our discretionary time (time not needed for sleep, meals, and hygiene) will be devoted to paid work — over three-fourths will be available for doing what we wish.

Table 5
Division of the Day for the Average Male Household Head over the Course of a Year, 1880 and 1995

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8

Source: Fogel (2000)

Table 6
Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

Source: Fogel (2000)
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.

Postwar International Comparisons

While hours of work have decreased slowly in the U.S. since the end of World War II, they have decreased more rapidly in Western Europe. Greis (1984) calculates that annual hours worked per employee fell from 1908 to 1704 in the U.S. between 1950 and 1979, a 10.7 percent decrease. This compares to a 21.8 percent decrease across a group of twelve Western European countries, where the average fell from 2170 hours to 1698 hours between 1950 and 1979. Perhaps the most precise way of measuring work hours is to have individuals fill out diaries on their day-to-day and hour-to-hour time use. Table 7 presents an international comparison of average work hours both inside and outside of the workplace, by adult men and women — averaging those who are employed with those who are not. (Juster and Stafford (1991) caution, however, that making these comparisons requires a good deal of guesswork.) These numbers show a significant drop in total work per week in the U.S. between 1965 and 1981. They also show that total work by men and women is very similar, although it is divided differently. Total work hours in the U.S. were fairly similar to those in Japan, but greater than in Denmark, while less than in the USSR.

Table 7
Weekly Work Time in Four Countries, Based on Time Diaries, 1960s-1980s

Activity US USSR (Pskov)
Men Women Men Women
1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981
Total Work 63.1 57.8 60.9 54.4 64.4 65.7 75.3 66.3
Market Work 51.6 44.0 18.9 23.9 54.6 53.8 43.8 39.3
Commuting 4.8 3.5 1.6 2.0 4.9 5.2 3.7 3.4
Housework 11.5 13.8 41.8 30.5 9.8 11.9 31.5 27.0
Activity Japan Denmark
Men Women Men Women
1965 1985 1965 1985 1964 1987 1964 1987
Total Work 60.5 55.5 64.7 55.6 45.4 46.2 43.4 43.9
Market Work 57.7 52.0 33.2 24.6 41.7 33.4 13.3 20.8
Commuting 3.6 4.5 1.0 1.2 n.a n.a n.a n.a
Housework 2.8 3.5 31.5 31.0 3.7 12.8 30.1 23.1

Source: Juster and Stafford (1991)

The Shorter Hours “Movement” in the U.S.

The Colonial Period

Captain John Smith, after mapping New England’s coast, came away convinced that three days’ work per week would satisfy any settler. Far from becoming a land of leisure, however, the abundant resources of British America and the ideology of its settlers, brought forth high levels of work. Many colonial Americans held the opinion that prosperity could be taken as a sign of God’s pleasure with the individual, viewed work as inherently good and saw idleness as the devil’s workshop. Rodgers (1978) argues that this work ethic spread and eventually reigned supreme in colonial America. The ethic was consistent with the American experience, since high returns to effort meant that hard work often yielded significant increases in wealth. In Virginia, authorities also transplanted the Statue of Artificers, which obliged all Englishmen (except the gentry) to engage in productive activity from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, a 1670 Massachusetts law demanded a minimum ten-hour workday, but it is unlikely that these laws had any impact on the behavior of most free workers.

The Revolutionary War Period

Roediger and Foner (1989) contend that the Revolutionary War era brought a series of changes that undermined support for sun-to-sun work. The era’s republican ideology emphasized that workers needed free time, away from work, to participate in democracy. Simultaneously, the development of merchant capitalism meant that there were, for the first time, a significant number of wageworkers. Roediger and Foner argue that reducing labor costs was crucial to the profitability of these workers’ employers, who reduced costs by squeezing more work from their employees — reducing time for meals, drink and rest and sometimes even rigging the workplace’s official clock. Incensed by their employers’ practice of paying a flat daily wage during the long summer shift and resorting to piece rates during short winter days, Philadelphia’s carpenters mounted America’s first ten-hour-day strike in May 1791. (The strike was unsuccessful.)

1820s: The Shorter Hours Movement Begins

Changes in the organization of work, with the continued rise of merchant capitalists, the transition from the artisanal shop to the early factory, and an intensified work pace had become widespread by about 1825. These changes produced the first extensive, aggressive movement among workers for shorter hours, as the ten-hour movement blossomed in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Rallying around the ten-hour banner, workers formed the first city-central labor union in the U.S., the first labor newspaper, and the first workingmen’s political party — all in Philadelphia — in the late 1820s.

Early Debates over Shorter Hours

Although the length of the workday is largely an economic decision arrived at by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor, advocates of shorter hours and foes of shorter hours have often argued the issue on moral grounds. In the early 1800s, advocates argued that shorter work hours improved workers’ health, allowed them time for self-improvement and relieved unemployment. Detractors countered that workers would abuse leisure time (especially in saloons) and that long, dedicated hours of work were the path to success, which should not be blocked for the great number of ambitious workers.

1840s: Early Agitation for Government Intervention

When Samuel Slater built the first textile mills in the U.S., “workers labored from sun up to sun down in summer and during the darkness of both morning and evening in the winter. These hours ? only attracted attention when they exceeded the common working day of twelve hours,” according to Ware (1931). During the 1830s, an increased work pace, tighter supervision, and the addition of about fifteen minutes to the work day (partly due to the introduction of artificial lighting during winter months), plus the growth of a core of more permanent industrial workers, fueled a campaign for a shorter workweek among mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose workweek averaged about 74 hours. This agitation was led by Sarah Bagley and the New England Female Labor Reform Association, which, beginning in 1845, petitioned the state legislature to intervene in the determination of hours. The petitions were followed by America’s first-ever examination of labor conditions by a governmental investigating committee. The Massachusetts legislature proved to be very unsympathetic to the workers’ demands, but similar complaints led to the passage of laws in New Hampshire (1847) and Pennsylvania (1848), declaring ten hours to be the legal length of the working day. However, these laws also specified that a contract freely entered into by employee and employer could set any length for the workweek. Hence, these laws had little impact. Legislation passed by the federal government had a more direct, though limited effect. On March 31, 1840, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour day for all federal employees engaged in manual work.

1860s: Grand Eight Hours Leagues

As the length of the workweek gradually declined, political agitation for shorter hours seems to have waned for the next two decades. However, immediately after the Civil War reductions in the length of the workweek reemerged as an important issue for organized labor. The new goal was an eight-hour day. Roediger (1986) argues that many of the new ideas about shorter hours grew out of the abolitionists’ critique of slavery — that long hours, like slavery, stunted aggregate demand in the economy. The leading proponent of this idea, Ira Steward, argued that decreasing the length of the workweek would raise the standard of living of workers by raising their desired consumption levels as their leisure expanded, and by ending unemployment. The hub of the newly launched movement was Boston and Grand Eight Hours Leagues sprang up around the country in 1865 and 1866. The leaders of the movement called the meeting of the first national organization to unite workers of different trades, the National Labor Union, which met in Baltimore in 1867. In response to this movement, eight states adopted general eight-hour laws, but again the laws allowed employer and employee to mutually consent to workdays longer than the “legal day.” Many critics saw these laws and this agitation as a hoax, because few workers actually desired to work only eight hours per day at their original hourly pay rate. The passage of the state laws did foment action by workers — especially in Chicago where parades, a general strike, rioting and martial law ensued. In only a few places did work hours fall after the passage of these laws. Many become disillusioned with the idea of using the government to promote shorter hours and by the late 1860s, efforts to push for a universal eight-hour day had been put on the back burner.

The First Enforceable Hours Laws

Despite this lull in shorter-hours agitation, in 1874, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first enforceable ten-hour law. It covered only female workers and became fully effective by 1879. This legislation was fairly late by European standards. Britain had passed its first effective Factory Act, setting maximum hours for almost half of its very young textile workers, in 1833.

1886: Year of Dashed Hopes

In the early 1880s organized labor in the U.S. was fairly weak. In 1884, the short-lived Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) fired a “shot in the dark.” During its final meeting, before dissolving, the Federation “ordained” May 1, 1886 as the date on which workers would cease working beyond eight hours per day. Meanwhile, the Knights of Labor, which had begun as a secret fraternal society and evolved a labor union, began to gain strength. It appears that many nonunionized workers, especially the unskilled, came to see in the Knights a chance to obtain a better deal from their employers, perhaps even to obtain the eight-hour day. FOTLU’s call for workers to simply walk off the job after eight hours beginning on May 1, plus the activities of socialist and anarchist labor organizers and politicians, and the apparent strength of the Knights combined to attract members in record numbers. The Knights mushroomed and its new membership demanded that their local leaders support them in attaining the eight-hour day. Many smelled victory in the air — the movement to win the eight-hour day became frenzied and the goal became “almost a religious crusade” (Grob, 1961).

The Knights’ leader, Terence Powderly, thought that the push for a May 1 general strike for eight-hours was “rash, short-sighted and lacking in system” and “must prove abortive” (Powderly, 1890). He offered no effective alternative plan but instead tried to block the mass action, issuing a “secret circular” condemning the use of strikes. Powderly reasoned that low incomes forced workmen to accept long hours. Workers didn’t want shorter hours unless their daily pay was maintained, but employers were unwilling and/or unable to offer this. Powderly’s rival, labor leader Samuel Gompers, agreed that “the movement of ’86 did not have the advantage of favorable conditions” (Gompers, 1925). Nelson (1986) points to divisions among workers, which probably had much to do with the failure in 1886 of the drive for the eight-hour day. Some insisted on eight hours with ten hours’ pay, but others were willing to accept eight hours with eight hours’ pay,

Haymarket Square Bombing

The eight-hour push of 1886 was, in Norman Ware’s words, “a flop” (Ware, 1929). Lack of will and organization among workers was undoubtedly important, but its collapse was aided by violence that marred strikes and political rallies in Chicago and Milwaukee. The 1886 drive for eight-hours literally blew up in organized labor’s face. At Haymarket Square in Chicago an anarchist bomb killed fifteen policemen during an eight-hour rally, and in Milwaukee’s Bay View suburb nine strikers were killed as police tried to disperse roving pickets. The public backlash and fear of revolution damned the eight-hour organizers along with the radicals and dampened the drive toward eight hours — although it is estimated that the strikes of May 1886 shortened the workweek for about 200,000 industrial workers, especially in New York City and Cincinnati.

The AFL’s Strategy

After the demise of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the strongest labor union in the U.S. It held shorter hours as a high priority. The inside cover of its Proceedings carried two slogans in large type: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” and “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” (The latter slogan was coined by Ira Steward’s wife, Mary.) In the aftermath of 1886, the American Federation of Labor adopted a new strategy of selecting each year one industry in which it would attempt to win the eight-hour day, after laying solid plans, organizing, and building up a strike fund war chest by taxing nonstriking unions. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners was selected first and May 1, 1890 was set as a day of national strikes. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 workers gained the eight-hour day as a result of these strikes in 1890. However, other unions turned down the opportunity to follow the carpenters’ example and the tactic was abandoned. Instead, the length of the workweek continued to erode during this period, sometimes as the result of a successful local strike, more often as the result of broader economic forces.

The Spread of Hours Legislation

Massachusetts’ first hours law in 1874 set sixty hours per week as the legal maximum for women, in 1892 this was cut to 58, in 1908 to 56, and in 1911 to 54. By 1900, 26 percent of states had maximum hours laws covering women, children and, in some, adult men (generally only those in hazardous industries). The percentage of states with maximum hours laws climbed to 58 percent in 1910, 76 percent in 1920, and 84 percent in 1930. Steinberg (1982) calculates that the percent of employees covered climbed from 4 percent nationally in 1900, to 7 percent in 1910, and 12 percent in 1920 and 1930. In addition, these laws became more restrictive with the average legal standard falling from a maximum of 59.3 hours per week in 1900 to 56.7 in 1920. According to her calculations, in 1900 about 16 percent of the workers covered by these laws were adult men, 49 percent were adult women and the rest were minors.

Court Rulings

The banner years for maximum hours legislation were right around 1910. This may have been partly a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding female-hours legislation in the Muller vs. Oregon case (1908). The Court’s rulings were not always completely consistent during this period, however. In 1898 the Court upheld a maximum eight-hour day for workmen in the hazardous industries of mining and smelting in Utah in Holden vs. Hardy. In Lochner vs. New York (1905), it rejected as unconstitutional New York’s ten-hour day for bakers, which was also adopted (at least nominally) out of concerns for safety. The defendant showed that mortality rates in baking were only slightly above average, and lower than those for many unregulated occupations, arguing that this was special interest legislation, designed to favor unionized bakers. Several state courts, on the other hand, supported laws regulating the hours of men in only marginally hazardous work. By 1917, in Bunting vs. Oregon, the Supreme Court seemingly overturned the logic of the Lochner decision, supporting a state law that required overtime payment for all men working long hours. The general presumption during this period was that the courts would allow regulation of labor concerning women and children, who were thought to be incapable of bargaining on an equal footing with employers and in special need of protection. Men were allowed freedom of contract unless it could be proven that regulating their hours served a higher good for the population at large.

New Arguments about Shorter Hours

During the first decades of the twentieth century, arguments favoring shorter hours moved away from Steward’s line that shorter hours increased pay and reduced unemployment to arguments that shorter hours were good for employers because they made workers more productive. A new cadre of social scientists began to offer evidence that long hours produced health-threatening, productivity-reducing fatigue. This line of reasoning, advanced in the court brief of Louis Brandeis and Josephine Goldmark, was crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to support state regulation of women’s hours in Muller vs. Oregon. Goldmark’s book, Fatigue and Efficiency (1912) was a landmark. In addition, data relating to hours and output among British and American war workers during World War I helped convince some that long hours could be counterproductive. Businessmen, however, frequently attacked the shorter hours movement as merely a ploy to raise wages, since workers were generally willing to work overtime at higher wage rates.

Federal Legislation in the 1910s

In 1912 the Federal Public Works Act was passed, which provided that every contract to which the U.S. government was a party must contain an eight-hour day clause. Three year later LaFollette’s Bill established maximum hours for maritime workers. These were preludes to the most important shorter-hours law enacted by Congress during this period — 1916′s Adamson Act, which was passed to counter a threatened nationwide strike, granted rail workers the basic eight hour day. (The law set eight hours as the basic workday and required higher overtime pay for longer hours.)

World War I and Its Aftermath

Labor markets became very tight during World War I as the demand for workers soared and the unemployment rate plunged. These forces put workers in a strong bargaining position, which they used to obtain shorter work schedules. The move to shorter hours was also pushed by the federal government, which gave unprecedented support to unionization. The federal government began to intervene in labor disputes for the first time, and the National War Labor Board “almost invariably awarded the basic eight-hour day when the question of hours was at issue” in labor disputes (Cahill, 1932). At the end of the war everyone wondered if organized labor would maintain its newfound power and the crucial test case was the steel industry. Blast furnace workers generally put in 84-hour workweeks. These abnormally long hours were the subject of much denunciation and a major issue in a strike that began in September 1919. The strike failed (and organized labor’s power receded during the 1920s), but four years later US Steel reduced its workday from twelve to eight hours. The move came after much arm-twisting by President Harding but its timing may be explained by immigration restrictions and the loss of immigrant workers who were willing to accept such long hours (Shiells, 1990).

The Move to a Five-day Workweek

During the 1920s agitation for shorter workdays largely disappeared, now that the workweek had fallen to about 50 hours. However, pressure arose to grant half-holidays on Saturday or Saturday off — especially in industries whose workers were predominantly Jewish. By 1927 at least 262 large establishments had adopted the five-day week, while only 32 had it by 1920. The most notable action was Henry Ford’s decision to adopt the five-day week in 1926. Ford employed more than half of the nation’s approximately 400,000 workers with five-day weeks. However, Ford’s motives were questioned by many employers who argued that productivity gains from reducing hours ceased beyond about forty-eight hours per week. Even the reformist American Labor Legislation Review greeted the call for a five-day workweek with lukewarm interest.

Changing Attitudes in the 1920s

Hunnicutt (1988) argues that during the 1920s businessmen and economists began to see shorter hours as a threat to future economic growth. With the development of advertising — the “gospel of consumption” — a new vision of progress was proposed to American workers. It replaced the goal of leisure time with a list of things to buy and business began to persuade workers that more work brought more tangible rewards. Many workers began to oppose further decreases in the length of the workweek. Hunnicutt concludes that a new work ethic arose as Americans threw off the psychology of scarcity for one of abundance.

Hours’ Reduction during the Great Depression

Then the Great Depression hit the American economy. By 1932 about half of American employers had shortened hours. Rather than slash workers’ real wages, employers opted to lay-off many workers (the unemployment rate hit 25 percent) and tried to protect the ones they kept on by the sharing of work among them. President Hoover’s Commission for Work Sharing pushed voluntary hours reductions and estimated that they had saved three to five million jobs. Major employers like Sears, GM, and Standard Oil scaled down their workweeks and Kellogg’s and the Akron tire industry pioneered the six-hour day. Amid these developments, the AFL called for a federally-mandated thirty-hour workweek.

The Black-Connery 30-Hours Bill and the NIRA

The movement for shorter hours as a depression-fighting work-sharing measure built such a seemingly irresistible momentum that by 1933 observers predicting that the “30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law” (Hunnicutt, 1988). During the period after the 1932 election but before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congressional hearings on thirty hours began, and less than one month into FDR’s first term, the Senate passed, 53 to 30, a thirty-hour bill authored by Hugo Black. The bill was sponsored in the House by William Connery. Roosevelt originally supported the Black-Connery proposals, but soon backed off, uneasy with a provision forbidding importation of goods produced by workers whose weeks were longer than thirty hours, and convinced by arguments of business that trying to legislate fewer hours might have disastrous results. Instead, FDR backed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Hunnicutt argues that an implicit deal was struck in the NIRA. Labor leaders were persuaded by NIRA Section 7a’s provisions — which guaranteed union organization and collective bargaining — to support the NIRA rather than the Black-Connery Thirty-Hour Bill. Business, with the threat of thirty hours hanging over its head, fell raggedly into line. (Most historians cite other factors as the key to the NIRA’s passage. See Barbara Alexander’s article on the NIRA in this encyclopedia.) When specific industry codes were drawn up by the NIRA-created National Recovery Administration (NRA), shorter hours were deemphasized. Despite a plan by NRA Administrator Hugh Johnson to make blanket provisions for a thirty-five hour workweek in all industry codes, by late August 1933, the momentum toward the thirty-hour week had dissipated. About half of employees covered by NRA codes had their hours set at forty per week and nearly 40 percent had workweeks longer than forty hours.

The FSLA: Federal Overtime Law

Hunnicutt argues that the entire New Deal can be seen as an attempt to keep shorter-hours advocates at bay. After the Supreme Court struck down the NRA, Roosevelt responded to continued demands for thirty hours with the Works Progress Administration, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and, finally, the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which set a federal minimum wage and decreed that overtime beyond forty hours per week would be paid at one-and-a-half times the base rate in covered industries.

The Demise of the Shorter Hours’ Movement

As the Great Depression ended, average weekly work hours slowly climbed from their low reached in 1934. During World War II hours reached a level almost as high as at the end of World War I. With the postwar return of weekly work hours to the forty-hour level the shorter hours movement effectively ended. Occasionally organized labor’s leaders announced that they would renew the push for shorter hours, but they found that most workers didn’t desire a shorter workweek.

The Case of Kellogg’s

Offsetting isolated examples of hours reductions after World War II, there were noteworthy cases of backsliding. Hunnicutt (1996) has studied the case of Kellogg’s in great detail. In 1946, 87% of women and 71% of men working at Kellogg’s voted to return to the six-hour day, with the end of the war. Over the course of the next decade, however, the tide turned. By 1957 most departments had opted to switch to 8-hour shifts, so that only about one-quarter of the work force, mostly women, retained a six-hour shift. Finally, in 1985, the last department voted to adopt an 8-hour workday. Workers, especially male workers, began to favor additional money more than the extra two hours per day of free time. In interviews they explained that they needed the extra money to buy a wide range of consumer items and to keep up with the neighbors. Several men told about the friction that resulted when 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.” 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.

The Current Situation

As the twentieth century ended there was nothing resembling a shorter hours “movement.” The length of the workweek continues to fall for most groups — but at a glacial pace. Some Americans complain about a lack of free time but the vast majority seem content with an average workweek of roughly forty hours — channeling almost all of their growing wages into higher incomes rather than increased leisure time.

Causes of the Decline in the Length of the Workweek

Supply, Demand and Hours of Work

The length of the workweek, like other labor market outcomes, is determined by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor. Employers are torn by conflicting pressures. Holding everything else constant, they would like employees to work long hours because this means that they can utilize their equipment more fully and offset any fixed costs from hiring each worker (such as the cost of health insurance — common today, but not a consideration a century ago). On the other hand, longer hours can bring reduced productivity due to worker fatigue and can bring worker demands for higher hourly wages to compensate for putting in long hours. If they set the workweek too high, workers may quit and few workers will be willing to work for them at a competitive wage rate. Thus, workers implicitly choose among a variety of jobs — some offering shorter hours and lower earnings, others offering longer hours and higher earnings.

Economic Growth and the Long-Term Reduction of Work Hours

Historically employers and employees often agreed on very long workweeks because the economy was not very productive (by today’s standards) and people had to work long hours to earn enough money to feed, clothe and house their families. The long-term decline in the length of the workweek, in this view, has primarily been due to increased economic productivity, which has yielded higher wages for workers. Workers responded to this rise in potential income by “buying” more leisure time, as well as by buying more goods and services. In a recent survey, a sizeable majority of economic historians agreed with this view. Over eighty percent accepted the proposition that “the reduction in the length of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was primarily due to economic growth and the increased wages it brought” (Whaples, 1995). Other broad forces probably played only a secondary role. For example, roughly two-thirds of economic historians surveyed rejected the proposition that the efforts of labor unions were the primary cause of the drop in work hours before the Great Depression.

Winning the Eight-Hour Day in the Era of World War I

The swift reduction of the workweek in the period around World War I has been extensively analyzed by Whaples (1990b). His findings support the consensus that economic growth was the key to reduced work hours. Whaples links factors such as wages, labor legislation, union power, ethnicity, city size, leisure opportunities, age structure, wealth and homeownership, health, education, alternative employment opportunities, industrial concentration, seasonality of employment, and technological considerations to changes in the average workweek in 274 cities and 118 industries. He finds that the rapid economic expansion of the World War I period, which pushed up real wages by more than 18 percent between 1914 and 1919, explains about half of the drop in the length of the workweek. The reduction of immigration during the war was important, as it deprived employers of a group of workers who were willing to put in long hours, explaining about one-fifth of the hours decline. The rapid electrification of manufacturing seems also to have played an important role in reducing the workweek. Increased unionization explains about one-seventh of the reduction, and federal and state legislation and policies that mandated reduced workweeks also had a noticeable role.

Cross-sectional Patterns from 1919

In 1919 the average workweek varied tremendously, emphasizing the point that not all workers desired the same workweek. The workweek exceeded 69 hours in the iron blast furnace, cottonseed oil, and sugar beet industries, but fell below 45 hours in industries such as hats and caps, fur goods, and women’s clothing. Cities’ averages also differed dramatically. In a few Midwestern steel mill towns average workweeks exceeded 60 hours. In a wide range of low-wage Southern cities they reached the high 50s, but in high-wage Western ports, like Seattle, the workweek fell below 45 hours.

Whaples (1990a) finds that among the most important city-level determinants of the workweek during this period were the availability of a pool of agricultural workers, the capital-labor ratio, horsepower per worker, and the amount of employment in large establishments. Hours rose as each of these increased. Eastern European immigrants worked significantly longer than others, as did people in industries whose output varied considerably from season to season. High unionization and strike levels reduced hours to a small degree. The average female employee worked about six and a half fewer hours per week in 1919 than did the average male employee. In city-level comparisons, state maximum hours laws appear to have had little affect on average work hours, once the influences of other factors have been taken into account. One possibility is that these laws were passed only after economic forces lowered the length of the workweek. Overall, in cities where wages were one percent higher, hours were about -0.13 to -0.05 percent lower. Again, this suggests that during the era of declining hours, workers were willing to use higher wages to “buy” shorter hours.

Annotated Bibliography

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the shorter hours movement in the U.S. is David Roediger and Philip Foner’s Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989). It contends that “the length of the working day has been the central issue for the American labor movement during its most vigorous periods of activity, uniting workers along lines of craft, gender, and ethnicity.” Critics argue that its central premise is flawed because workers have often been divided about the optimal length of the workweek. It explains the point of view of organized labor and recounts numerous historically important events and arguments, but does not attempt to examine in detail the broader economic forces that determined the length of the workweek. An earlier useful comprehensive work is Marion Cahill’s Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War (1932).

Benjamin Hunnicutt’s Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (1988) focuses on the period from 1920 to 1940 and traces the political, intellectual, and social “dialogues” that changed the American concept of progress from dreams of more leisure to an “obsession” with the importance of work and wage-earning. This work’s detailed analysis and insights are valuable, but it draws many of its inferences from what intellectuals said about shorter hours, rather than spending time on the actual decision makers — workers and employers. Hunnicutt’s Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day (1996), is important because it does exactly this — interviewing employees and examining the motives and decisions of a prominent employer. Unfortunately, it shows that one must carefully interpret what workers say on the subject, as they are prone to reinterpret their own pasts so that their choices can be more readily rationalized. (See EH.NET’s review: http://eh.net/book_reviews/kelloggs-six-hour-day/.)

Economists have given surprisingly little attention to the determinants of the workweek. The most comprehensive treatment is Robert Whaples’ “The Shortening of the American Work Week” (1990), which surveys estimates of the length of the workweek, the shorter hours movement, and economic theories about the length of the workweek. Its core is an extensive statistical examination of the determinants of the workweek in the period around World War I.

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Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Hours of Work in U.S. History”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/hours-of-work-in-u-s-history/