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Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day

Author(s):Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline
Reviewer(s):Whaples, Robert

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

decreased dramatically

. 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

New Deal.

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

six-hour experiment.

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

unemployed and,

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.


June, 1990.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII