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Published by EH.Net (January 2024).

David Henkin. The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. xxi + 264 pp. $22.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0300271157.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Benjamin Schneider, Oslo Metropolitan University.

 

When economic historians analyze time, our primary interest is in the shifting distribution of days and hours between work and leisure. David Henkin’s The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are considers time from a different vantage point in social history. Unlike years, months, and days, which have an astronomical origin (even if significantly altered in the second case), the week has no scientific basis. Henkin describes how the seven-day cycle is nonetheless an important organizing device for cultural, social, and economic life. Through patterned weeks, people come to associate specific weekdays with particular activities, and weeks shape our understanding of the passage of time. The book argues that the early United States was an unusually week-based culture at the beginning of the 19th century, and that structuring life around a weekly schedule became even more deeply entrenched across the 1800s.

The week could be described as a persistent social institution. Henkin briefly surveys week forms used in various societies including the Roman Empire, the Ashanti Empire, and the premodern Muslim world. Encounters across timekeeping regimes could cause confusion: the European explorers and colonizers of North America were bemused that the First Nations of the continent had no weeks. By contrast, Henkin’s subjects in the early American republic were the descendants of European cultures that had a long history of seven-day weeks mixed with a plethora of saints’ days.

The colonists left nearly all of those holy days in the Old World, and there were only a handful of annual holidays such as Christmas and July 4th. In place of the year-based feasting and fasting calendar of Europe, Americans organized themselves around weeks, especially Sabbatarian or dominical weeks. The regularity of weekly activities was complemented by beliefs about the best days for activities such as washing, marrying, and giving birth. Weeks were also important, particularly for the Puritans, as a device for tracking one’s activities and for personal “stock-taking,” including reflections about whether believers had made good use of their divinely granted mortal time.

In the 19th century, shifts in social, economic, and cultural life led Americans to forge stronger associations between specific weekdays and activities. This, Henkin argues, made the week an important organizing tool and a more salient temporal yardstick. He claims that the main forces that increased the importance of weekly schedules included industrialization with weekly-waged labor (about which more below), middle-class housekeeping practices, and, most significantly, mass schooling. Urbanization, which increased contact with previously unfamiliar people, and the growth of civil society or voluntary organizations also encouraged Americans to use weeks for arranging meetings, especially recurring appointments. Finally, the assigned day of delivery for periodical literature increased the “weekly” feeling of the growing population of American readers, who came to associate days of the week with receipt of their favorite magazines or newspapers. He argues that as the week became more salient, Americans deepened their belief that all Mondays, for example, had some intrinsic qualities. Henkin also explores the amusing phenomenon of Americans losing track of their days through erroneous diary entries.

The hebdomadal (seven-day) cycle, for Henkin, has been surprisingly enduring despite changes in technology, law, and politics. It has resisted attempts at regularization by late 19th and early 20th century calendar reformers, who generally sought to establish a system with 13 months containing four weeks and balance the 365- or 366-day year with a few extra weekly days tacked on to the end. These proposals reached the League of Nations in 1931 and were adopted for accounting purposes by major US corporations including Kodak (until the 1980s) and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. A combination of religious resistance and broader skepticism of days that sat outside of the seven-day cycle blocked the proposed calendrical revolution, and momentum for change ebbed after the Second World War. In the late 20th century some appointed activities, including Monday washing, became less salient, although the rise of television schedules perhaps replaced the “Monday blues” of laundry in American homes with the “Monday Night Football” voices of Hank Williams, Jr. and Al Michaels.

Readers looking for quantitative support for the book’s claims will occasionally be disappointed. When Henkin does provide some measurement, such as counting the prevalence of antebellum American weddings by day in four counties (finding that Thursday was the most popular for nuptials), there is little explanation of why those counties were chosen and whether they were representative. An assertion that textile operatives worked more overtime later in the week and especially on Saturday is justified with reference to “labor records” at a single establishment (Lyman Mills, in Rhode Island) in the 1850s.

This reviewer was particularly interested in Henkin’s treatment of industrialization and work schedules. Economic historians are likely to raise at least one eyebrow at the discussion of the US industrial revolution (particularly a claim that “automated assembly lines” arrived in the late 19th century, p. 68). More notable for the book’s contribution to economic and social history is the assertion that there was a “general trend towards weekly pay” (p. 74) during the antebellum period. For this sweeping claim Henkin cites two sources. The first is a single page of a bookkeeping manual from 1847 (Crittenden & Crittenden, An inductive and practical system of double-entry bookkeeping) that provides a short template of a “time book” structured by the week. The table is accompanied by a note that firms employing workers by the month could use a table with 26 columns. Many midcentury wage accounts, including most railroad payrolls, used monthly accounting periods (which may have corresponded to monthly disbursement of wages). The second source is Virginia Penny’s Think and Act (1869), which quotes rates of wages (primarily, but not exclusively) on a weekly basis. While plausible, Henkin’s assertion of a definite shift to weekly payment merits additional analysis.

Henkin also contends that weekly-waged workers spent a disproportionate share of their earnings quickly, and that “the week followed a pattern of spectacular beginnings and progressive declines” (p. 75). The source cited for this claim (Madelon Powers’ 1998 book Faces along the Bar) does not examine the distribution of spending across the week or cyclical penury on Thursdays and Fridays. As with the timing of wage payments, this interesting and significant claim would be more convincing if supported by the wealth of available quantitative and descriptive evidence.

The book’s account of regularized household work on a weekly schedule is more persuasive. Henkin shows that Monday became associated with washing (as noted above), and perhaps more importantly, Wednesday and Saturday with baking pies. There is regrettably little discussion of differences in weekly regimes between women working to maintain their own households and the activities of paid domestic servants. Another area that receives less consideration than readers might expect is religious observance, both in Henkin’s discussion of the early 19th century and his exposition of trends that entrenched “weekliness”.

Henkin concludes by surveying present-day discussions about whether digitization is eroding the week, and he argues that losing the week entirely would lead to “alienation and dislocation” (p. 187). Through a wide survey of qualitative evidence, The Week persuasively demonstrates the importance of hebdomadal cycles in social and cultural life. For economic historians the book proposes several interesting hypotheses about the dates and periodicity of income and consumption, and the social salience of weekdays, that may merit further detailed investigation.

 

Benjamin Schneider is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University and leader of the Work and Wellbeing in History project at the Norwegian Center for Advanced Study. His research analyzes work and job quality in the past, focusing on the impacts of technology.

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