Where did the weekend come from?

Marketplace Staff Sep 4, 2009

Where did the weekend come from?

Marketplace Staff Sep 4, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: My life this weekend is going to revolve around schlepping four kids to and from soccer practice, the beach or whatever else they have going on. With an extra day of that thrown in for Labor Day.

I’ll spend a little time working on a project we’ve got lined up here for next week. But for most of us, Labor Day isn’t really about the labor part at all. It’s the ultimate weekend, the last long break before summer disappears.

A fitting time, we thought, for a brief history of the American weekend. Courtesy of Krissy Clark.

Krissy Clark: The really short and mostly right history of the weekend can be captured on a bumper sticker.

Ricardo Levins Morales: “The Labor Movement: The folks who brought you the weekend.”

Ricardo Levins Morales is an artist and labor activist in Minneapolis. And he in fact makes that bumper sticker. He designed it in the early 1980s, in an era when unions were losing favor. Since then, he’s sold tens of thousands. He says it’s funny to watch people in the rearview mirror squinting with puzzled looks at the stickers.

Morales: For people who are not steeped in labor history, it might take a few minutes to figure out what on earth are they talking about? You know the weekend has always been here, like the weather.

It is hard to imagine life without the weekend. But the word didn’t even exist until the 1870s, when Americans were deep into the Industrial Revolution.

Morales: Many working people were fresh off of the farms and they were used to regulating their own day and their own working rhythms. And here all of a sudden they were having to adapt themselves to whistles, to bells, to the clock.

Archival tape: The clock on the wall. So much can be done in a day if Americans will keep their sleeves rolled up.

Many workers — men, women and children — put in 10 to 16 hour days, seven days a week.

And you remember this part: Labor organizers called on the government to mandate shorter hours. Workers lost lives in the struggle. At Haymarket Square in Chicago, police gunned down protesters and men were hanged for inflammatory speeches. The men were demanding, as they put it, time for “what we will.”

Morales: The right to have time with our families, to pursue education…

…To go to the zoo, to go to church. Actually, getting Sunday off for worship was relatively easy. It was Saturday that was the tough part.

Michael Feldman: If the Jewish Sabbath had been on Wednesday, we would not have a weekend. We would have Wednesday and Sunday off.

And what kind of weekend is that?

Historian Michael Feldman says even as Americans agitated for more time off, two days off right next to each other was not a foregone conclusion. He says for that, we can thank the massive influx of Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. They made up a big part of the factory workforce and their holy day wasn’t Sunday.

Feldman: And Jews for the most part had to either voluntarily not conduct business on Saturday while the rest of the country did. Or abandon their religious principles to make a living, keep a job.

But Jewish and gentile factory workers aren’t the only ones who brought you the weekend. Some of the guys who owned the factories helped too.

Old car commercial: Travel this year the roads to romance, to places you’ve always wanted to go. And when you travel go in one of the quality motor cars…

Guys like Henry Ford hated labor unions, but he shared their hope in this strange new thing called a weekend. He gave his workers two days off way before he had to. He pretty much invented weekend road trips and promoted them in editorials. Christian Overland of the Henry Ford Museum puts it this way: Ford wanted to sell his Model T and if people were stuck in factories all week…

Christian Overland:Well, when are they going to use it?

Clark: Right, when the hell are they going to have the time?

Overland: If your work force is your consumer, you have to give people the time off to buy the things.

And take them out on weekend adventures, and drives in the country, and, later, trips to the mall. So, who invented the weekend? It was brought to you by the Labor Movement, but also management, Jews and gentiles, and you may as well throw in God, since he came up with the whole “day of rest thing” in the first place.

In Los Angeles, I’m Krissy Clark for Marketplace.

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