Philobiblon: The working week

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The working week

There is a general idea that in the past people were forced to work vast numbers of hours a week, either in paid employment or in subsistence agriculture, but like many bits of "common knowledge" it seems to be largely a myth.

In subsistence and near subsistence farming cultures today seasonal unemployment is the norm - which makes sense when you think that while in low-tech agriculture a lot of labour is needed for field preparation, (often) planting, and harvest, not a lot usually needs to be done in between times.

But even wage employment was not so full on as we tend to think. eg. tin miners took an afternoon nap during their shift, while a treatise of 1778 noted that: "When a pair of men went underground formerly, they made it a rule to sleep out a candle, before they set about their work .... then rise up and work briskly; after that, have a touch pipe, that is rest themselves half an hour to smoke a pipe of tobacco, and so play and sleep away half their time...

Similar practices were described in many other trades and occupations. Most symbolical of customary irregular working was the observance of 'Saint Monday' - that is, keeping Monday as a holiday and hardly beginning the week's work until Tuesday. .... It has been suggested that among urban workers, Saint Monday was so generally observed by the later 18th century that a regular 'week' of which Tuesday was the first full working day was already in existence."

(J. Rule, "Against Innovation? Custom and Resistance in the Workplace 1700-1850", in T. Harris (ed) Popular Culture in England 1500-1850, Macmillan, 1995, pp. 180-181.)

I wonder if in the high working hours cultures of the UK and US, people are not working more on a regular basis than ever before.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure. The high point of long working hours seems to be in the 19th century following the imposition of factory work discipline and before the introduction of any regulation of working hours (I forget the date of the first legislation - when it was a major achievement to introduce a 10-hour day...). It's unbelievable when you read how long factory hours were (I think we're talking standard 12 hour days with (?almost) no breaks, except for half days on Saturdays); and office, and shop, working hours also seem to have been very long indeed. It'd be interesting to know if anyone has attempted to quantify the really long-term patterns (I know of a study for London 1700-1850 by someone called Voth, very interesting use of sources).

I've pointed you at this book before, but there's also
an essay on the topic in EP Thompson's book Customs in common, and Keith Thomas has written an article on Work and leisure in pre-industrial England, possibly in Past & Present but I don't have the full reference at hand right now. (It should come up on Google somewhere if you're interested in it.)


12/10/2004 10:47:00 am  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

I don't know. I imagine there was downtime while machinery was re-set or repaired or while fresh materials were brought in (and so on) but you still had to be there for long hours. I remember bentwood chairs in drapers' shops with a standard notice that they were provided in proportion tothe number of staff and that the staff were permitted to use them "as long as the use thereof does not interfere with their work". Presumably the assistant sprang off when milady came through the door. Now there are neither seats nor assistants.

12/10/2004 06:28:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I undoubtedly should have been clearer in my terms here; I was thinking medieval, early modern and even ancient times here. You do read in Victorian times of the most horrendous hours, even for children, but you do have to wonder if it would have been possible to work continously for that long - as you say, there must have been a lot of downtime for machinery etc.

12/12/2004 01:15:00 pm  
Blogger theorajones said...

I have a vague memory of reading (sorry for not remembering where) that copious amounts of drinking characterized most working days until Prohibition became a potent (heh) social trend in the late 1800's. In the US during the Revolutionary War era, workers negotiated part of their pay in grog.

Even after prohibition, drinks at lunch were acceptable in most business circles through the 1950's and into the 60's, right? That's practically unheard of at this point.

Not to obsess on booze, but all the drinking is probably another thing supporting your argument working less hard than they are today.

12/17/2004 10:03:00 pm  

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