Waiting for the Weekend

A whole two days off from work, in which we can do what we please, has only recently become a near-universal right. What we choose to do looks increasingly like work, and idleness has acquired a bad name. Herein, a history of leisure.

Wally McNamee / Getty

The word "weekend" started life as "week-end" but lost its hyphen somewhere along the way, ceasing to be merely the end of the week and acquiring, instead, an autonomous and sovereign existence. "Have a good weekend," we say to one another—never "Have a good week." Where once the week consisted of weekdays and Sunday, it now consists of weekdays and weekend. Ask most people to name the first day of the week and they will answer, Monday, of course; fifty years ago the answer would have been Sunday. Wall calendars still show Sunday as the first day of the week, and children are taught the days of the week starting with Sunday, but how long will these conventions last? Sunday, once the day of rest, has become merely one of two days of what is often strenuous activity. Although we continue to celebrate the traditional religious and civic holidays—holy days—these now account for only a small portion of our total nonworking days, and are overshadowed by the 104 days of secular weekends.

For most of us life assumes a different rhythm on the weekend; we sleep in, cut the grass, wash the car. We also go to the movies, especially during hot weather. We travel. And of course we exercise and play games. Some of these pastimes, like tennis, have an old history and a newfound popularity; others, like whitewater canoeing, windsurfing, and hang-gliding, are more recent. Most are distinguished from nineteenth-century recreations such as croquet and golf by their relative arduousness and even riskiness.

Although the weekend is a time for sports, for shopping, and for household chores, it is foremost a manifestation of the structure of our leisure. The chief Oxford English Dictionary definition of leisure is "time which one can spend as one pleases." That is, "free" time. But in one of his popular columns in The Illustrated London News—a Saturday paper—G. K. Chesterton pointed out that leisure should not be confused with liberty. Contrary to most people's expectations, the presence of the first by no means assures the availability of the second. This confusion arose, according to Chesterton, because the term "leisure" is used to describe three different things: "The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third (and perhaps most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing." The first, he acknowledged, was the most common form of leisure, and the one that of late—he was writing in the early 1890s—had shown the greatest quantitative increase. The second—the liberty to fashion what one willed out of one's leisure time—was more unusual and tended to be the province of artists and other creative individuals. It was the third, however, that was obviously his favorite, because it allowed idleness—in Chesterton's view, the truest form of leisure.

Perhaps only someone as portly as Chesterton (Maisie Ward, his biographer, estimated that he weighed almost 300 pounds) could rhapsodize over idleness. More likely, inactivity attracted him because he was the least lazy of men; his bibliography lists more than a hundred published books—biographies, novels, essays, poetry, and short stories. He was also a magazine editor and a lecturer and broadcaster. Although he managed to cram all this into a relatively short life (he died at sixty-two), it was, as his physique would suggest, a life replete with material enjoyments, and surprisingly unhurried. Not a life of leisure, perhaps, but one carried out at a leisurely pace.

Chesterton's observation that modern society provided many opportunities for leisure but made it "more and more easy to get some things and impossible to get others" continues to be true. Should you want to play tennis or golf, for example, courts and courses abound. Fancy a video? There are plenty of specialty stores, lending libraries, and mail-order clubs. Lepidopterists, however, will have a difficult time finding unfenced countryside in which to practice their avocation. If your pastime is laying bricks and you do not have a rural estate, as Winston Churchill had, you will not find a bricklaying franchise at your neighborhood mall. Better take up golf instead.

Chesterton argued that a man compelled by lack of choice—or by social pressure—to play golf when he would rather be attending to some solitary hobby was not so different from the slave who might have several hours of leisure while his overseer slept but had to be ready to work at a moment's notice. Neither could be said to be the master of his leisure. Both had free time but not freedom. To press this parallel further, have we become enslaved by the weekend?

At first glance it is an odd question, for surely it is our work that enslaves us, not our free time. We call people who become obsessed by their jobs workaholics, but we don't have a word for someone who is possessed by recreation. Maybe we should. I have many acquaintances for whom weekend activities seem more important than workaday existence, and who behave as if the week were merely an irritating interference in their real, extracurricular lives. I sometimes have the impression that to really know these weekend sailors, mountain climbers, and horsewomen, I would have to accompany them on their outings and excursions—see them in their natural habitat, so to speak. But would I see a different person, or merely the same one governed by different conventions of comportment, behavior, accoutrement, and dress?

I'm always charmed by old photographs of skiers which show groups of people in what appear to be street clothes, with uncomplicated pieces of bent wood strapped to sturdy walking boots. These men and women have a playful and unaffected air. Today every novice is caparisoned in skin-tight spandex, like an Olympic racer, and even cross-country skiing, a simple enough pastime, has been infected by a preoccupation with correct dress, authentic terminology, and up-to-date equipment. This reflects an attitude toward play which is different from what it was in the past. Most outdoor sports, once simply muddled through, are now undertaken with a high degree of seriousness. "Professional" used to be a word that distinguished someone who was paid for an activity from the sportsman; today the word has come to denote anyone with a high degree of proficiency; "professional-quality" equipment is available to—and desired by—all. Conversely, "amateur," a wonderful word literally meaning "lover," has been degraded to mean a rank beginner or anyone without a certain level of skill. "Just an amateur," we say; it is not, as it once was, a compliment.

The lack of carelessness in our recreation, the sense of obligation to get things right, and the emphasis on protocol and decorum do represent an enslavement of a kind. People used to "play" tennis; now they "work" on their backhand. It is not hard to imagine what Chesterton would have thought of such dedication; this is just the sort of laborious pursuit of play that he so often derided. "If a thing is worth doing," he once wrote, it is worth doing badly."

Chesterton held the traditional view that leisure was different from the type of recreation typically afforded by the modern weekend. His own leisure pastimes included an eclectic mix of the unfashionable and the bohemian—sketching, collecting weapons, and playing with the cardboard cutouts of his toy theater. Leisure was the opportunity for personal, even idiosyncratic, pursuits, not for ordered recreation; it was for private reverie rather than for public spectacles. If a sport was undertaken, it was for the love of playing—not of winning, nor even of playing well. Above all, free time was to remain that: free of the encumbrance of convention, free of the need for busyness, free for the "noble habit of doing nothing at all." That hardly describes the modern weekend.

Work Versus Leisure

What is the meaning of the weekday-weekend cycle? Is it yet another symptom of the standardization and bureaucratization of everyday life that social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have warned about? Is the weekend merely the cunning marketing ploy of the materialist culture, a device to increase consumption? Is it a deceptive placebo to counteract the boredom and meaninglessness of the workplace?

Or is this the heralded Leisure Society? If so, it is hardly what was anticipated. The decades leading up to the 1930s saw a continuing reduction in the number of hours in the workweek, from just under sixty to just under fifty, and during the Great Depression even below thirty-five. There was every reason to think that this trend would continue and workdays would grow shorter and shorter. This, and widespread automation, would eventually lead to universal leisure. Not everyone agreed that this would be a good thing; there was much speculation about what people would do with their newfound freedom, and some psychologists worried that universal leisure would really mean universal boredom. Hardly, argued the optimists; it would provide the opportunity for self-improvement, adult education, and a blossoming of the creative arts. Others were less sanguine about the prospects for creative ease in a society that had effectively glorified labor.

Universal leisure did not come to pass, or at least it did not arrive in the expected form. For one thing, the workday appears to have stabilized at about eight hours. Automation has reduced jobs in certain industries, as was predicted, but overall employment has increased, not decreased, although not necessarily in high-paying jobs. Women have entered the work force, with the result that more, not fewer, people are working; since housework still needs to be done, it can be argued that in many families there is really less leisure than before. On the other hand, the development of the weekend has caused a redistribution of leisure time, which for many people has effectively shortened the length of the workweek. This redistribution, coupled with more disposable income, has made it possible to undertake recreation in a variety of unexpected ways—some creative, some not—and do so throughout the year instead of at annual intervals.

All these developments have called into question the traditional relationship between leisure and work, a relationship about which our culture has always been ambivalent. Generally speaking, there are two opposing schools of thought. On the one hand is the ideal—held by thinkers as disparate as Karl Marx and the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper—of a society increasingly emancipated from labor. This notion echoes the Aristotelian view that the goal of life is happiness, and that leisure, as distinguished from amusement and recreation, is the state necessary for its achievement. "It is commonly believed that happiness depends on leisure," Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, "because we occupy ourselves so that we may have leisure, just as we make war in order that we may live at peace." Or, to put it more succinctly, as did the title of Loverboy's 1981 hit song, we are "Working for the Weekend."

Opposed to this is the more modern (so-called Protestant) work ethic that values labor for its own sake, and sees its reduction—or, worse, its elimination—as an unthinkable degradation of human life. "There is no substitute for work except other serious work," wrote Lewis Mumford, who considered that meaningful work was the highest form of human activity. According to this view, work should be its own reward, whether it is factory work, housework, or a workout. Leisure, equated with idleness, is suspect; leisure without toil, or disconnected from it, is altogether sinister. The weekend is not free time but break time—an intermission.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I want first to examine something that will shed light on the relation between work and leisure: how we came to adopt a rigorous division of our everyday lives into five days of work and two of play, and how the weekend became the chief temporal institution of the modern age. And how, in turn, this universally accepted structure has affected the course and nature of our leisure—whether it involves playing golf, laying bricks, or just daydreaming.

The Invention of the Week

Our chief occasion for leisure—the weekend—is the direct product of the mechanical practice of measuring time. Counting days in chunks of seven now comes so naturally that it's easy to forget that this is an unusual way to mark the passage of time. Day spans the interval between the rising and the setting of the sun; the twenty-four-hour day is the duration between one dawn and the next. The month measures—or once did—the time required for the moon to wax, become full, and wane; and the year counts one full cycle of the seasons. What does the week measure? Nothing. At least, nothing visible. No natural phenomenon occurs every seven days—nothing happens to the sun, the moon, or the stars. The week is an artificial, man-made interval.

Generally speaking, our timekeeping is flexible, full of inconsistencies. The length of the day varies with the season; the duration of the month is irregular. Adjustments need to be made: every four years we add a day to February; every 400 years we add a day to the centurial year. The week, however, is exactly seven days long, now and forever. We say that there are fifty-two weeks in a year, but that is an approximation, since the week is not a subdivision of either the month or the year. The week mocks the calendar and marches relentlessly and unbroken across time, paying no attention to the seasons. The British scholar F H. Colson, who in 1926 wrote a fascinating monograph on the subject, described the week as an "intruder." It is an intruder that arrived relatively late. The week emerged as the final feature of what became the Western calendar sometime in the second or third century A.D., in ancient Rome. But it can be glimpsed in different guises—not always seven days long, and not always continuous—in many earlier civilizations.

Seven appeared as a magical number among the Babylonians, as early as the third millennium B.C., and played an important role in their calendar. There were seven heavenly bodies with apparent motion in the sky: the "erring" seven, the seven "wanderers" —that is, the seven planets of antiquity (including the sun and the moon). Whether they suggested the belief in the magic number or merely reinforced it is not clear. In any case, as astronomy—and astrology—spread from Babylonia to Greece, Egypt, and Rome, the seven heavenly bodies became identified with the great gods of the pantheon.

At the time that the planetary week became popular in Rome, there was already a seven-day week in place: the Judaic Sabbath observance. It is possible—although the idea is disputed by many scholars—that the Jews adopted this method of timekeeping during their exile in Babylonia in the sixth century B.C., and converted the septenary fascination into their Sabbath. The adoption of a continuous seven-day period independent of the lunar cycle was unusual, and exactly why the Jews evolved this mechanism is unclear. According to the Old Testament, the Sabbath was "their" day given to them—and them alone—by Jehovah. Unquestionably, its very singularity appealed to the exiled Jews as a way of differentiating themselves from the alien Babylonian Gentiles who surrounded them. In any case, that the Sabbath occurred on every seventh day, irrespective of the seasons, was a powerful idea, for it overrode all other existing calendars.

The origin of the planetary week is obscure as regards place and time. Dion Cassius, a Roman historian who lived in the third century, A.D., thought that the planetary week was conceived in Egypt, but modern scholars dispute this claim; more likely it was a Hellenistic practice that migrated to Rome. He also maintained that the planetary week was a relatively recent invention. There is some evidence, however, of a planetary week during the Augustan period, 200 years before, and it may have originated even earlier. What is certain is that by Dion's era the habit of measuring time in cycles of seven days was already established in private life throughout the Roman Empire.

The week was many things to many people, sometimes many things to the same people. It was magical and practical both. A superstition at first, it survived as a social convention, much as shaking hands with the right hand has endured because there is a need for a gesture to represent friendly feelings to a stranger. The week was a short unit of time around which people could organize their lives, their work, and their leisure. At the same time, the week was a simple and memorable device for relating everyday activities to supernatural concerns, whether these involved observing a commandment from Jehovah, commemorating Christ's resurrection, receiving the influence of a planetary deity, or, just to be safe, all three.

The roots of the week lie deep, too deep to understand fully. An air of mystery surrounds the week; perhaps that, too, is a part of its appeal. It is an observance that has been distilled over centuries of use, molded through common belief and ordinary usage. Above all, it is a popular practice that took hold without magisterial sanction. This, more than anything else, explains its durability. Less an intruder than an unofficial guest, the week was invited in through the kitchen door, and has become a friend of the family—a useful friend, for whatever else it did, the seven-day cycle provided a convenient structure for the repetitive rhythm of daily activities. It included not only a day for worship but also a day for baking bread, for washing, for cleaning house, for going to market—and for resting. Surely this over-and-over quality has always been one of the attractions of the week—and of the weekend. "Once a week" is one of the commonest measures of time. The planetary week is not a grand chronometer of celestial movements or a gauge of seasonal changes. It is something both simpler and more profound: a measure of ordinary, everyday life.

From Day Off to Days Off

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest recorded use of the word "weekend" in an 1879 issue of Notes and Queries, an English magazine. "In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week's work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance," the magazine citation goes, "he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so." This is obviously a definition, which suggests that the word had only recently come into use. It is also important to note that the "week's work" is described as ending on the Saturday afternoon. It was precisely this early ending to the week that produced a holiday period of a day and a half—the first weekend. This innovation—and it was a uniquely British one—occurred in roughly the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

Throughout the eighteenth century the workweek ended on Saturday evening; Sunday was the weekly day off. The Reformation, and later Puritanism, had made Sunday the weekly holy day in an attempt to displace the saints' days and religious festivals of Catholicism (the Catholic Sunday was merely one holy day among many). Although the taboo on work was more or less respected, the strictures of Sabbatarianism that prohibited merriment and levity on the Lord's Day were rejected by most Englishmen, who saw the holiday as a chance to drink, gamble, and generally have a good time.

For most people Sunday was the only official weekly holiday, but this did not necessarily mean that the life of the average British worker was one of unremitting toil. Far from it. Work was always interrupted to commemorate the annual feasts of Christmas, New Year, and Whitsuntide (the week beginning with the seventh Sunday after Easter). These traditional holidays were universally observed, but the length of the breaks varied. Depending on local convention, work stopped for anywhere from a few days to two weeks. There were also communal holidays associated with special, occasional events such as prizefights, horse races, and other sporting competitions, and also fairs, circuses, and traveling menageries. When one of these attractions arrived in a village or town, regular work more or less stopped while people flocked to gape and marvel at the exotic animals, equestrian acrobats, and assorted human freaks and oddities.

The idea of spontaneously closing up shop or leaving the workbench for the pursuit of pleasure may strike the modern reader as irresponsible, but for the eighteenth-century worker the line between work and play was blurred. Many recreational activities were directly linked to the workplace, since trade guilds often organized their own outings and had their own singing and drinking clubs and their own preferred taverns.

Eighteenth-century workers had, as Hugh Cunningham puts it in Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, "a high preference for leisure, and for long periods of it." This preference was hardly something new. What was new was the ability, in prosperous Georgian England, of so many people to indulge it. For the first time in centuries many workers earned more than survival wages. Now they had choices: they could buy goods or leisure. They could work more and earn more, or they could forgo the extra wages and enjoy more free time instead. Most chose the latter course. This was especially true for the highly paid skilled workers, who had the greatest degree of economic freedom, but even general laborers, who were employed at day rates, had a choice in the matter. Many of these worked intensively, sometimes for much more than the customary ten hours a day, and then quit to enjoy themselves until their money ran out.

It was not unusual for sporting events, fairs, and other celebrations to last several days. Since Sunday was always an official holiday, usually the days following were added on. This produced a regular custom of staying away from work on Monday, frequently doing so also on Tuesday, and then working long hours at the end of the week to catch up. Among some trades the Monday holiday achieved what amounted to an official status. Weavers and miners, for example, regularly took a holiday on the Monday after payday—which occurred weekly, on Friday or Saturday. This practice became so common that it was called "keeping Saint Monday."

Saint Monday may have started as an individual preference for staying away from work—whether to relax, to recover from drunkenness, or both—but its popularity during the 1850s and 1860s was ensured by the enterprise of the leisure industry. During that period sporting events, such as horse races and cricket matches, often took place on Mondays, since their organizers knew that many working-class customers would be prepared to take the day off. And since many public events were prohibited on the Sabbath, Monday became the chief occasion for secular recreations. Attendance at botanical gardens and museums soared on Monday, which was also the day that ordinary people went to the theater and the dance hall, and the day that workingmen's social clubs held their weekly meetings.

The energy of entrepreneurs, assisted by advertising, was an important influence not only on the diffusion and persistence of Saint Monday but also on leisure in general. Hence a curious and apparently contradictory situation: not so much the commercialization of leisure as the discovery of leisure thanks to commerce. This distinction is worth bearing in mind when one considers the complaint commonly made today that contemporary leisure is being "tainted" or "corrupted" by commercialism. Beginning in the eighteenth century, with magazines, coffeehouses, and music rooms, and continuing throughout the nineteenth, with professional sports and holiday travel, the modern idea of personal leisure emerged at the same time as the business of leisure. The first could not have happened without the second.

Saint Monday had many critics. Religious groups campaigned against the tradition, which they saw as linked to the drinking and dissipation that, in their eyes, dishonored the Sabbath. They were joined by middle-class social reformers and by proponents of rational recreation, who also had an interest in altering Sunday behavior. By the end of the century many shops and factories had begun closing on Saturday afternoons, leaving a half-holiday for household chores and social activities—an evening at the dance hall or the pub—and permitting Sunday to be used exclusively for prayer and sober recreations.

It's unlikely that the Saturday half-holiday would have spread as rapidly as it did if it had not been for the support of the factory owners. Factory owners had little to gain from insisting on a six-day week of workdays of up to twelve hours if on some days so few workers showed up that the factory had to be shut down anyway. The proposal for a Saturday half-holiday offered a way out, and factory owners supported it in return for a commitment to regular attendance on the part of their employees. Half Saturdays and shorter workdays became the pattern followed by all later labor negotiations, and by legislation governing the length of the workday.

In the 1870s people began to speak of "week-ending" or "spending the week-end." The country houses of the wealthy were generally located in the Home Counties, in the vicinity of London, and were now easily reached by train. It became fashionable to go to the country on Friday afternoon and return to the city on Monday, and these house parties became an important feature of upper-class social life. Weekend outings, often to the seashore, were also available to the lower classes, although their weekend was usually shorter, extending from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening.

According to one contemporary observer, Thomas Wright, "That the Saturday half-holiday movement is one of the most practically beneficial that has ever been inaugurated with a view to the social improvement of 'the masses,' no one who is acquainted with its workings will for a moment doubt." He approvingly described a variety of activities in which working people indulged on the Saturday half-holiday. The afternoon began with a leisurely midday meal at home, which was often followed by a weekly bath in the neighborhood bathhouse—an important institution at a time when few homes had running water, and one that was common in British and North American cities until well into the twentieth century. The rest of the daytime hours might be spent reading the paper, working around the house, attending a club, or strolling around town window-shopping. Saturday afternoon became a customary time for park concerts, soccer games, rowing, and bicycling—and, of course, drinking in the local pub, for despite the hopes of the reformers and Evangelicals, drinking was still the chief leisure pastime of the working classes, whether the holiday occurred on Saturday or on Monday.

Wright emphasized that the afternoon was usually brought to a close in time for tea at five o'clock, to leave plenty of time for the chief entertainment of the week. Saturday night was the time for an outing to the theater; most people brought their own food and drink into the cheap seats in the gallery. The music hall, an important influence on the spread of Saturday night's popularity, began as an adjunct to taverns but emerged as an independent entity in the 1840s, and continued to be prominent in British entertainment for the next eighty years.

This was not the elite leisure of the aristocracy and landed gentry, for whom recreations such as shooting and fox hunting had become an all-consuming way of life. Nor was it the traditional mixture of leisure and work among ordinary people. No longer were work and play interchanged at will; no longer did they occur in the same milieu. There was now a special time for leisure, as well as a special place. Being neither play as work nor work as play, middle-class leisure, which eventually infiltrated and influenced all of society, involved something new: the strict demarcation of a temporal and a physical boundary between leisure and work. These boundaries—exemplified by the weekend—more than anything else characterize modern leisure.