And it was good.
For much of the history of America, the work week was six days, and Sunday was reserved for religious observances, typically spent in restrained solemnity, singing hymns and reading scripture. That left exactly zero days for doing anything fun—or even just laying around. The work day was also long. Most people worked in agricultural pursuits, woke before dawn, and worked until dark.
The Industrial Revolution made the 12-hour work day, six days a week a common standard. And working-class children typically began factory work at 7 years old, with no provision made for their education. An entire class of people were kept illiterate, nearly penniless, unsurprisingly blotting out their dreary lives with alcohol, and then were sneered at by the middle and upper classes as “animals.”
Seeing that little help could be expected from others, some laborers started to join together in an attempt to negotiate better working conditions. These men and women began demanding something hitherto unheard of: Time for doing “what we will.” The idea that working people had a “right” to some time of their own was a profoundly liberal idea.
Factory owners, who had every interest in maintaining the status quo, struck back brutally, rightly seeing that employees joining together might be able to one day challenge their unquestioned authority. For example, in 1886 in Wisconsin, seven members of the nascent union movement died fighting for a shorter work week.
Changes were slow in coming, but the labor movement grew steadily, supported by American liberals among the middle and upper classes. With persistent effort, working people forced changes to occur. During the 1920s , working a half day on Saturday became acceptable, and eventually, it became the standard practice.
A key figure in creating the full 2-day weekend is someone quite surprising: Henry Ford, not a person usually associated with worker’s rights. In 1926, he began the practice of shutting down his factories for the entirety of Saturday and Sunday. Soon after, in 1929, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America became the very first union to successfully demand a 5-day work week.
Over the next decade, the 5-day work week gradually became the standard. And as the church lost its iron grip on American culture, those who chose to could spend two glorious days in succession enjoying something new for most people in the world: recreation and leisure.
So when Friday’s here, and you’re looking forward to your two days of hard-earned rest, and you feel like thanking the entity that brought the weekend into being, pour out a few drops of your finest beer for the spirits of all those laborers and liberal-minded people who came before, and left this world a better place for you and me.