The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms that Made Us Who We Are 
by David M. Henkin.
Yale, 264 pp., £20, January, 978 0 300 25732 8
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In​ 1930, Edmund Wilson went on the road for the New Republic. He covered striking textile workers in Massachusetts, militant miners in West Virginia and suicides in industrial cities. His pieces concerned social conflict and ruined lives, but Wilson had a deep interest in the new industrial world that was still taking shape. His informants made clear to him that time itself took a new form in America’s satanic mills. The clock – and the machinery – ticked relentlessly. Taylorist managers and hard-pressed foremen insisted on quick, efficient work. At one factory in Detroit, a parts plant, a woman worker told him that the machines were so close together her ears rang, and she had to hum the Miserere to their rhythms to carry on. Even at a better plant, they ‘were working with small No. 4 presses and … were supposed to turn out 1624 pieces an hour’. Failing to meet the quota could mean lower pay. Workers ignored the safety devices, and suffered everything from itchy skin to lost fingers.

Wilson’s informant preferred this work, however risky, to her job at the telegraph office. There, she reported, ‘the machine that you punch out the messages on is sped up to sixty words a minute.’ As a result, the ‘telegraph girls are thin and nervous … They’re always breaking down.’ Rumour had it that 80-word-a-minute machines were already in use in Chicago, and on their way to Detroit. At the parts plant, by contrast, she had eased the oppressive routine of the working week by wearing a gingham dress, ‘And I could bully the foreman and everybody.’ Though she didn’t mention a Saint Monday, her week had a regular high point, one that Wilson did not overlook: ‘I enjoyed wearing a clean cap on Fridays – on Fridays we all wore a clean cap, and I used to get a kick out of it.’ In hard times as in boom periods, the weekend might permit the release of subversive energies, but the working week was harsh and inviolable. Even Wilson’s feisty subject timed her pleasures to its unalterable rhythm.

David Henkin sets out to discover how Americans became such creatures of the seven-day week. By the time the United States was founded as an independent republic, he writes, North Americans were already ‘by the contemporary standards of Europe … particularly apt to follow the seven-day cycle’. Henkin makes clear that there is no obvious reason for the existence of the week, much less for its omnipresence in modern societies. Americans used both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, the former until the mid-18th century and the latter afterwards. Both employ solar years that average 365 ¼ days (the Julian) or a little less (the Gregorian year), which can’t be divided evenly by seven. In both, the Sun yields to the Moon at the climax of the Christian year. Easter occurs on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. But the lunar month and year are no more divisible by seven than the solar year. The seven days of Creation, on the last of which God rested, were not a clear model for Christian calendars. Calvin denounced the idea that the seven-day week was divinely ordained as ‘crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition’. Why then do we use this odd system to cut the year into its smallest units? More important, why did we use it to divide our lived time into days of different kinds, until the decline of blue laws, the rise of the internet and the illimitable dominion of Covid overran these boundaries?

Henkin has a personal interest in his story. He comes from an Orthodox Jewish background. During his childhood, the week was marked by a distinctive pattern of schooldays, as well as observances that varied from day to day and expanded to fill the Sabbath. I once met him at a Friday evening dinner party far outside central Paris. At the end of the evening, Henkin set out on the long march back to the centre while I, a Reform Jew and lazy by temperament, headed for the Metro. But there’s much more to the story – that of the historian and that of the week – than Henkin’s background. He is an archaeologist of the networks of daily life, which, as he has shown again and again, are too often ignored by historians, though they can be very good to think with. His first book, City Reading (1998), traced the growth of an Anglophone reading culture in a polyglot, largely illiterate New York. How, he asked, did those who breasted the tides of con men and devious politicians that flooded 19th-century New York learn to read critically? How did they grasp that some sorts of public text – street signs, for example – had authority and deserved credence, while others did not? Henkin turned for his answer not to the private world of books but to the public world of the streets themselves: the thickly inscribed storefronts and brightly coloured posters, blaring headlines and shiny banknotes (40 per cent of them counterfeit) that confronted greenhorns and native sons and daughters alike. Over time, they learned to scan these and, for the most part, to distinguish believable messages from untrustworthy ones. Fake posters could still inspire them to riot, and fake bank notes could deprive them of their wages. The scrutiny of textual authorities and the practice of democracy remained highly imperfect. But both succeeded well enough to meet New Yorkers’ needs.

Henkin’s second book, The Postal Age (2006), asked how Americans kept in touch as they scattered into the expanding settlements of the West and the South and into the armies of the Civil War. It starts with the transformation of the mails, whose main purpose for decades had been to circulate print, into a system for transmitting letters. Stamp prices were lowered, post offices were built, mailboxes were attached to lamp posts and home delivery allowed young women to receive letters without visiting a space full of loungers who were up to no good. Systems didn’t always function smoothly, and dead letters piled up, providing journalists with homely material for columns. But the scale of the enterprise was immense, and most of the time it worked. Sixty thousand letters reached San Francisco in every ship that arrived during the Gold Rush. Directories listed names and addresses. The enormous country and its ever moving population became legible, in ways that would prove crucial when taxes had to be assessed and armies raised. Meanwhile American culture developed a rich epistolary strain, with distinct rules for the brief, matter-of-fact business letter that should not be written on a Sabbath and the long, personal letter that could. Letters could not, of course, keep all relationships intact across immense distances, but the post office and its ways shaped the deep structures of American culture.

As a subject, the week is neither as vivid as the Lower East Side in 1850 nor as tangible as the system of mailboxes, post offices and letter carriers, but Henkin argues that it became the pre-eminent map by which Americans gave shape and order to the flow of time. The roots of his story lie in the colonial past. Time was a source of conflict for the early inhabitants of the English colonies. James I, Charles I and Archbishop Laud held that the Sabbath should serve as a day for diversion as well as for worship. The Book of Sports, a set of regulations for Sundays and Holy Days issued by James in 1618, decreed that

after the end of divine service our good people be not disturbed, letted or discouraged from any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used: so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without impediment or neglect of divine service.

In 1628, colonists at Merrymount, not far from Plymouth Plantation, did exactly as James suggested. They set up an 80-foot maypole, topped by deer antlers. A lawyer called Thomas Morton became the local Lord of Misrule. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, viewed this revival of the ancient Bacchanalia with horror. Armed men arrested Morton, who was sent back to England, and the maypole was chopped down the following year.

It isn’t surprising that many New Englanders viewed such festivities with horror: some had left England to escape them. In Europe, learned Protestant divines, each of them more spectacularly bearded than the last, had waged what Philipp Nothaft has called a ‘war against Christmas’. The Massachusetts divine Samuel Sewall, now remembered for repenting the part he had played in the Salem witch trials, agreed with them and spent a good portion of his long life carrying on their campaign. On Christmas Day 1705, he noted with some satisfaction in his diary that despite the cold, ‘Sleds, Slays and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.’ But Thomas Morton wasn’t the only New England resident who disagreed about traditional festivals. A fair number – especially, but not only, officials appointed by the Crown – followed the customs of the Church of England. Two years earlier, Sewall had noted sarcastically that ‘the Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day. Govr and Mr Dudley at Church, and Mr Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.’ When he pronounced that ‘New England men came hither to avoid anniversary days,’ he was, as he knew, not speaking for everyone. Conflicts were inevitable, and so was confusion.

It is not easy to form a clear idea of the ways in which the American calendar functioned in the 17th and 18th centuries, at least on the frontiers. One chronicler mentioned by Henkin noted that the Odawa war chief Pontiac, who rebelled against the British in 1763, ‘knew neither feast nor Sunday and regarded all days as alike, not making profession of any religion’. Yet when he mustered his men on Thursday, 12 May, the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension, he sent a chief to urge the Hurons to join him ‘as soon as their missionaries had finished service’. Evidently Pontiac knew something of a religious nature was happening. Perhaps, as Henkin suggests, he deliberately chose to attack on a festive day.

Gradually certain features of the American experience of time became clear. Fourth of July and 22 February (Washington’s birthday) were made fixed festivals. But few other holidays entered the calendar to make up for the many red and black-letter days (major and minor feasts respectively) that had been stripped from the old year. The week, by contrast, dominated and ordered life. Calvin had rejected the idea that Christians were obliged to rest on the Sabbath. In New England, by contrast, ‘utopian Protestants’, as Henkin calls them, saw the proper observance of the Sabbath as a core part of their mission. Over time, as historians have repeatedly pointed out, opinions divided about many aspects of Sabbath observance – for example, whether it was licit to play baseball. The New England Sabbath developed a reputation for being particularly dire. My father and his friends, magazine writers and commercial artists who lived in the Connecticut suburbs, complained bitterly about narrow-minded New England traditions when they couldn’t buy liquor on Sundays. But Sabbath observance spread across the expanding country. In Quaker Philadelphia, which Benjamin Franklin had found much easier-going than Boston, chains were spread across the streets to prevent horse-drawn traffic, infuriating Frances Trollope. ‘Surely,’ she wrote, ‘the Jews could not exceed this country in their external observances.’ More surprising, many plantations followed a six-day work week – though forced labour on Sunday was common in the deep South, particularly around harvest time. It was not only European travellers who noticed that, as Trollope put it, ‘an American Sunday … is a day of penance indeed.’ The Cherokee nation, which accepted many forms of European life in its struggle for survival, adopted the seven-day week and penalised white men living in its territories who worked on Sundays.

The impetus for observing the weekdays could be as much moral as religious. Franklin’s paper-technology invention for self-improvement took the form of a table of thirteen virtues, from temperance to humility, and seven days, from Sunday to Saturday. He marked his failures to practise the virtues on the chart, day by day, and gave special attention to one virtue each week. Franklin claimed that he had originally listed only twelve virtues but added humility (‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates’) after a Quaker friend informed him that he seemed proud. Deliberately or inadvertently, this revision made Franklin’s system much neater. He could complete a full course of virtues in 13 weeks, and four of them in the 52 weeks of the year. In the end Franklin did not carry out his plan to make this table the scripture of a new religion, the ‘Society of the Free and Easy’. But he included it in his Autobiography, which, as Henkin points out, did much to inspire the great 19th-century American vogue for diary-keeping and self-improvement.

More than religion – or self-improvement – was at issue in the first half of the 19th century, when the week stamped its form on social life and culture. As Americans began the vast movement from scattered farms into cities, where immigrants joined them in workshops and factories, new patterns of conduct were rapidly established. By 1860, half of the workforce received their pay in cash. Though wages were paid on varied schedules, they were usually handed out on Saturdays. Saturday night became a special time. The Alfred Doolittles of the world could go on a spree and sleep it off in jail. Others could redeem their Sunday clothes from the pawnshop and make a respectable appearance in church. The commercial revolution enforced attention to the week.

As children entered the rapidly growing public schools, their lives were dominated not only by the distinction between week and weekend, but also by the detailed class schedules that governed their days. A rich prescriptive literature ordained that domestic labour, paid or unpaid, must also follow a weekly rhythm:

Monday comes, and with it brings,
What the damsels all will say,
As they tie their apron strings –
This is dreaded Washing Day.

Housekeeping, as Henkin notes, was not clocked, but it was calendared, and it’s clear that these rules were widely internalised. Women at many different social levels worked hard to make their lived weeks match the order and discipline of the prescriptive literature: ‘In the new regime of middle-class domesticity, the ancient technology of the week became a management tool of undisputed utility.’

Time was never uniform, of course, and rules never omnipresent. Meal schedules became as regular ‘as the laws of the Medes and the Persians’ only in total institutions, such as the fictional ‘boarding house, far, far away, where they give ham & eggs three times a day’, and the real schools and colleges that went in for plain living and high thinking. It took a long time for Friday to be marked as the day for the fish special, as Henkin’s magnificently detailed table of menu changes in Chicago illustrates. Though they long remained both working days and school days, Saturdays often offered a looser and more varied schedule than weekdays – and private schools had Wednesday half-days. The schedules by which late-19th-century city dwellers navigated their days were tightly and elaborately organised in ways that would have been unfamiliar to their predecessors living with the plain colonial week.

How,​ Henkin asks, did people know what day of the week it was? The question is deceptively simple, and probably for that reason, as he points out, has rarely been raised. But it matters. It is not hard to lose one’s orientation in the calendar, as travellers have regularly discovered. A single, small-scale paper technology, the pocket diary, trained people to keep track of the weekdays. In the course of the 19th century, these modest devices – some of them pre-printed with six days spaced out across a two-page spread, but most of them plain paper memorandum books customised by the owner – became ubiquitous in the United States. Americans grew accustomed to recording the days of their lives, and often did so on schedule, once a week. Henkin teases out the evidence that these practices had a widespread impact. The names of days appeared more frequently in journals than their calendar dates, and more accurately. Memories became fixed to weekdays: witnesses in court again and again proved more confident and precise when they used weekdays to mark their testimony than when they tried to give exact dates for their memories. A host of activities, from attending the meetings of societies, which Tocqueville and others had identified as characteristic of the new republic, to publishing and reading newspapers and magazines, came to be regulated by the week.

The week triumphant underwent a final evolution: it became the week examined. By the late 19th century, pioneers of the new human and social sciences, in Europe as well as in America, had begun to analyse the meanings of these temporal divisions. The pioneering New England psychologist G. Stanley Hall held that a day of rest was so essential that ‘modern hygiene’ would have invented it if religion had not done so first. The poet and Berkeley professor Edward Rowland Still devised an ingenious three-dimensional characterisation of the week, depicting it as sloping upwards from Sunday to Wednesday and downwards from Thursday morning to Saturday night. He also held that the division of time into periods of seven days reflected a universal human quality – the mind’s ability to grasp seven objects without dividing them into groups. Even more ingenious were the calendar reformers who, in the very years when the seven-day week gained global acceptance, rebelled against it. Many proposed new calendars, which often included complex devices designed to remedy the failure of the week to serve as a uniform division of the solar year. Experimental regimes of time were sometimes put into effect – a six-day week, for example, was briefly imposed in the Soviet Union. In America, these efforts were satirised even more energetically than they were debated. Gradually, they died down. In the 1950s television marked off the seven-day week more effectively than food or church ever had, as the news occupied daily slots in the early evenings, soap operas and movie reruns the days, and live drama and football claimed weeknights.

Does the seven-day week belong to our past or our present? Henkin seems a little uncertain. He discusses the prophets of temporal disaster, who fear the new, shapeless experience of time that technology created and Covid has intensified. Yet he mocks these ‘Cassandras’, as well as the ‘cheerleaders’, who claim that the week itself will soon unravel. I’m not so sure that I agree: as I work on this review on a Sunday morning, Amazon tells me it would be happy to bring me coffee beans and orange marmalade this afternoon – a temptation I manage to resist, and one that would have been unimaginable in the weekly regime that I experienced as a schoolboy and student, when Sunday was a day of rest.

Books such as Henkin’s, full of ideas and stuffed with curious matter, raise questions that they do not answer. Most of us use many different maps of time. Some of them are cyclical, but some are linear, and point to the past and future. Henkin doesn’t consider the other main way that Americans mapped time – through the magnificently strange illustrated timelines in which they charted past history and future progress, sorted out the relative places of Adam and Eve, mammoths and dinosaurs, and depicted pre or post-millennial visions of things to come – or how these interacted with their less colourful maps of the week. Americans, as Daniel Rosenberg and I tried to show some years ago, have always been cartographers of time. They are also its choreographers, no less fascinated by the great arrow of time moving forward in history than they are by the weeks cycling and recycling through the year. Samuel Sewall was as passionate about determining whether the Marquis de Langallerie was ‘the person God will improve for pulling down the Throne of Antichrist’ and interpreting ‘strange visions at Meccha in the year 1620’ as he was about convincing schoolmasters that they mustn’t allow children to play tricks on April Fool’s Day. In the end, he found, as David Hall explains, that ‘though prophecy unfolded, though the clock ticked away the hours by an unvarying beat, though the seven days of Genesis were stamped immutably on the calendar, the will of God stood over and above any structures, even structures He created. All existence was contingent, all forms of time, suspended, on His will.’ Yet if history was unpredictable, that only made attempts to divide and comprehend it all the more appealing. Sewall and other complex thinkers take the stand as witnesses, but because Henkin focuses so tightly on the week, they don’t have a chance to tell us everything they know about his larger subject, the individual’s manifold experiences of time. Henkin’s approach thus comes at a price, though one very much worth paying. He leaves room for himself and others to tell us more about the ways in which the nation of the novus ordo seclorum has lived in and with time.

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