Expansion of Leisure Time

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The movement to reduce working time lasted well over a century in the United States, involved ordinary people and how they lived their lives each day, and embodied key values of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among them liberty and progress. It was one of the longest, broadest, and most important movements in American history. Indeed, the movement reached well beyond North America, occurring in most industrial nations at roughly the same periods of time.

Average work hours, days, weeks, years, and lives were steadily reduced throughout the nineteenth century. The process accelerated during the period 1900 to 1920 when working hours declined nearly 16 percent in the United States. Altogether, work time was cut by more than half before World War II.

Working-Class Origins

Lasting over a century, the movement was also one of the few, true working-class movements. Historians agree, ordinary workers provided the movement's impetus by pressuring employers, forming unions, or "voting with their feet," moving from job to job in search of better hours. Owners and managers generally opposed each phase of the movement. Progressive reformers acted primarily as a cheering section, embroidering their own dreams and values. Politicians who passed supporting legislation usually followed in the wake of the movement, validating what workers had already achieved and using the issue to gain political support.

Historians have also made the case that workers' desire for shorter hours gave life to and sustained the labor movement. The first historians to write about the labor movement, John R. Commons and his associates, found that during the labor's earliest years, the 1820s and 1830s, the "most frequent cause complaint among the workers was the lack of leisure" (pp. 170–172, 384–385). Helen Sumner argued that workers' struggle to reduce working hours was "the cause of the awakening" of the labor movement (pp. 169–192).

Those who followed Commons and Sumner have agreed with and extended their argument, claiming that the movement was an enduring source of union strength, a powerful organizing issue, a rallying point during strikes, and a potent political issue. Working shorter hours was the dynamo of the labor movement, without which the movement has lost its momentum and cohesion, torn apart by competition for jobs and wages.

An excellent case may be made that the end of the shorter hours movement is directly related to the modern decline of the labor movement.

During its Forty-sixth Annual Meeting in 1926, actively campaigning for a five-day week and looking forward to a six-hour day, the American Federation of Labor recommitted itself and organized labor to the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor." This vision of steady, continual work reduction had been present from the inception of the American labor movement. Commons concluded that "the earliest evidence of [labor] unrest" in the United States was a pamphlet circulated during the 1827 carpenters strike in Philadelphia for a ten-hour day. Written by William Heighton, "An Address to the Members of Trade Societies and to the Working-Class Generally" called for working hours to be reduced from "12 to 10, to 8, to 6, and so on" until "the development and progress of science have reduced human labor to its lowest terms."

With the coming of industrialization, the workplace became a place of alienation and exploitation. Part of the workers' battle was to regain at least some control of their work. However, a significant part of their struggle was to free themselves from bosses, time clocks, and the new industrial work discipline by reducing their work time and reclaiming their lives. Leisure and liberty share much more than a similar dictionary definition.

During the ten-hour struggle, workers defended their actions using liberty's rhetoric. Carpenters paraded in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, under the French revolutionary banners and condemned the "despotic servitude" of the dawn-to-dusk schedule in 1825. Striking for ten hours in 1827, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carpenters resolved, "All men have a just right, derived from their Creator, to have sufficient time each day for the cultivation of their mind and for self-improvement." Such clear references to the revolutionary notions of natural rights were reiterated by the famous "Boston Ten-Hours Circular" of 1835, which condemned long hours as an offense against both God and against the natural rights of man: "The God of the Universe has given us time, health, and strength. We utterly deny the right of any man to dictate to us how much of it we shall sell" (Hunnicutt).

According to the historian David Roediger, the demand for work reduction "evoked . . .visionary. . .hopes for a radically reshaped society." For example, Richard Trevellick, a nineteenth-century organizer for the National Labor Union, wrote; "Add another two hours to the liberty term, and we shall increase the ratio of progress threefold. . .laboring men and women educated to a standard of physical, mental, moral and social excellence . . .will be. . .security against idleness, vice, degradation and misery" (Roediger, 1980, p. 5).

The "progressive shortening of the hours of labor" was a distinctive working-class vision of liberty because it was at odds with the dominant, laissez-faire liberalism of the nineteenth century. Propertied classes and businessmen understood liberty primarily as government protection of property rights and contracts. Workers used the same language of liberty to justify their right to sell their labor when and as they pleased, shocking the sensibilities of those who understood liberty in terms of ownership and the right to do business. Workers clung to the Declaration of Independence's "Pursuit of Happiness," attempting to realize this promise by forcing reductions in working hours. Labor's initial success with the ten-hour day was reinforcement by Martin Van Buren's ten-hour executive order in 1840. Even though it applied only to work under government contracts, the order helped establish a national standard.

The Eight-Hour Day

After the Civil War, labor continued to pursue the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor," opening a new initiative for the eight-hour day. The short-lived National Labor Union organized to pressure Congress to pass eight-hour legislation. The Knights of Labor was more effective, making good on its original promise to be an advocate for the eight-hour day. In the 1870s and 1880s, this issue, above all others, heightened awareness of labor's struggles and won vital public support.

The eight-hour struggle lasted for fifty years and was the focus of much of labor's activities. Some of the most notable events in the history of labor involved this aspect of the shorter-hours struggle, most notably the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886.

In 1868, Congress passed an eight-hour day for government employees. After government officials reduced pay proportionally, Ulysses S. Grant issued two executive orders in 1869 and 1872, affirming the eight-hour day with the same wages, to little effect. It was not until 1892 that Congress passed an effective eight-hour day for all federal workers, with no pay cut. Subsequently, the issue was an integral part of reform politics through Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second term. Reduction of work hours featured prominently in the Populists' Omaha platform in 1892 as well as Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 Bull Moose platform and campaign, appearing again in both the Democratic and Republican platforms in 1932.

But the eight-hour day was slow in coming. Notwithstanding labor's concerted efforts, it was not until Woodrow Wilson's administration that the eight-hour day came near to being a national standard. The reasons for this eventual success were complex, including the fruition of labor's long struggle, federal railroad legislation, and state laws.

However, one of the most important was the uncharacteristic support of some businessmen and managers. "Scientific managers" such as Frederick Taylor, initiating the modern profession of business administration, labored to discover the obvious: that most workers got tired after working eight hours and were much less productive afterward. Thus, managers proclaimed, it made sound business sense to lay on another shift of fresh, productive workers after eight hours.

Following the "discovery" of fatigue, business managers throughout the nation began to institute the short schedule, particularly in continuous industries. However, the deal came with significant strings attached. Attempting to control the workplace totally, these first modern business managers offered workers a hard bargain: give up control at the workplace to "science" and rational organization in exchange for increased freedom and control represented by more time off the job.

This offer divided workers, and continues to do so. Many have been willing to make the trade, giving up on the possibility of reforming the workplace. However, most workers have resisted the deal, pressing to regain increased control at work at the same time realizing the increased freedom represented by leisure's expansion. The control of one's life represented by freedom from work has not excluded the struggle to regain freedom and control at work.

Following one of its culminating eight-hour victories, the steel strike of 1919, labor began to press for a shorter workweek during the 1920s. Inspired by the Jewish communities in the Northeast, which had initiated a movement of their own to reclaim their traditional Sabbath, labor pressed for half days off on Saturday, and then for a five-day week. Again, labor found dubious support from businesspeople such as Henry Ford, who instituted a five-day week with no pay cut in 1926, but attaching the loss of control qualification.

Flush with success with the shorter workweek, organized labor turned to the six-hour day as the remedy for unemployment when the Great Depression began. Union leaders had always argued that shorter hours were necessary to balance labor supply and demand. The Great Depression brought this traditional remedy to center stage in American politics, and labor redoubled its efforts to reduce work time "to its lowest terms."

Good Reasons for Shorter Hours: Power, Education, and Culture

During the century of shorter hours, labor and workers gave substantial meaning to the liberty rhetoric present at the start of the movement. Through time, labor defined in detail what this new freedom was for; political participation and worker education headed the list. The struggle for shorter hours developed as a leisure movement as ordinary working people filled the cultural space opening up in their lives.

From the beginning of the shorter hours process, workers identified leisure with political participation, initially asking simply for time enough to vote. However, labor soon realized the potential that expanding leisure represented for increased political involvement and power. Expanding leisure provided ordinary people with time for discussing, debating, and articulating their plight and points of view in the political arena. It provided unprecedented opportunities for political campaigning and union organization. Leisure was a new social interstice for engagement and dissent, for the construction of a working-class identity, and for its effective political expression.

Union leaders organized the first national unions to pressure state and local governments to support labor's political agenda, primarily, the progressive shortening of the hours of labor.

Arguably the most vocal and certainly the most consistent opposition to work reduction came from those who believed that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop"; that shorter hours "radicalized" ordinary people. Those in power, more than any other group, realized that workers were using their "extra" time to gain political advantage and challenge existing power structures.

Shorter hours began to give substance to Abraham Lincoln's vision of a rebirth of liberty as government for, of, and by the people. Increased leisure helped to lay the foundations of a true democracy of ordinary working people. Beginning to transform politics into a participatory activity, leisure helped to level the political playing field. Those who were spending the new coin of time to gain access to the political process began to challenge the power of wealth and position.

Part of labor's political strategy involved "worker education." Unions opened night schools, provided a host of educational resources for workers, and vigorously supported public education as ways to inform workers about public issues and give them necessary communication skills for political engagement. However, workers also embraced the new educational opportunities as ways to improve their leisure. Just as the new free time began to provide ordinary people access to politics, leisure enriched by education offered the possibility of an increased civic engagement and democratic participation in cultural activities. The focus of the early adult educational effort was of course basic literacy and vocational training. Teachers were surprised to find workers requesting courses in the liberal and even fine arts.

The night schools that flourished in the early twentieth century were, at least in part, a response to new aspirations among workers who found expanded opportunities to express and create their own culture. Just as leisure had begun to disperse political power, so, too, the new free time enabled a challenge to traditional elite forms of cultural creation and expression. Gaining a modicum of political power, workers also sought fledgling access to the finest human achievements in literature, arts, and sciences.

However, the more important kind of cultural expression and creation made available by the new leisure had to do with the daily lives of ordinary people. The quotidian—ordinary time with family, with friends at the local bar, with neighbors sitting on the front porch—was the primary beneficiary of the new leisure.

The work reduction movement, developing into a leisure movement, represented a genuinely democratic vision of progress. Founded on advances in civic arenas such as the family, community, voluntary associations, and religious institutions, this vision of human advancement was distinctive because it represented an alternative to dominant ideas of progress as extensions of national power and prestige (Manifest Destiny) and as the unlimited expansion of industrial production and accumulations of wealth.

As ordinary people began to live with the new time won from work, new kinds of leisure infrastructures—private, public, and commercial—formed. Saloons, benevolent associations, ethnic societies, vacations and vacation resorts, travel opportunities, lunchrooms, poolrooms, bowling allies, fraternal clubs, social centers, and churches and synagogues provided workers with places and new ways to express traditional cultures, create new cultural forms, and to "fashion their [own] understanding and response to the problems of industrial life" (Hunnicutt, 1988, p. 12). Serving to enrich and transform the quotidian, this leisure infrastructure also laid a foundation for expanding working-class self-awareness.

Just as important is the fact that Americans began to build up infrastructures of "social capital": networks of free associations, reservoirs of goodwill and conviviality, webs of common discourse and understanding, agreement/meaning. The political scientist Robert Putnam has argued convincingly that such "social capital" is the bedrock of democracies, without which political order and economic health are endangered. Others scholars, following Jürgen Habermas, propose that culture is formed and sustained by such systems of shared meaning—that "communicative action" taking place in the civic arena, is more important for social well-being and stability than expanding material wealth.

Leisure's Supporters: Founders, Intellectuals, Reformers, Industrialists

Since the Revolution, some of the most articulate and influential Americans embraced versions of "humane," or "moral," progress similar to what workers were envisioning. John Adams, for example, described what he thought freedom would bring to future generations. Progress would be a movement beyond practical politics and commerce into an arena where the "pursuit of happiness" would be possible. During activities that were worthwhile in and of themselves—music and the fine arts, the life of the mind, the experience of beauty—Americans might come to realize the full promise of freedom.

Certainly his was an elite view—something he envisioned for his children. Nevertheless, like the liberal promises of the Declaration of Independence, the cultural promise of humane progress was democratized as it attached to the work reduction movement.

A vital part of the leisure movement in the United States was the leisure visions of intellectuals and social critics who saw work reduction as the culmination of human progress. Progress in two parts—material and "moral"—was at the heart of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson believed that reason would free humans from the tyranny of tradition and arbitrary rule. Just as importantly, science would also free humans from poverty and need. Understanding nature, humans would create the technology necessary to free themselves from the tyranny of necessity. "Labor-saving devices" were science's original social mandate, justifying and legitimizing science and technology's growth through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Enlightenment founded the enduring expectation that reason would eventually free humans to concentrate more on how to live than on how to make a living.

Nineteenth-century economists such as John Stuart Mill made similar claims. Mill added a criticism of the irrational increase and accumulation of wealth beyond reasonable limits, proposing instead the expansion of leisure as the rational alternative. According to Mill and others who followed, such as R. H. Tawney (British economic historian and influential social critic and reformer of the early twentieth century), human material needs were finite. Once they were met, a realistic economic possibility considering the growth of science and technology, the economy should become "stationary." Difficulties would arise if the industrial nations, besotted by their success or driven by greed, turned their backs on work reduction. If progress were redefined irrationally as ever-new luxuries and preposterous accumulations of wealth, a heavy price would be paid. Not only would the exploitation of workers continue (as they were made to work longer than "necessary"), nature would be destroyed and the promise of "moral" progress lost.

Work reduction was the rational course, the only alternative to material "progress" beyond reasonable levels. In a stationary economy, "no one is poor, no one desires to be richer." Labor would be paid a fair wage. Wealth accumulations would be held in check. Humans would then make real progress, having "sufficient leisure, both physical and mental. . .to cultivate freely the graces of life."

Mill's version of rational progress was influential in the United States, popularized by one of the best-known American economists of the early twentieth century, Simon Patten. Patten agreed that "too much work" in the age of abundance would create a generation of "gluttons," who in their single-minded scramble for more, gradually lost sight of the "non-economic" pleasures and challenges life offered (Hunnicutt, 1988, p. 34).

Arguably, the most articulate advocate of "moral" progress was the economist/theologian Monsignor John Ryan. One of the most prominent American economists during the New Deal, Ryan made the same points Mill, Tawney, and Patten made; increasing leisure represented reasonable progress, but perpetual economic growth was irrational and hence unsustainable.

However, Ryan expanded this economic argument, presenting a more extensive moral defense of shorter work hours. Ryan began by making organized labor's point—that shorter hours would provide unemployment relief during the Great Depression. He went on to show that shorter hours was the most effective way to redistribute wealth automatically, guarding against growing misdistributions of wealth and power that would eventually doom democracies.

Workers demanding more leisure would make labor scarcer and hence better paid. Workers with more income would be able to demand effectively that adequate necessities be produced. Capital would be forced to follow and to abandon luxuries. Wealth, instead of pooling in large fortunes and corporations, would flow into society in the form of leisure, avoiding unreasonable accumulations that are natural parts of expanding economies based on the perpetual creation of new goods and services.

Finally, Ryan added a vision of what progress as leisure offered humanity. Following the wisdom of thousands of years of Western civilization, he concluded:

. . .When men have produced sufficient necessaries and reasonable comforts and conveniences to supply all the population, they should spend what time is left. . .in the pursuit of the higher life. If American industries can make the requisite leisure possible, they will have provided at least the opportunity for a more rational society than any people has yet enjoyed.. . . [Authentic] human life. . .consists in thinking, knowing, communing, loving, serving, and giving, rather than in having.. . . Its supreme demand is that we should know more and love more, and that we should strive to know the best that is to be known and to love the best that is to be loved (Hunnicutt, 1988, p. 97).

Becoming aware of the 100-year-long work reduction process, economists confidently predicted that work's long-term decline would continue. John Maynard Keynes, the best-known economist of the century, wrote in the early 1930s: "When we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will. . .we must turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our leisure." Indeed the time was rapidly approaching when "three hours [work] a day [will be] quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!" (p. 369).

Keynes understood the coming age of leisure more as a challenge than a sure promise. Even though leisure opened up progress in extra-economic realms of freedom, humans would still have to struggle. Realizing leisure's promise of humane freedom would be humanity's last, most profound challenge, greater even than "solving the economic problem."

Economists were not alone in their hopes for and concerns about increased leisure. For decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century, writers recognized that industrial progress was nearing the time when everyone would have "enough." Premised on "necessity's obsolescence," utopian books flooded the market after the 1888 publication of Bellamy's Looking Backward, many employing 'the traditional utopian theme of the four- or six-hour workday. Bellamy set the tone, imagining a twenty-first-century world blessed by technology that freed humans from work and "necessity" for the best part of their lives. The inhabitants of Bellamy's "perfect society," realizing that "it is not our labor, but the higher and larger activities. . .the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits. . .that are. . .the main business of life," founded their society on leisure. Work was put in its proper, rational place as means to an end rather than an end in itself.

This view of progress spread even to conservative business people. Walter Gifford, president of AT&T, the largest corporation in the United States in the 1920s, was one of several business leaders who recognized that "industry. . .has gained a new and astonishing vision." The final, best achievement of business and the free market need not be perpetual economic growth and everlasting consumerism, but "a new type of civilization," in which "how to make a living becomes less important than how to live." As it had been doing for a century,

machinery will increasingly take the load off men's shoulders. . . .Every one of us will have more chance to do what he wills, which means greater opportunity, both materially and spiritually. . . .[Steadily decreasing work hours] will give us time to cultivate the art of living, give us a better opportunity for. . .the arts, enlarge the comforts and satisfaction of the mind and spirit, as material well-being feeds the comforts of the body (Gwinn).

A few such "liberation capitalists" embraced this view, including the British soap-king Lord Leverhulm and American cereal maker W. K. Kellogg. Such a vision permeated the age, shared by people across the political spectrum. Educators began to prepare for the coming age of leisure, gearing their curricula to "education for the worthy use of leisure," one of the National Education Association's "Cardinal Objectives of Education." Academics found new, even pressing reasons to continue teaching the liberal arts, the traditional heart of higher education. A playground and recreation movement formed and began to build parks, community centers, and recreation centers to serve the new leisure. Labor leaders, fighting for five-day week and the six-hour day, employed the vision to rally their forces and popularize their cause. Politicians, seeking labor's support, employed similar rhetoric, particularly during the 1920s and Great Depression. Scientists and engineers such as Charles Proteus Steinmetz and B. F. Skinner, continuing to champion "labor-saving devices," claimed to be the guarantors of expanding leisure for "higher" human achievements.

Religious leaders, particularly Jewish leaders of the Sabbath crusade, saw in the new leisure the possibility of a regeneration of the life of the spirit and the renewed importance of religious practice. Indeed, leisure asked one of the most profound of religious questions, "What is worth doing in and for itself?" Faced with this awful question in their new freedom, humans would automatically turn to the age-old insights found only in the traditional religions. Musicians, artists, novelists and poets began to explore local folk culture, leading the way to what they envisioned would be a renaissance of democratic cultural creation and participation.

The End of Shorter Hours

However, the work reduction movement ended after World War II. The vision of humane progress founded on leisure's expansion, and the leisure movement it engendered, faded as well (Hunnicutt, 1988, pp. 1–8).

Even though productivity rates have increased steadily since the Great Depression, Americans have chosen to express the wealth that increased productivity represents by buying more rather than working less—even to the point of "selling off" leisure to work and buy more. One of the primary reason for this dramatic historic change is the emergence of consumerism in the 1920s—a time when advertising came of age and marketing departments became more important than production departments in companies across the nation. In the 1920s, this development was called the "New Economic Gospel of Consumption," a trend Herbert Hoover's Committee on Recent Economic Changes documented in detail. Business embarked on a campaign to convince Americans that it was better to buy new, and more things than to keep reducing work hours—a campaign that shows little sign of slowing down. Periodically, when the need arose, the campaign has been reaffirmed, such as during the 1950s and 1990s.

The second reason the expansion of leisure ended may be discovered in the politics of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Roosevelt committed government to the support of the "New Economic Gospel of Consumption," beginning the federal underwriting of "managed capitalism." Combating unemployment, Roosevelt committed government to perpetually create new work to replace the work being "lost" to increased productivity. Defining, for the first time and arbitrarily, "full-time jobs" as forty hours or better per week, Roosevelt opposed work sharing (a legislated solution to unemployment, supported by labor that would have advanced the century-long work reduction process in order to stabilize the economy). Instead, he inaugurated governmental programs and policies supporting economic expansion, liberal treasury policy, deficit spending (to "re-employ the idleness"), public works projects, expanding government payrolls, and subsidies to business.

Since the depression, government policy has been constant, to expand the economy by whatever means necessary in order to assure "full employment." The alternative political solution to unemployment, work reduction, has been virtually lost in the United States, even though the issue has reappeared in Europe.

Whereas working hours remained constant, from just after WWII until the 1970s, some observers argue persuasively that they reversed direction and expanded dramatically since the mid-1970s; that the average Joe or Jill works over a month more now. Whereas Keynes predicted that the "challenge of leisure" would emerge by the middle of the twentieth century, the public issue troubling the industrial nations at the close of the century was "overwork." The media continued into this century to be filled with stories about the damage done to communities and families, to the health of individuals and the nations, by the epidemic of longer work hours.

Scholars quibble, making much over "incremental advances" in work reductions, and looking diligently for "trends." Economists, for example, examine minute fluctuations in the average retirement age, concluding that the leisure of retirement may have increased, slightly. Slight differences in vacation time are similarly touted as significant. The facts that Europeans have four to five weeks of vacation, while vacations in the United States have averaged two weeks for over sixty years, are seen as evidence that working time may still be changing in important ways—that Europe may be "leading" the way for longer U.S. vacations.

However, just as many observers now predict later retirements, increased overtime, expanding numbers of people joining the work force, and longer hours in general as the economy sags, government debt mounts, and what the average American "needs" continually expands.

But the most significant change correlating to the historical variations in leisure's expansion and contraction; to the century-long decline in working hours, the subsequent "end of shorter hours," and the modern "overwork" phenomenon, is cultural. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, workers, union leaders, politicians, intellectuals, dreamers, reformers, and industrialists understood human progress, in part, as the openended expansion of leisure. Work would soon become subordinate to leisure. Humans would solve, for once and for all, the "economic problem." Making a living would soon take second place to having a life.

By contrast, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, few Americans remained who looked forward to the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor." Few continued to see expanding leisure as the antidote to capitalism's dangerous excesses, the way to protect the environment, a strategy to relieve the exploitation of workers, or the culmination of progress and liberty. Few expected "the economy" would be less of a problem in the future than it was then. This change was the most important way to explain the "end of shorter hours."

Without labor's larger dream of "reducing human labor to its lowest terms," small fluctuations in working days, weeks, months, or years did not represent significant "trends." The century-long trend of work reduction, which saw working hours cut virtually in half, was the fruit of a vision.

Before significant new "trends" in the expansion of leisure are claimed, the opposing, now-dominant vision of the perpetual expansion of the economy and "standard of living," as well as the modern project to re-create "full-time" work for everyone forevermore, must be challenged, and the old vision of leisure as the place for human progress, or something similar, must be recovered.

See also: Interwar Leisure and Recreation, Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement, Shortage of Leisure, Working-Class Leisure Lifestyles


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