In contemporary American culture, the weekend generally signi-fies the end of the traditional work week, or the period from Friday night to Monday morning, a popular time for organized or unorganized leisure activities and for religious observances. Historically, the weekend was synonymous with the Sabbath which, among European cultures, was marked on Sunday by Christians and on Saturday by Jews. To understand the weekend, some background on the origin of the week itself is helpful. Human time was first measured by nature's cycles, seasonal for longer units, and celestial for shorter ones (i.e., the rising and setting of the sun, and the phases of the moon). Today this influence persists in that the names of the days are derived from the ancient astrological seven-day planetary week: "Monday," a corruption of the word "Moonday," which in turn evolved from European derivations of the Latin word for moon, and "Sunday," the day long considered the first of the week until gradually being perceived as the last day of the weekend. The first calendar was devised by the Egyptians, who bequeathed it to ensuing civilizations. Egypt divided the years into three seasons, based on the cycles of the river Nile, and twelve months. The Egyptians' 24-hour days were also grouped into week-like ten-day periods (called "decades"). The Mesopotamian calendar was similar, but its months were divided by a special day, shabattu, perhaps the first manifestation of recurring intervals of time regularly punctuated by a special day devoted to leisure or celebration. The Roman calendar also established special days within its 30 or 31-day months, such as the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. The Ides fell on the thirteenth or the fifteenth day of the month, and became part of the English language via Shakespeare's famous warning in Julius Caesar : "Beware the Ides of March."
In addition to the ancient Jewish Sabbath (and the Christian Sunday that evolved out of it), a later precursor of the modern weekend was the eighteenth-century European custom of Saint Monday, a weekly day of leisure. Saint Monday was gradually replaced by the Saturday holiday, first observed in Europe in the 1870s. In Britain and Ireland, shops often closed at midday on Wednesday, a custom observed in some American small towns until the 1950s. The custom of working half a day on Saturday took hold in the U.S. in the 1920s, with a full two-day "weekend off" soon following. During the earlier era of the six-day work week, conflict had frequently arisen between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, especially with the shifts in European immigration patterns in the early 1900s, and the five-day work week offered a convenient solution. In 1926 Henry Ford closed his factories all day on Saturdays, and in 1929 the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, composed primarily of Jewish employees, became the first union to propose a five-day week. While initially denounced in some quarters as both bad economics and worse religion, the five-day Monday through Friday workweek soon became standard.
As the structure of the week/weekend cycle solidified over the years, new cultural and capitalistic venues evolved with it. With the concept of personal leisure came a new "business of leisure," boosted by new advertising venues, that soon began to promote leisure and the weekend not only as a pleasurable pastime, but as an integral element of a thriving capitalistic society. The first "Sunday paper," the London Observer, appeared in 1791; while a Sunday edition first appeared in Baltimore in 1796, the American Sunday paper did not really catch on until the Civil War era. The prototype U.S. Sunday newspaper was established by Joseph Pulitzer, whose Sunday World pioneered leisure-oriented articles geared to every member of the family: book and entertainment reviews, travel essays, women's and children's pages, and color comics and supplements. Prolific department store advertising helped make the World a money-making success as well, and voluminous ad inserts remain a major part of most Sunday editions. In addition to Sunday papers, the magazine, a product designed specifically for pleasure, first appeared in Georgian England, where the more substantial and time-consuming novel was also introduced in the 1740s.
The first use of the term "week-end" appeared in England in an 1879 issue of the magazine, Notes and Queries. British practice also laid the groundwork for most of the public leisure pursuits that would grow into the entertainment industries of today. Among these was commercial theater, with its playhouses for both affluent and general audiences. While most of today's modern theaters perform throughout the week, weekends remain peak box-office periods that sometimes command higher ticket prices, and community theaters often perform only on weekends. Public concerts were given in London as early as 1672, and commercial musical venues developed in tandem with theater. Sports ran parallel in popularity, and hand in hand with betting. Thus, with only a few innovations, public entertainments born in eighteenth-century England flourished into the twentieth century. The music-hall, a popular Saturday night diversion in England, found its American counterpart in the vaudeville circuits that spread across the United States in the late 1800s.
The emergence of the cheap nickelodeon in turn-of-the-century America soon established "going to the movies" as the preeminent American pastime—one that soon spread to Europe and beyond. The first storefront nickelodeons appeared in the major metropolitan areas of the East coast and evolved into the movie palaces of the 1920s where patrons could see a feature film, a variety of short subjects, and a spectacular live stage show with an orchestra or some other form of live music. Movies and the weekend developed independently, but were soon reinforcing each other. Filmgoing became a major form of national recreation, and Saturday night soon became a favorite time for an excursion to the movies—Saturday afternoon matinees were generally reserved for the children. "Going out on the town" for dancing or partying also became a popular Saturday night ritual that, with ironic connotations, was graphically explored in the popular 1977 film, Saturday Night Fever, which also produced one of the bestselling soundtrack albums of the hedonistic disco scene in the 1970s. Even household routines had a particular weekend flavor: in the earlier part of the century, New Englanders traditionally sat down to a supper of baked beans on Saturday night. For others, especially in areas where water supplies were limited, the "Saturday night bath" became a familiar routine.
Sunday was long considered a "day of rest" in Western Europe and America, after the account of creation in Genesis in which God rested on the seventh day. In Catholic Europe, church law prohibited "servile work" on Sunday, unless the work was necessary to the glory of God, as a priest celebrating Mass, or the relief of one's neighbor, as in tending to the sick. In the British Isles, Scotland especially, Sunday was a day of solemnity and restraint in which families were expected to be at church morning and evening, and to engage in edifying pursuits during the day, like Bible reading, hymn singing, or innocent pastimes like music or word games. In some rural areas during the nineteenth century, zealous Sabbath observers tried to pass legislation prohibiting steam trains from operating on Sunday because they brought secularized passengers from the cities to disturb the holiness of the day with holiday frivolities. In some of the American colonies, especially Puritan New England and Pennsylvania, strict "blue laws" prohibited engaging in trade, dancing, playing games, or drinking on Sunday, laws that still survive in a number of places. It was not until the early 1970s, for example, that New York City boutiques and department stores were permitted to open on Sunday; many smaller jurisdictions still had old laws on the books that prohibited shopping on the Sabbath, except for small items like essential groceries, newspapers, or toiletries.
School schedules in the industrialized world followed this same Monday-to-Friday regimen. As Eviatar Zerubavel noted: "Much of the attractiveness of the weekend can be attributed to the suspension of work-related—or, for the young, school-related obligations." While clearly not a part of the actual weekend—after all, it is still a day on which one still goes to work or school—Friday is nevertheless considered by many their favorite day of the week, because it promises the anticipation of the weekend, leading to the popular expression, "T.G.I.F.," for "Thank goodness (or God) it's Friday."
Transportation innovations also revolutionized weekend possibilities. Prior to the introduction of railroads in the 1830s methods of travel had been essentially unchanged since ancient times. The time, as well as the expense involved, made travel a luxury reserved for the moneyed classes. Cheap rail excursions began around the 1840s in England, and soon achieved mass acceptance, especially among the working classes who for the first time in history could avail themselves of quick and inexpensive travel. In the twentieth century, the automobile and recreational vehicle would do the same thing, but even on a broader scale. Weekend excursions to the seashore, the mountains, or to new leisure and gambling boomtowns like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, soon revolutionized the tourist industry.
Post-World War II affluence brought significant changes to the structure and content of the American weekend. Zerubavel added that "while the dominant motif of the weekdays is production, that of the weekend is, in a complementary fashion, consumption. Middle-class Protestant youngsters of the late 1940s and early 1950s could (with the family) attend a movie on Friday evening and fall asleep blissfully secure in the knowledge that two full days of freedom and media-supplied diversion lay ahead. Saturday morning might be spent with a radio, where traditional shows such as No School Today or Let's Pretend, were followed by such futuristic 1950s innovations as Space Patrol. "
A movie matinee might be on the agenda after lunch, and if this happened to be at a first-run downtown theater, the afternoon might also be taken up with exploring nearby five-and-dime and department stores, where treasures such as comic books and movie magazines could be had for as little as a dime or fifteen cents. Saturday evening might have found the family again attending a movie, probably at one of the less expensive second-run neighborhood houses, or at one of the popular new "drive-in" theaters. Sunday continued with the same "special occasion" mood, but with an euphoria now tempered by the bittersweet awareness that this period of freedom was predestined to come to an end that evening. After religious obligations were honored on Sunday morning—observant Jews of course attended synagogue or temple on Friday evening or Saturday morning—many families indulged in a special midday Sunday dinner, either at home or at a restaurant (perhaps a Howard Johnson's with its famous twenty-eight flavors of ice cream). Afternoons might be taken up with a Sunday drive or excursion, to the country or an amusement park, or to nowhere in particular. Radio could also occupy much of the afternoon and evening, and a light evening meal was sometimes enjoyed in the living room around the family radio. From the 1950s, when the concept of the frozen "TV dinner" entered the American culinary consciousness, television reserved its key programming for Sunday evenings.
As malls, suburbs, and automobiles became pervasive facts of American life in the 1950s and beyond, the status of the American "downtown" began to decline as a focus of weekend activities. The weekly Friday evening excursion on foot to the modest neighborhood grocery store, brief enough to be followed by a trip to the movies, was now replaced with an automobile excursion for a full evening at the shopping center or mall. Eventually movie theaters were added to the mall mix, hastening the decay of "downtown" as a space for social interaction. The combination of television and antitrust suits in the 1950s caused movie chains to close their downtown outlets for good, further changing the American experience of the weekend as a time for leisure activity "downtown." Still, by the 1990s, weekend boxoffice takes for films had escalated to record highs. Likewise, professional sports events have become more important to the American weekend, and January's "Superbowl Weekend" has mushroomed into an event of national social and economic significance.
Analyzing the modern concept of the weekend, Witold Rybczynski wrote: "… the weekend has imposed a rigid schedule on our free time. The weekly rush to the cottage is hardly leisurely, nor is the compression of various recreational activities into the two-day break. The freedom to do something has become the obligation to do something." He concludes that "every culture chooses a different structure for its work and leisure, and in doing so makes a profound statement about itself." The weekend "reflects the many unresolved contradictions in modern attitudes towards leisure. We want the freedom to be leisurely, but we want it regularly, every week, like clockwork. There is something mechanical about this oscillation, which creates a sense of obligation that interferes with leisure. Do we work for leisure, or the other way around? Unsure of the answer we have decided to keep the two separate."
An interesting comment on the American view of weekend escape can be found in one of Walt Disney's Goofy cartoons, Father's Weekend (1953). After an exhausting weekend of battling crowded beaches and harrowing amusement parks, coping with screaming, tireless offspring, and fighting massive traffic gridlock at the end of it all, Goofy is finally seen blissfully setting off for work on Monday morning as voiceover narration declares, with obvious irony, that the harried Everyman may now finally relax again and rest up for another strenuous weekend of leisure.
Cross, Gary. A Social History of Leisure since 1600. State College, Pennsylvania, Venture Publishing, 1990.
——. Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture. London and New York, Routledge, 1993.
Grover, Kathryn, editor. Hard at Play: Leisure in America, 1840-1940. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Rybczynski, Witold. Waiting for the Weekend. New York, Viking, 1991.
Zelinski, Ernie J. The Joy of Not Working. Berkeley, California, Ten Speed Press, 1997.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Seven Day Circle—The History and Meaning of the Week. New York, The Free Press, 1985.