The current concept of the work day did not exist prior to the modern age. Before the Industrial Revolution work was an integral part of life. What we know today as leisure and work were mixed thoroughly. As late as the colonial period in American history daily work schedules were casual, set by custom rather than by contract, law, or the clock.
The work day in colonial America traditionally ran from dawn to dusk six days a week. However, meals and rest breaks customarily accounted for two and a half to three hours of that long day. In addition, the work day was casual, interspersed with non-work activities such as conversations, household chores, games, and simple idleness.
As the marketplace became increasingly rationalized and the factory system grew, competition forced labor to become more efficient. Work increasingly was purged of its nonproductive elements. The clear division between work and life fundamental to the modern definition of the work day emerged in the United States around the turn of the nineteenth century. Impersonal market forces transformed casual preindustrial work patterns. Wages replaced older kinds of traditional compensations such as masters’ support of and guarantees given to apprentices and journeymen.
Having to pay daily wages, masters, managers, and contractors tried to increase profits by intensifying work effort and expanding the customary dawn-to-dusk work day to the limits of human endurance. By the 1830s traditional artisanal republican workshops were well on their way to being replaced by what commonly was called a “bastard system of production.” As manufacturing was increasingly rationalized, what Karl Marx called in his Communist Manifesto the “motley feudal ties” ( 1906) that had connected owner to operative fell away, replaced by impersonal market relations that often exploited workers in a kind of wage slavery that many, including Walt Whitman, likened to the experience of African Americans in the American South.
Initially workers struggled against the advent of modern work discipline. Gradually, though, as E. P. Thompson showed, workers accepted the division of work from life, but then began a new “fight … about” time (Thompson 1967, p. 85). For over a century workers attempted to reduce the working day, week, year, and life to reclaim in their leisure the conviviality, creativity, equality, independence, and citizenship that characterized the essential republican virtues that once had been part of their jobs. The historians David Roediger and Philip Foner conclude that “the length of the workdays … has historically been the central issue raised by the American labor movement” (Roediger and Foner 1989, p. vii).
William Heighton articulated a worker vision of continual work reduction that endured for over a century. In a pamphlet circulated during the 1827 carpenters’ strike in Philadelphia for a ten-hour day, Heighton called for the work day 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” (Heighton 1827).
Organizing across craft lines and hoping to influence customary standards and new contracts, workers pressured politicians to pass ten-hour laws for government employees. Various cities and states considered or passed such legislation. The process culminated in 1840 with President Martin Van Buren’s executive order granting the ten-hour day to manual workers under government contract.
After the Civil War labor turned its attention to the eight-hour day. As Karl Marx observed, the issue “ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California” (Marx 1906, p. 329). The eight-hour day became an important political issue, finding a place in the Omaha platform of the Populists and the Bull Moose platform. The Democratic and Republican platforms in 1932 called for reductions in the work day to below eight hours. Some of the most dramatic and significant events in the history of labor, such as the strikes of 1886, the Haymarket disaster, and the steel strike of 1919, concerned the length of the work day. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the eight-hour day became the national norm and Congress passed laws regulating the work day of children, women, and workers in hazardous occupations.
In the Great Depression, continuing their commitment to the “progressive shortening of the hours of labor,” unions supported the introduction of the Black-Connery bill setting the work day at six hours as a remedy for unemployment. The bill nearly passed Congress in 1933 and continued to be a key political issue until it was refashioned as the Fair Labor Standards Act and passed in 1938. The Fair Labor Standard Act set the standard work day at eight hours instead of six. Since then no advance has been made. No new laws reducing the work day have been passed. Labor seems to have lost interest. Now there is some evidence that the work day is lengthening and the eight-hour norm giving way. Overtime is growing. Salaried employees’ work days have lengthened. The work day in newly industrializing nations are at nineteenth-century U.S. levels (Hunnicutt 1996).
Trying to account for the length of the work day historically through the use of traditional economic models of supply and demand is unrewarding. The oldest relevant economic model, dating back to the mercantilists of Thomas Jefferson’s day, is an economic paradox. Unlike all other goods and services, the supply curve of labor was long understood to be “backward-bending.” For generations economists predicted that above a certain wage rate workers would offer increasingly less of their time to work; the work day would shrink naturally as workers chose to “buy back” their lives instead of continuing to work to purchase new, less desirable (by comparison) goods and services.
That theory was a good fit with the declining work day of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, economists such as Lionel Charles Robbins tried to amend labor supply theory in the 1920s, arguing that the substitution effect of higher wages offsets the income effect: A wage raise increases the cost of an additional hour of leisure, making the workers’ choice between additional, more expensive leisure and new purchases indeterminate. Whatever labor supply theory was tested for the remainder of the twentieth century, however, in most longitudinal studies the correlation between the work day and wages and unemployment (unemployment rates are understood as a proxy for the demand for labor) was found to be insignificant.
Indeed, in 1998 Dora Costa argued that the length of the work day has not decreased as much for the highestpaid workers as it has for the lowest-paid. Economists such as Juliet Schor (1991) agree, demonstrating that salaried employees’ work days have lengthened well beyond eight hours in corporate cultures that pressure workers to expand the work day to extreme limits. Observing these developments, some might theorize with Karl Marx that the expanding work day reflects the capitalist tendency to maximize surplus value and hence profits by lengthening the work day. Others may understand the progressive shortening of the hours of labor as a fundamental threat to capitalism. As Herbert Marcuse observed in 1966:
[A]utomation threatens to render possible the reversal of the relation between free time and working time: the possibility of working time becoming marginal and free time becoming full time. The result would be a radical transvaluation of values, and a mode of existence incompatible with the traditional culture. Advanced industrial society is in permanent mobilization against this possibility. (Marcuse 1966, p. vii)
For whatever reason, the century-old vision of industrial progress as consisting of both higher wages for the finer things in life and shorter work days to enjoy them seemed to have been lost at the turn of the twenty-first century.
SEE ALSO Great Depression; Industrialization; Labor; Management; Mercantilism; Populism; Work; Work Week; Working Class; Working Day, Length of
Costa, Dora. 1998. The Unequal Work Day: A Long-Term View. NBER Working Paper No. W6419. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Heighton, William. 1827. An Address to the Members of Trade Societies and to the Working Classes Generally. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania Archives.
Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline. 1996. Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1966. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Vintage: New York.
Marx, Karl.  1906. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels. New York: Modern Library.
Roediger, David, and Philip Foner. 1989. Our Own Time : A History of American Labor and the Working Day. New York: Greenwood Press.
Schor, Juliet. 1991. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books.
Thompson, E. P. 1967. Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Past and Present 38 (1): 56–97.