A sunny Sunday afternoon above the harbour at Whitby in Yorkshire, England, in 1976. Photo by Ian Berry/Magnum


How we became weekly

The week is the most artificial and recent of our time counts yet it’s impossible to imagine our shared lives without it

by David Henkin + BIO

A sunny Sunday afternoon above the harbour at Whitby in Yorkshire, England, in 1976. Photo by Ian Berry/Magnum

Among many collective discoveries during the pandemic confinement of 2020, Americans learned just how attached we are to our seven weekdays. As complaints about temporal disorientation mounted that April, we focused not on the clock – the classic metonym for the power and experience of time – but rather on the calendar, and specifically the weekly one. A Cleveland news station affiliated with the Fox Media network entertained viewers with a daily feature, much circulated on the internet, entitled ‘What Day Is It? With Todd Meany’ – the answer to which was always a weekday, not a Gregorian calendar date.

Hours, months, seasons and other time units may have been blurred as well, but the indeterminacy of the weekly cycle dominated the discourse. From Tom Hanks’s observation in a Saturday Night Live monologue that ‘there’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore. It’s just … every day is today’, to the ubiquitous memes that called all days ‘blursday’ or renamed the weekly cycle as ‘thisday, thatday, otherday, someday, yesterday, today and nextday’, the collapse of the week quickly became a comic cliché.

Our COVID-19 blursday experience thus brought the mysteries of weekly life to the surface of public consciousness, prompting the question of why it is that sheltering in place causes masses of people to lose track of their weekdays. Commentators generally cited the fact that, during the pandemic, many of us worked at home, which eliminated crucial environmental cues dividing work from the rest of life. Work days and leisure days started to resemble one another and, during the intermediate days of the cycle, we lost track of how close or far we were from the week’s end.

But that explanation seems inadequate. Telecommuting, after all, had become common long before the pandemic, without producing such a broad sense of temporal disorientation. Moreover, working from home unsettles time divisions within the day even more dramatically than it unsettles the weekly cycle, yet the jokes and memes didn’t highlight our confusion about what hour it was. Nor did complaints about temporal disorientation pay equal attention to Gregorian date confusion, despite the fact that many of the pandemic’s most brutal attacks on our ritual lives – forgone Christmas dinners, suspended baseball seasons, Zoom birthday parties – disrupted the annual calendar rather than the weekly one. And finally, uncertainty about the weekly cycle was not limited to the question of weekends but extended throughout the seven-day cycle.

Such blursday laments reflected more than just the straightforward consequences of working, shopping, and socialising from home. They registered instead a more general unmooring from our habits and routines, for which losing track of the week presented as a dramatic collective symptom (at least for those lucky enough to be furloughed on full pay), much as we regard an individual forgetting of the day of the week as a singular symptom of memory loss and cognitive disorientation.

Weeks serve as powerful mnemonic anchors because they are fundamentally artificial. Unlike days, months and years, all of which track, approximate, mimic or at least allude to some natural process (with hours, minutes and seconds representing neat fractions of those larger units), the week finds its foundation entirely in history. To say ‘today is Tuesday’ is to make a claim about the past rather than about the stars or the tides or the weather. We are asserting that a certain number of days, reckoned by uninterrupted counts of seven, separate today from some earlier moment. And because those counts have no prospect of astronomical confirmation or alignment, weeks depend in some sense on meticulous historical recordkeeping. But practically speaking, weekly counts are reinforced by the habits and rituals of other people. When those habits and rituals were radically obscured or altered in 2020, the week itself seemed to unravel.

This unravelling is harder to explain if we assume that the sole function of the seven-day count is to divide work time from leisure time or the sacred from the profane. The split between weekday and weekend is, of course, the most prominent feature of this strange, conventional timekeeping system. It probably ranks as the most significant consequence of the spread of seven-day counting practically throughout the globe over the past couple of centuries. But weeks have come to do other things for us as well, splitting and lumping and marking days for different purposes and with varying effects.

Our weekly count, as we all recognise, divides days into two categories, generating a temporal rhythm comprising a series of ticks followed by a tock (or two). This was the crucial contribution of Jewish Sabbath observances to the history of weekly reckoning from its ancient beginnings. But our weeks also divide days into seven fundamentally heterogeneous units – more like a scale of do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti. This is the rhythm of the astrological timekeeping, prominent in imperial Rome, which identified days with the seven celestial bodies observable from Earth, an association we preserve in the names of our weekdays in English and most Indo-European languages.

The Tiv people of Nigeria observed, until recently, a five-day week, called a kasóa, meaning market

In yet another familiar use of the week, the seven days of a given cycle are not divided at all, neither in two nor in seven, but instead get lumped together to form one coherent chunk of time, typically in order to distinguish one entire cycle from another – this week from that one, last week from the next. From this perspective, the week serves well as an interval of retrospective and prospective stocktaking, which is why it proved especially popular with New England Puritans and their many descendants.

As a final example, we also use weekly cycles to schedule and coordinate group activities. Weekly markets, for example, ensure seven-day intervals for merchants and consumers of food or other products, helping them gather at a predictable time and place. Like the cycle of introspection and stocktaking, such a week need not be seven days long (the Tiv people of Nigeria observed, until recently, a five-day week, called a kasóa, meaning market) but, in a society that already tracks the traditional seven-day week, pegging the schedules of public gatherings to the weekly calendar uses and reinforces that calendar.

All four uses of the seven-day count have shaped the history of weekly timekeeping, which is only about 2,000 years old. Although taboos and cosmologies in several different cultures attached significance to seven-day cycles much earlier, there is no clear evidence of any society using such cycles to track time in the form of a common calendar before the end of the 1st century CE. As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles. The weekly calendar, from the moment of its effective invention, reflected a union of very different ways of counting days. This fact alone ought to discourage us from assuming that weeks have just one obvious technological application.

Like most weekly timekeeping schemes, the modern week in the United States bears the historical imprint of all four uses of the seven-day count, which was first implanted on American shores by Europeans and Africans, and reinforced by subsequent waves of migration over the course of centuries. But the crucial formation of our modern experience of weekly time took place around the first half of the 1800s, with the rising prominence of that fourth type of week: the differentiated weekly schedule.

All of the other three modes of weekly timekeeping were well entrenched in the US by the beginning of the 19th century. Antebellum American society was infamous among European visitors for the extent and rigidity of its Sabbath observance, and Sunday rest was unusually widespread, even among the enslaved. Moreover, the festivity or sanctity of Sundays stood out brightly in a calendar that was remarkably light on annual commemorations and holidays. Astrological associations with the weekly cycle remained quite common as well during this period, and even those who dismissed popular superstitions about auspicious and ominous weekdays often accepted the proposition that the seven-day calendar was linked to cosmological forces and part of the fabric of the natural order. Meanwhile, the Puritan practice of weekly stocktaking provided many ordinary literate men and women in the US with a powerful tool for assessing, planning and imagining their affairs as they took up the proliferating practice of keeping a diary.

Some of these older weekly rhythms reverberated even more loudly as the 19th century progressed. With the rise of wage labour in the northern and western US, for example, Saturday night became more than just the end of the working week; it was also payday, generating patterns of consumption, commercial leisure and material security that shaped the distinctive feel of each of the intervening days of the cycle. Saturday itself also became a kind of half-holiday in the US over the course of the century. Teachers and students often had Saturdays entirely off, as did many office workers. Other Americans, both free and enslaved, often worked shorter hours on Saturday compared with other days of the week. Bumper stickers today credit labour unions with inventing the two-day weekend, but it would be more precise to say that those unions succeeded, in the early 1900s, in demanding as a matter of principle on behalf of all labourers those benefits of Saturday reprieve that had been enjoyed or claimed by various sectors of the US workforce over the previous century. The doubling of the weekend probably sharpened the tick-tock rhythm of special days and mundane ones, especially since the formal expansion of Sunday to include Saturday replaced the informal bleeding of Sunday into Monday that had characterised many preindustrial work cultures.

Domestic manuals began prescribing washing on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, baking on Wednesdays

The link between diary-keeping and weekly stocktaking also grew more conspicuous during the first half of the 19th century, following the spread of mass-market, preformatted diary books, which typically arrayed periods of approximately a week, as opposed to the monthly spreads that had been featured in earlier almanacs. The new calendar formats reinforced the habit of assessing one’s obligations, accomplishments and shortcomings in weekly increments.

But something even more significant was happening alongside those entrenched uses of the weekly calendar. Increasingly and pervasively, Americans were applying the technology of the seven-day count to the project of scheduling. Some of these schedules emerged in work settings, specifically schools and housekeeping. As daily school attendance became a normative activity outside the southern US in the early 19th century, masses of schoolchildren learned early and often to expect certain regular activities (examinations, early recesses, special classes) to take place on the same day of the week. And as new norms of hygiene and respectability took hold in middle-class households, domestic manuals began prescribing weekly schedules for core housekeeping tasks: washing on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, baking on Wednesdays.

But many of the most significant uses of weekly scheduling took place beyond the workplace, in the arenas of commercial entertainment, voluntary association and print culture. During the first half of the 19th century, masses of Americans in the northern and western US flocked to theatres, joined fraternal lodges and reform organisations, attended lectures and concerts, and subscribed to newspapers. Increasingly, many also patronised banks (which typically redeemed notes only on certain weekdays) and sent and received letters (which in less populous areas arrived on weekly schedules). All of these practices required participants to attend to what day of the week it was. Whether the activity took place once a week, twice a week or even once a month, so long as meetings, commercial offerings, publications and mail deliveries were consistently attached to particular days of the week, the weekly calendar became indispensable.

For members of fraternal lodges that met on the second Tuesday of the month, for example, or for students who took piano lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays, or for theatre managers who scheduled Wednesday matinées, or for friends who tried not to let a Thursday pass without a social visit, the choice and character of a particular weekday was often arbitrary, at least at first. But once habits formed, those associations could anchor and colour individual perceptions of the weekly cycle. Moreover, these weekly schedules naturally reproduced. As the number of weekly meetings, appointments and habits proliferated, it became increasingly convenient to peg other gatherings among strangers to the weekly calendar as well. Even friends and relatives would come to expect one another to have so many seven-day habits that it made sense to schedule or stagger arrangements with them by focusing on specific days of the cycle. Attaching an activity to a day of the week allowed 19th-century Americans to coordinate, remember and sequester that activity within a larger slew of weekly appointments.

Because it enabled people to coordinate recurring activities with others, including those they might not yet know, the use of the week as a scheduling device reflected (and reinforced) the impersonal character of urban life. And, in fact, it was the massive migration of free men and women, both immigrant and native-born, to cities beginning around the 1820s that best explains the historical rise of the modern American week as a complex cluster of social routines. For those who lived in small towns and on farms, fewer activities distinguished one weekday from the next. But even they would anticipate the arrival of the weekly mail, apportion the reading of the newspaper they received every seven days, or follow the schedules of a train or stagecoach that passed through regularly on specific weekdays. As a result, generations of Americans became disciplined to rhythms of the week that had impinged only lightly on the lives of their ancestors.

This proliferation of weekly schedules gave masses of ordinary people numerous associations with each day of the week and new reasons to care whether it was, say, Tuesday or Wednesday. As a remarkable consequence of these new habits and associations, ordinary people shifted their mental maps during the early 19th century in a way that privileged the week over other timekeeping units. We can detect this shift in the blank-book diaries they kept, which increasingly identified the weekday at the top of each entry. Those diaries also show a greater tendency to misidentify dates rather than weekdays. We can glimpse these new mental maps in the way that trial witnesses recalled with far greater confidence and accuracy the day of the week, as opposed to the date of the month, when an event occurred – often citing a regular weekly habit or practice as the basis of their recollections – or in the inclination of correspondents to use the weekly calendar to recount developments in their lives.

We can even observe the grip of the week on human memory in the decision of a bereaved parent to commemorate the loss of a child on the weekday, rather than the exact Gregorian calendar date, of the death. More obliquely, we can see this shift in the frequent and conventional invocation during the 19th century of the passing of a week (and not just the natural units of the day or the year) in order to lament the swift flight of time, though that link was already suggested by the older use of weeks as units of stocktaking. For 19th-century Americans, the week became both a mnemonic instrument and a framework for thinking about time’s movement.

As a result, the week’s hold on temporal consciousness tightened. Even those with weak religious commitment to the idea that the weekly calendar represented an unbroken count of seven-day cycles dating back to the divine creation of the world saw the week as more than just an expendable timekeeping utility. It became hard to imagine a world without seven-day cycles. Utopian and dystopian literature from the late 19th century, for example, typically preserved weeks intact in their visions of radically different future societies. And powerful movements to modify the weekly calendar met stiff resistance. US businesses starting in the late 19th century promoted calendar-reform schemes designed to eliminate the bookkeeping inefficiencies caused by the recalcitrant seven-day cycle (the only timekeeping unit that does not fit neatly into a larger one). Shortly thereafter, Soviet economic planners, objecting to the way a coordinated weekend prevented continuous factory production, introduced shorter working weeks and assigned different segments of the population to different weekly schedules. All of these plans failed.

The modern week makes us aware of our relationship to our networks and to the habits of others

Instead of giving way to the rational demands of capitalism or communism, the unbroken and coordinated weekly calendar proceeded to conquer the world during the 20th century, regulating life in societies and regions that had never tracked time in seven-day units. For much of its long history, the seven-day week spread along paths of conquest, trade and proselytisation forged by Islam and, especially, Christianity. Muslim and Christian expansion from the eastern Mediterranean brought the seven-day cycle, as we know it, to much of the world (including Africa, Scandinavia, the Americas, Oceania, Central Asia, Indonesia and the South Pacific) sometime over the course of the 2nd millennium CE. But only toward the very end of that millennium did the week come to enjoy its current presumption of universal legibility. Many factors contributed to the week’s relatively recent spread to places (such as East Asia) that had never seen fit to count seven-day cycles. Crucially, the week’s global reach reflects the increasing interconnectedness of the world’s rural majority with capitalist economic circuits, consolidated colonial states and expanded transportation networks, all of which exposed new populations to previously irrelevant calendar rhythms.

Industrialisation also contributed to the rising prominence of the week, both in the US and across the globe. By hardening and patrolling the boundaries between labour time and leisure time, industrial production highlighted the one calendar unit that most clearly and legibly fit the contours of its map. But the industrial logic of the week blurs distinctions among weekdays that have turned out to be crucial to the week’s power as a temporal anchor. For modern week people, it is the differentiated weekly schedule of appointed activities – classes, meetings, spectator sports, broadcast entertainment, custody arrangements – rather than Sabbath observance or simply waiting for the weekend that makes knowing one’s precise place in the weekly cycle at all times so indispensable.

The modern week has superimposed upon the ancient week a rhythm that is fundamentally social, incorporating an awareness of the demands and constraints of other people. Yet the modern week is also somewhat individualised, inasmuch as its rhythms are shaped by all sorts of private decisions we make, especially as consumers. Whereas Sabbath counts and astrological dominions subject everyone to the same schedule, the modern week makes us aware of our relationship to our networks and to the habits of others, while simultaneously highlighting the variety of our networks and the contingency of those habits.

By the beginning of the 21st century, many cultural commentators were bemoaning the unravelling of the week as a consequence of asynchronous work habits in the face of an onslaught of nonstop commerce and continuous accessibility, which we tellingly identify with the technically redundant phrase ‘24/7’. Other critics welcomed the week’s demise, reminding us that the seven-day cycle is, after all, entirely artificial and its universal spread relatively recent. ‘Just remember,’ as Eric Jarosinski put the point cleverly on Twitter in 2018, ‘Tuesday has always been a grand, yet failed social experiment. And always will be.’

The modern Tuesday is, in some profound ways, a social experiment. But whether it failed – or whether it ‘always will be’ – is less certain. Complaints of temporal disorientation during the COVID-19 pandemic suggested both that the week is a fragile construct and that the mental habits that have formed around its artificial rhythms are hard to shake and painful to lose. Even after decades of exposure to the demands of 24/7 capitalism and its new media enablers, we felt unmoored by the sudden fuzziness of our Tuesdays. The loosening of our grip on the week – and its grip on us – during the shutdown raised the spectre of lost memory and lost time. That spectre, like the social habits that keep it at bay, is part of the modern experience.

30 November 2021