LET'S REMINISCE: Who invented the 7 day week?

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

The sun makes days, seasons, and years, and the moon makes months, but people invented weeks. What makes a Tuesday a Tuesday, and why does it come, so relentlessly, every seven days? A week is mostly made up. There have been five-day weeks and eight-day weeks and ten-day weeks.

The very idea of a book on the seven-day week can seem startling. That alone affirms David M. Henkin’s thesis in “The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are,” which argues that we are so thoroughly marinated in its conventions that we seldom question its artificiality, or even its existence.

If no one can definitively explain the why of a seven-day system — first used in ancient Mesopotamia and appearing in the book of Genesis — Mr. Henkin at least explains the how. He scours American literature, diaries, periodicals, menus and other ephemera to unearth fascinating evidence of the stickiness of the seven-day cycle. He establishes the historical pressures that rendered the organization of the week malleable to changing needs of the marketplace, prevailing religions, social custom and the shape of working life.

Notwithstanding the book’s title, it is less about “the week” than how and when the week became entrenched in the United States. Our work, consumer and leisure habits became “intensely week-oriented” in the early 19th century and remain so today. In turn, America led the worldwide shift toward adoption of a universally recognized week as the primary organizer of time, ultimately both necessary to and driven by oncoming globalization. Other countries fell into line, as when in 1873 certain reforms decreed Japanese adherence to a seven-day week.

Mr. Henkin presents abundant evidence to support the idea that an essential function of the week is to situate people within their social and economic moment. Superstitions easily affixed themselves to various days, especially “luckless Friday.” The Friday shibboleth remains today, but mainly when the day falls on the 13th of the month. Plenty of other markers—laundry Monday, payday Saturday—are long forgotten.

Conceptions of the week have long been primarily responsive to the ways we buy and sell, work and unwind, which in turn respond to technological advance. All these have been revolutionized anew by the internet. Now we stream or engage in e-commerce whenever we like. The natural world never offered a reason for, say, mandating public executions on the same day each week (Friday, of course). Or making Monday night sacred to football.

That we persist in sorting activity in weekly cycles can only be explained by an instinctual need to psychologically manage the passage of time. In his epilogue, Mr. Henkin touches on “the fate of the week in the Internet age,” when we no longer venture to sales at Main Street stores and increasingly rarely to theaters to witness cinema. News is an unceasing river, no longer the province of the weekly newsmagazine or intoned at the same hour each weeknight. Still, the hold of the idea of a week is tenacious.

Thus do days display peculiar traits, almost “faces,” in the term of an Atlantic Monthly essay cited by Mr. Henkin: Tuesday “is like those people to whom we dread being introduced, because they have no expression of face, and it is morally certain we shall never be able to recognize them again.” It was written in 1887. Surely the scope of social change since then has done away with such sentimental projection?

The current pandemic offered Mr. Henkin a spontaneous real-life test of how psychically rooted the week remains. Absent the touchstones of going to work or play on specific days, many of us felt unmoored not only from time but also from ourselves. People reported feeling distraught at no longer knowing if it was Tuesday or Wednesday—and the sense of shock went deeper than missing a few calendar dates. As Mr. Henkin notes, “Losing one’s handle on the week raises the specter of lost memory and lost time.”

In the end, this timekeeping convention is an emotional construct. We need some means of orienting ourselves to the many working parts of our world, a governor on the chaos of so many interlocking functions and needs. The seven-day wheel turns especially neatly for the uses of industry and finance—but so do people. The week is eternity in an idea.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.