kottke.org posts about schedules

A Short History of the Week

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021


Years, days, seasons, even months correspond to natural divisions of time in most parts of the Earth. We split those into hours, minutes, seconds, pretty cleanly if you’re a post-Sumerian who loves the number 60. But weeks? You can talk about phases of the moon, but for the most part, weeks are our most arbitrary (and mathematically awkward) imposition on the experience of time. (Not everybody observes a seven-day week, even today.)

So how did we make the week a thing?

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.

Along with charting the stars and setting aside time for the sacred, weeks, David Henkin argues, serve as mnemonic devices, divide work from non-work days, allow us to distinguish one cycle of days from the next, and offer a regular opportunity to take stock.

Starting around the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, the division of time into weeks (which correspondingly creates a repeating order of days) also allowed for a new, industrial-bureaucratic conditioning to take place: we created schedules.

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.

Offices and workplaces were soon to follow. Eventually, the week provided such a regular structure to our days and activities that when any disruption happens (be it mild and passing like a holiday, or more deeply deranging, like a pandemic), it throws us into disorientation. We made the week, but now we can’t live without it.