How the Week Organizes and Tyrannizes Our Lives
by Jill Lepore / November 15, 2021
“In a sagging desk drawer crammed with Magic Markers that have lost their magic, a rubber-banded collection of expired passports, and user manuals for printers I no longer use or even own, I keep a stash of decades-old wallet-size leather-bound appointment books marked with now meaningless meetings, obsolete assignations, assorted obligations, and inscrutable notes to self: Dept mtg, lunch w/Leah, S to dentist, cancel $14.9. The books have printed, on the left-hand page, the days of the week from Monday to Wednesday and, on the right, from Thursday to Sunday, and my favorite ones come with a red silky ribbon bookmark, a lolling tongue, glued into the binding. On the back, the books are stamped “Made in Great Britain” and “Letts of London,” the trademark of a printing house and bookbindery established in 1796. Early editions of Charles Dickens’s novels contained advertisements for Letts diaries.
You can get them pretty cheap, and I used to buy a new one every November from a neighborhood stationery store on an annual pilgrimage in search of an ordered life. Don’t make meetings! I wrote to myself all over the last week of March, 2007, verso and recto. (Spring break.) And, on every day that the Red Sox played at Fenway Park, I always wrote one word: Baseball. The stationery store has long since disappeared—at the moment, it’s being turned into a day-care center—but Letts is still in business. The company claims to be the inventor of the first commercially printed diary but says on its Web site, “We know how important it is for our products to evolve with the ever-changing times.” Some Letts diaries are now sold less for the planning of weeks than for the pursuit of wellness. “Self care for men should absolutely be a priority,” the company advises, marketing little books in which people can write about how they feel, not what they’re supposed to be doing. Planning your week is what Google Calendar is for: Degree cmte (zoom), staff mtg, Mrs. Pickles to vet. I haven’t bought a Letts of London since the second Obama Administration. The sun makes days, seasons, and years, and the moon makes months, but people invented weeks.
“Arguments against the current calendar and clock—fueled by frustrations with daylight saving time—are behind efforts to adopt a standard worldwide date and time system.”
What makes a Tuesday a Tuesday, and why does it come, so remorselessly, every seven days? A week is mostly made up. There have been five-day weeks and eight-day weeks and ten-day weeks. If asked, as a kindergartner, what makes a week, I’d have said five quarters and five dimes. Every Sunday night, my mother piled dimes on top of quarters on the kitchen counter, making a grid of four rows, one for each of her children, and five columns, one for each school day. Every school morning, we were supposed to take a quarter, for lunch money, and a dime, for milk money. I didn’t think Saturday and Sunday counted as part of the week. There’s got to be a reason for seven, but people like to argue about what it could possibly be. On the one hand, it seems as though it must be an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the sun and the moon; each of the four phases of the moon (full, waxing, half, and waning) lasts about seven days, though not exactly seven days. On the other hand, the number seven comes up in Genesis: God rested on the seventh day. Another reason for seven lies in the heavens. Many civilizations seem to have counted and named days of the week for the sun and the moon and the five planets that they knew about, a practice that eventually migrated to Rome.
Norse as well as Roman gods survive in the English names, too: Thursday, for Thor; Saturday, for Saturn. In “The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are” (Yale), the historian David M. Henkin calls the heavenly version the astronomical week and the Genesis kind the dominical week. Lately, there’s also the pandemic week, every day a Blursday. “For much of its long history, the seven-day week widened its geographical reach along paths of conquest, trade, and proselytization forged by Islam and especially Christianity,” Henkin writes. Still, he maintains that weekliness became relentless only about two hundred years ago, and that this development was most driven and widespread in the United States. Very few things in America used to take place on a particular day of the week, Henkin says, aside from worship and, in some places, market days. In time, though, elections tended to be held on Mondays and Tuesdays, public feasts and weddings on Thursdays, and public executions on Fridays. Then came factory life and wages and paydays: Saturdays. Saturday night was a night out. Put that together with Sunday as a day of rest and you’ve got a weekend. And, since workers tended to turn up late or not at all on Mondays, bosses began insisting that they turn up, promptly, on Monday morning. Monday through Saturday morning became the workweek and the school week. Monday became laundry day.
Henkin finds evidence for the emergence of these patterns in ingenious places: at a murder trial in 1842, the defendant’s lover, recalling the clothes he’d worn around the day of the crime, happened to mention that she’d put off her washing from Monday to Wednesday. It wasn’t only laundry that got done weekly. Soon Catharine Beecher and other writers of treatises on housekeeping were advising women to plan all their household chores around a particular day of the week. Mend on Mondays, iron every Wednesday, sweep the floors on Friday, inspect the pantry every Saturday. Meanwhile, schools began to assign the teaching of different subjects across the days of the week, “to secure, first, the recurrence of each subject at certain intervals; and secondly, to indicate the manner in which its several parts should be taken up in successive lessons,” as one teaching manual recommended, “so as to avoid a desultory and confused method of teaching on the one hand, or the neglect of any material point on the other.” People read newspapers and magazines that they called “weeklies.” And printers, not least Letts of London, began printing books, arranged by week, for recording attendance, and for making appointments. In the American countryside during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the mail came once a week, on the same day, providing a nice rhythm for epistolary romances and a chance to scold relatives. “I can’t tell you how much we were disappointed in not receiving a letter from you by Monday’s mail,” a lady from Georgia complained to her sister. People began to picture time in the shape of weeks. You could feel that it was Monday. You could smell that it was Thursday. You could hear that it was Wednesday or Saturday, if you lived near a theatre, since those were the days that theatres held matinées. In the eighteen-fifties, New York’s baseball clubs played games on Mondays and Thursdays, Tuesdays and Fridays, or Wednesdays and Saturdays, because they shared a field.
The development that really established the seven-day week as insurmountable, Henkin contends, came in the middle of the twentieth century: the television schedule. “Saturday afternoon movies, weekly sitcom serials, and colossal cultural institutions such as Monday Night Football played a far greater role in structuring the American week than Wednesday theater matinees a century earlier, because they reached so many more people and faced so little competition,” he writes. I’m not so sure. What really convinced me of the importance of weeks, in those years, is an artifact that Henkin never mentions. If asked, as a ten-year-old, I’d have guessed that the seven-day week came from the menstrual cycle, which my mother always called “your monthlies” but which, inspecting boxes of contraceptives in medicine cabinets at houses where I babysat, I understood to be a weekly affair: twenty-eight pills in four rows of seven columns, each column labelled with a day of the week and each row for a different week: the week when you don’t have your period; the week you’d ordinarily ovulate, if you weren’t on the Pill; the week you can tell your period is coming; and the week it comes. Maybe the packaging of the Pill, beginning in the nineteen-sixties, was worth a mention in the history of the idea, in America, of dividing time into weeks. In archives, menstruation is the notation that I find most often while paging through dead women’s calendars and week-at-a-glance appointment books: ticks or hash marks and, very often, the letter “P,” in red ink, or pink, every four weeks. There are apps for that now, their back screens plastered with flowers, icons of blood, and calendars of days, week upon week, period after period.
No one has ever really been able to topple the seven-day week. French revolutionaries tried to institute a ten-day week. Bolsheviks aimed for a five-day week. No one tried harder than Miss Elisabeth Achelis, a New York socialite, heir to the American Hard Rubber Company fortune, and an admirer of Melvil Dewey, he of the Dewey decimal system and simplified spelling. (He dropped the final “l” and “e” from his name, as a youngster, to save time.) Achelis was born in Brooklyn in 1880, a twin, and moved, with her family, to 9 East Fifty-seventh Street and then to Park Avenue. After her sister married and her parents and brother died, she inherited a fortune. Achelis encountered Dewey in 1929, when she was forty-nine and vacationing in Lake Placid. Dewey was giving a lecture called “How to Simplify Life.” One of his topics was the need to reform the calendar. “I had never given the calendar particular thought,” Achelis later wrote, but “now I was learning that it had been changed before and could be changed again.” Even as the seven-day week was “going global,” as Henkin puts it, toward the end of the nineteenth century lots of people began pointing out how awkward it was that the sixteenth of April fell on a Saturday in 1881 but on a Sunday in 1882. Especially after the adoption of an international standard of time, in 1884 (and the promulgation of time zones), many commentators expected a global standardization of the calendar, to remedy the quirkiness of the moon.
In the eighteen-nineties, Moses B. Cotsworth, an Englishman who worked as a statistician for a British railway company, began pondering the possibility of a more efficient calendar, one that would make it easier to compare revenues from month to month and week to week. He devised the International Fixed Calendar, which consisted of thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, with one extra day following the last day of December and one more, at the end of June, in leap years. The new month, between June and July, would be called Sol. (Auguste Comte had come up with nearly the same solution in 1849; under his plan, the extra day every year would be devoted to “all the dead” and the three-hundred-and-sixty-sixth day in leap years to “holy women.”) In the nineteen-twenties, as Vanessa Ogle writes in “The Global Transformation of Time,” “Cotsworth quit his job to become a full-time calendar reformer,” establishing the International Fixed Calendar League. Cotsworth’s proposal found support among leading American businessmen, notably George Eastman, at Kodak, and was adopted, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, by a slew of American businesses, including Sears, Roebuck. As Achelis later pointed out, the thirteen-month calendar drew support in the United States on the claim that it was patriotic, because the country had thirteen states at its founding and its flag had thirteen stripes. “The Fourth of July would fall on the seventeenth of Sol,” Achelis, who came to view Cotsworth as her archnemesis, fumed. “Imagine!” Eventually, this proposal failed, as Achelis put it, because “not only did tradition oppose, but mathematically the number 13 was a difficult one with which to cope.”
Achelis advocated a different calendar, “simplified and steadfast,” as she described it, “for everybody’s use.” It was based on a scheme first proposed in the eighteen-thirties, by an Italian priest, and she found it beautiful. Achelis adored time, and wanted it to be more ordered: “Can you imagine what life would be without a calendar that tells of intervals and associations of events? Would we not be laboring in a hopeless labyrinth of unrelated events? Every act would be one of isolation without focus, direction or meaning.” In 1930, Achelis founded the World Calendar Association, with offices on Madison Avenue. She also began publishing the Journal of Calendar Reform. “I hav red with great interest yur Journal,” Melvil Dewey wrote to her. Achelis endorsed a calendar of twelve months made up of four equal quarters of thirteen weeks, or ninety-one days. “Each year begins on Sunday, January 1,” she explained; every quarter begins on a Sunday, and ends on a Saturday. “Every year is comparable to every other year; and what is of utmost importance, days and dates always agree.” If you were born on a Friday, your birthday would always fall on a Friday. In deliberations at the League of Nations, the World Calendar beat out many rivals, including a proposal for a year of four thirty-five-day months plus eight twenty-eight-day months, and proposals for a five-, six-, and ten-day week.
The World Calendar created new days: Year-End Day, Leap-Year Day, extra Saturdays in December and June. Once every year and twice every four years, in other words, the World Calendar had an eight-day week. If adopted, it would have thrown out of whack the seventh-day Sabbath of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as the League for Safeguarding the Fixity of the Sabbath Against Possible Encroachment by Calendar Reform explained. “Six days do they labor and do all that they have to do but the seventh they worship and rest,” Time reported in 1934. “If one extra day alone were introduced into their year they would eventually be observing the Sabbath on weekdays while the rest of the world worked.” Achelis valued years, and cherished days. She did not admire weeks: “It’s very disturbing to have five Saturdays in one month every now and then.” In her view, “a new and better world cannot be built on a calendar with its faulty pattern of yesterday.” She wanted each year to be the same, the seven-day week be damned.
“She is particularly opposed to the wandering Easter,” Geoffrey Hellman wrote of her, in a 1939 Profile that appeared in this magazine. “If her plan ever gets adopted,” he wrote, “her name may make as profound an imprint on the history of measuring time as that of Julius Caesar, who gave the world the Julian Calendar, or Pope Gregory XIII, who established the Gregorian.” In 1955, when the United Nations proposed yet another study group to take up the subject of the World Calendar, the U.S. State Department opposed it. So did Congress. The Michigan congressman Gerald Ford observed, “Congress is in no mood to tamper with the calendar.” I tampered every which way with my Letts calendars, particularly on the pages, at the front and the back, that came with tables I never consulted—useless lists of wine vintages, metric conversions, toll-free numbers. Especially during meetings, restless, mind wandering, I scribbled all over those pages, writing down words I’d come across in my reading, and wanted to remember. Trifle, singular, perplexity, I scrawled across a page that was dedicated to “Notable Dates” but that I, in blue ballpoint, retitled Grave Circumstances. I am sure of the day of the week I wrote that. It would have been a Tuesday: Fac mtg.
There is no Achelian calendar, with its fixed dates and its supplemental Saturdays and sedentary Easters. Instead, more than five hundred million people around the world use Google Calendar, where you can toggle from days to weeks to years. Google knows where you are every day this week, and where you’ll be every day next week, and you don’t much need to mind the day, or know whether it’s a Thursday or a Tuesday, even if you’ve got someone to meet, or a train to catch; Google will send you a reminder. It will ring like a doorbell. It will blink like a traffic light. Elisabeth Achelis died in her sleep on Sunday, February 11, 1973, at the age of ninety-three. This year, the anniversary of Achelis’s death fell on a Thursday, an irregularity that she would have found intolerable.”
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