“Seven days,” wrote Witold Rybczynski in the August 1991 issue of The Atlantic, “is not natural because no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.” The year marks one revolution of the Earth around the sun. Months, supposedly, mark the time between full moons. The seven-day week, however, is completely man-made.Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From (The Atlantic) Anyone who had been in rush-hour traffic knows the idiocy of maintaining this system. Yet another example of how our dysfunctional social systems lead to waste and inefficiency of precious irreplaceable resources. See also How the Industrial Revolution Ended Naps (Vice)
If it’s man-made, can’t man unmake it? For all the talk of how freeing it’d be to shave a day or two off the five-day workweek, little attention has been paid to where the weekly calendar came from. Understanding the sometimes arbitrary origins of the modern workweek might inform the movement to shorten it.
The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week. (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born.
The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries:
In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.
Some 19th-century Britons used the week's seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of “Saint Monday,” in which workers would skip work to recover from Sunday's gallivanting, emerged. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them a half-day on Saturday in exchange for guaranteed attendance at work on Monday.
The Industrial Revolution was a pivotal moment in the history of labor, marking the turning point when humanity began to shift from a farming and handicrafts based economy, to one of mass manufacturing and production. And while the changes in our society were obviously monumental (to put it mildly), heralding the way for stuff like conveyor belts and factory life, it’s also worth reflecting on how those sudden changes profoundly affected the way humans sleep.Seven day weeks? Eight solid hours of sleep? Why are we living in these profoundly unnatural ways? Is there any really practical reason for it? Talk about social inertia!
Prior to the 18th century much of humanity used to have two distinct resting periods where farmers and workers caught up on some sleep, versus today's solid eight hours of sleep a night in the United States. The two sleeps of the past are called 'segmented sleeping' in today’s terms, and were often referred to in Europe as "first sleep" and "second sleep"[...]
Before the 18th century, night was a pretty scary time for most people, even the rich, who could only afford to buy light-producing objects such as candles. But as light technology became more prevalent, and evening activities more common—up until the 17th century, most people out at night were either drunk or looking for prostitutes, according to the paper—we began to change our sleeping patterns to suit our new access to later hours.
It didn't happen overnight, either. Just as the Industrial Revolution actually took several centuries to completely unfold, it was really only until the 1920s when references to first and second sleep dried up. And nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that eight hours of sleep is what’s healthy, with segmented sleep rarely mentioned in the US except in reference to the Spanish siesta.
The thing is, our bodies aren't built for sleeping in eight hour blocks. For example, Dr. Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist, experimented by removing artificial light from the equation of test subjects—that meant no smart phones, laptops, or even light bulbs for 14 hours a day. At first there wasn’t any change, but after several weeks of experimentation the Wehr's subjects ended up reverting to the first and second sleep pattern that’s been around at least since Homer.