Today is Monday, which is to say it is no longer Sunday and certainly not Saturday. (Sorry if that surprises you.) And it also means that, depending on your job and where you are in life, you’re probably at work instead of, well, not. Because today is definitely not the weekend. If anything, Monday is the start of the workweek, and the antithesis of the “weekend.”
But it wasn’t always that way. And in fact, for a few hundred years, Monday was the de facto weekend for many businesses and workers.
Mostly because the workers were too drunk to work, though.
In most of the English-speaking world, especially if you go back to the 1800s, Christianity is the dominant religion and Sunday is the Sabbath. That’s hardly universal; the Jewish Sabbath is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, give or take, and for Muslims, Friday is set aside as a special day for prayer. But there were few Muslims and Jews in the English-speaking world two hundred years ago and, for that matter, few believers in other religions or atheists. With Sunday being a day of prayer and rest, the British and American work-life cultures adopted a 6-day workweek, starting on Monday and running through Saturday. Sunday was a day off and Saturday, being the end of the workweek, was typically payday.
And that combination — money in your pocket and a day of leisure — wasn’t a great one, at least as far as your employer was concerned. The Atlantic explains:
Throughout the eighteenth century the workweek ended on Saturday evening; Sunday was the weekly day off. The Reformation, and later Puritanism, had made Sunday the weekly holy day in an attempt to displace the saints’ days and religious festivals of Catholicism (the Catholic Sunday was merely one holy day among many). Although the taboo on work was more or less respected, the strictures of Sabbatarianism that prohibited merriment and levity on the Lord’s Day were rejected by most Englishmen, who saw the holiday as a chance to drink, gamble, and generally have a good time.
And as a result, workers weren’t in the best condition to work come Monday morning. They were tired, grouchy, and likely hungover. So, many just took Monday off, perhaps making up the hours by working longer later in the week. Per the above-linked Atlantic article, “Among some trades, the Monday holiday achieved what amounted to an official status. Weavers and miners, for example, regularly took a holiday on the Monday after payday — which occurred weekly, on Friday or Saturday. This practice became so common that it was called ‘keeping Saint Monday.'”
The “Saint Monday” tradition wasn’t popular amongst those who were more religious; they didn’t think that the sabbath should be used for such debauchery, and probably correctly believed that employers were facilitating those practices by tolerating absenteeism on Mondays. Employers also didn’t like Saint Mondays; as industrialization increased, factories grew, and having an unpredictable percentage of your workforce simply not show up wasn’t conducive to making widgets or whatnot. The practice “became so common in the 19th century,” Mental Floss explains, “that many employers started making Saturdays a half-day as a compromise. Employees could take their paychecks, go out that evening drinking or dancing or whatever they did, and then spend the Sunday in church nursing that hangover. It was a win for all involved — the employees got more time off, the religious reformers preserved Sunday as a day of rest, and the factories had near-full attendance come Monday morning.
That was the beginning of the end for Saint Mondays. In 1908, the tradition fell further into disuse when, per Mental Floss, “one factory became the first in America to make Saturday an official day off out of respect for the Jewish Sabbath” and others soon followed. In 1938, the U.S. passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which limited the workweek to 40 hours (with excess requiring overtime pay). By then, Saturday was entrenched as the other day off, and that tradition remains today.
But maybe we should take Mondays off, too. Right?
From the Archives: When School Got Cancelled Because of the Super Bowl: Another case of an extended weekend.