The shortening of the American work week: An economic and historical analysis of its context, causes, and consequences

Robert MacDonald Whaples, University of Pennsylvania


Among the most important long-term changes in the American labor market is the decline in the work week's length. This dissertation examines the context, causes, and consequences of the decline, focusing on the period of the most rapid change, the early twentieth century. Chapter One argues that the decline can be understood as part of a transition from short-term to long-term employment relations, and that understanding the shortening of the work week will elucidate the forces behind these broader changes. Chapters Two and Three survey the literature on the work week's length. Historians have chronicled the "shorter hours movement," stressing social and political forces behind the determination of hours worked. Economists have examined data on the time series of hours declines and hours worked in particular historical periods, and stress economic forces. Together they argue that the determination of hours is very complex, and that additional empirical research is needed. Chapter Four surveys economic models of the work week's determination, and examines the labor market of the early twentieth century using a recently developed model. Chapters Five and Six present empirical evidence on the determinants of city-level and industry-level hours in 1909, 1914, and 1919, and explain the rapid decline of the work week during this period. I find that wages, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, urbanization, unionization, and legislation were key supply-side forces shaping the work week's length, while industrial structure and technology acted on the demand side. The eight-hour day was won during this decade primarily through labor market tightness (wage increases, manufacturing employment expansion, and curtailment of immigration). State and federal government labor market intervention, increased union power, and technological changes in industry played smaller roles. The final chapter examines economic consequences of increased leisure during the early 1900s, especially the consequences which shorter hours had for older males. I conclude that shorter hours improved the employability of older males and that the notion of older workers being hurled upon an "industrial scrap heap" is of limited value in understanding their economic status in the early twentieth century.

Subject Area

Economic history|Labor economics|American history|American studies

Recommended Citation

Whaples, Robert MacDonald, "The shortening of the American work week: An economic and historical analysis of its context, causes, and consequences" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9026669.