When it comes to the calendar, there are only two things that are fixed by nature that we have no control over: the length of the day and the length of the year as approximately 365¼ days. All the other divisions are purely arbitrary. While some cultures have calendars that ascribe significance to the lunar months that last approximately 28 days, it is safe to say that we can safely ignore it. How many of us keep track of the lunar phases from day to day anyway? But despite the fact that we can subdivide the days in the year in any way we like, we have arrived at a system that makes little sense. We divide the year into four months of 30 days each, seven months of 31 days each and one month of 28 days, becoming 29 in a leap year.
But the really weird thing is the length of the week as seven days. As a result of the present system, any given date will fall on a different day of the week from year to year, which makes long term planning of events more difficult.
Part of the problem is that the number 365 only factors into 5 and 73. So to have a regular pattern, we would need to have five divisions of 73 days each or 73 divisions of five days each. 73 weeks of five days each would be workable, though this might mean a three day work week if we want to keep a two day weekend, or we would have just a single day off after four days.
The number 364 has many more factors (2, 4, 7, 13, 14, 26, 28, 52, 91, 182). It is the pairs of factors 13×28 and 4×91 that were used as the bases of proposed new calendars that would be more regular.
In should not be surprising that there have been repeated calls to change the system. In a review of a book The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are by historian David M. Henkin, Jill Lepore examines the history of the seven-day week and the efforts to change it. What surprised me as that these efforts persisted until the mid-twentieth century before they were abandoned.
Lepore says that historically there have been five-day, eight-day and ten-day weeks and the seven day week established its hegemony largely due to the domination of Christianity and Islam.
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.
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.”)
Achelis endorsed a [World 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.
Apparently some people in the US were upset that adopting a new calendar meant that the ‘Fourth of July’ would have to be called something else, as if Independence Day was not enough. That was not all. The new calendars also conflicted with religious routines.
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.”
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.
And that ended that.