The History of a 40-Hour Work Week

By Lou Martin
Jacob Wackerhausen/iStock/Getty Images

In the work environment of 2010, it is not commonly known that the modern 40-hour work week has only been law since the 1930s. Before then, American workers commonly worked 10- to 14-hour work days, six days per week. There were small governmental attempts at regulating work hours in the 19th century, but it was the aggressive action of an auto maker and the subsequent efforts of American presidents that helped create the modern American work week widely practiced in 2010.


Henry Ford
Fuse/Fuse/Getty Images

Due mostly to the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, American workers, who included men, women and children, were required to work 14-hour work days. Attempts at regulating the amount of time worked in a day were made mostly on the state government level during the early 1900s. Some states even tried to limit the amount of hours worked by women. Auto maker Henry Ford was the first to voluntarily institute the work week that is commonplace in 2010.

Efforts at Change

Martin Van Buren, the first American president, legislation, the amount
Goodluz/iStock/Getty Images

Martin Van Buren was the first American president to initiate legislation aimed at controlling the amount of hours worked. In 1840, he issued an executive order that restricted the work day to 10 hours per day on federal works. In 1919, the International Labor Organization held its “Hours of Work” convention and created an eight-or-nine-hour per day, six days per week work schedule model. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Herbert Hoover launched a bill that would have reduced the American work week to 30 hours per week. The bill passed the Senate, but never made it out of the House.


Ford, the 40 hour work week
Nataliya Hora/iStock/Getty Images

On May 1, 1926, auto maker Henry Ford voluntarily instituted the eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week work schedule for his factory workers. Three months later, he instituted the work policy for his office workers. Ford's research made it clear that worker productivity and reduced production costs qualified the 40-hour work as a success. Ford also praised the shorter work week for providing employees with more social time.


FDR, the Healy Public Contracts Act
Igor Dimovski/iStock/Getty Images

Shortly after entering office, Franklin D. Roosevelt lobbied for shorter work hours, but his initial efforts were squashed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1936, the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act was passed, requiring government contractors to be paid overtime rates for time worked over eight hours per day. In 1938, the 40-hour work week became law with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

International Comparisons

Peru, more than 50.9%, its workers, 48 hours
Francesco Dazzi/iStock/Getty Images

A 2007 International Labour Organization study found that one in five workers throughout the world were working "excessive" hours. The study reported that more than 600 million workers throughout the world were working more than 48 hours per week. Peru ranked the highest in the study with 50.9 percent of its workers fitting into this category. Korea at 49.5 percent, Thailand at 46.7 percent, and Pakistan with 44.4 percent also had high percentages of workers who were working excessively. The study also found that 18.1 percent of American workers worked more than 48 hours, a fact due mostly to the economic climate.

About the Author

Lou Martin has been writing professionally since 1992. His work has appeared in the "Los Angeles Times," the "Long Beach Press-Telegram" and the "Deseret Morning News." Martin holds a Bachelor of Science in history and communication.