Irish-American businessman and industrialist Henry Ford was born in Detroit on this day in 1863. He would go on to have a massive impact in introducing weekends as we know them today.

How many of us would survive our working lives without the promise of Friday night drinks, Saturday lie-ins, leisurely lunches, hanging with friends, no pressure, no deadlines, no bosses? The very idea of a weekend is so much part of our culture that it’s hard to believe that less than 100 years ago it didn’t exist for most workers. Six-day weeks were the norm.

It was only in 1908 that the first American workers were treated to a five-day week. A cotton mill in New England gave its employees an extra day off so that its Jewish workers could observe Sabbath from sundown on Friday evening to sundown on Saturday.

Living for the weekend?

Did you know that 100 years ago the work week was six days long? Thanks to an Irish American carmaker with strong Cork roots we'll all be sleeping in this Saturday. Read more here:

Posted by on Dé Luain, 26 Márta 2018

But it was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland during the Famine, who put the weekend on the map. In 1926 he stunned the American business world by introducing a five-day, 40-hour week for workers at his auto factories. “It’s time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege,” said Ford when explaining his decision.

Ford had already marked himself out as a management innovator when he more than doubled the minimum wage at his factories from $2.34 for a nine-hour day to $5 for an eight-hour day. True the increase was only available for male workers when it was introduced in 1914, but by 1916 it was extended to female workers.

While other factory owners grumbled about Ford’s largesse to employees, productivity at Ford factories soared, along with company loyalty.

Before long, other companies followed suit and before long, the two-day weekend work break became the norm.

If there’s any doubt about just how much we all love Ford’s innovation, just think of all the songs written about the weekend, from Sam Cooke’s Another Saturday Night from 1963 to The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love the list is endless. And that’s not counting the Canadian singer called The Weeknd.

Perhaps it was Ford’s humble Irish roots that enabled him to understand how best to motivate his workers. Ford’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather were all born in a stone-built single-story cottage in West Cork. His father was born in a nearby village and in 1847, the worst year of the potato famine in Ireland, at the age of 21 he emigrated with his parents to the US. His mother died on the voyage.

Ever proud of his Irish roots, Ford invested heavily in Ireland, opening an assembly plant in Cork which at one point employed 7,000 workers.

Ford’s ancestral home in Ballinascarthy, West Cork, has been renovated and is now open to the public.

*Originally published in March 2018. Updated in July 2023. 

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