Han Joachim Voth, in his essay, Time Use in Eighteenth century London: some evidence from Old Bailey (1997) cleverly figured out a way to quantify over time use in 18th century Britain by using the accounts of witnesses at trials. The question of whether and how much time discipline intensified among urban laborers (and agricultural workers) has been much disputed, as the Marxist claim that was backed up in the E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class has been tugged at here and statistically stiffed there. Voth concluded that the evidence points not to longer working days, but instead, to longer working weeks. The sixteenth and seventeenth century holidays were being cut down. St. Monday was assassinated. Another study of the decline of Saint Monday (the day that workers would sometimes take off to have a day of drinking and music) in 18th and 19th century Birmingham found that the Saint was not martyred all at once, but bit by bit.
The evidence, then, points to an increase in the working time of the laboring class in Britain in the 18th century. And yet, at the same time, one discovers a new sense of leisure among the ‘middling men’ – the bourgeoisie – both in the later start in life by bourgeois children, who were educated for much longer than laborer’s children, and in soft work and hard leisure – a certain non-differentiation of the two spheres. Gambling could be leisure, but for many it really did pay the bills. And the question of intellectual labor was still not wholly defined at this time. Research could be a hobby from, say, preaching.
What is important is that leisure and labor carry strong class colorations. As Joan-Lluís Marfany puts it in “The invention of labour in Early Modern Europe”:
…take the question of boredom, the history of which [Peter Burke] invites us to write. This is not, as it may seem, strictly an upper- class problem, but here too there is one important distinction to be made. The leisured classes get bored because they are idle; their problem, as Burke, quoting Henry Fielding, points out, is how to kill time. For the workers, the source of boredom is work. They too devise ways of passing the time, only in their case it is working time that needs to be passed. In conservative, idealizing literature, peasants are portrayed as people who like to keep always busy, to the extent that even in the long winter evenings when they get together to while away the time by telling stories, singing songs and playing games, they still manage to combine these activities with some useful task, such as, for instance in northern Catalonia, peeling or shelling corn cobs, or sifting Yet we might just as well look at it from the opposite angle. The cobs had to be peeled and shelled; the seeds had to be sifted; the stamens to be carefully plucked for saffron; the wool or the flax had to be spun: all tedious, repetitive tasks. Doing the work together to the accompaniment of stories, songs or games was a way of alleviating the mind-numbing boredom of the chores.”
These are quick glimpses of a deep and complex historical event, but they pose a question: how could Hume have gotten it so wrong? That is, how could he, and other European intellectuals of the time, have thought that they were living in the golden age of leisure?