If you were to single out one factor, I would say urbanization. This really is a social phenomenon: It’s about people wanting to be able to make schedules with others, especially strangers, either in a consumer context or socially. When most people lived on farms or in small villages, they didn’t need to coordinate many activities with folks whom they didn’t see regularly.
It’s become much more important to know what day of the week it is. Today, a lot varies between one day of the week and the next—entertainment schedules, violin lessons, custody arrangements, or any of the millions of things that we attach to the seven-day cycle.
This would go along with the creation of time zones which similarly attempted to standardize time for the benefit of all the people who were now interacting and traveling. I wonder if this is also related somehow to the earlier adoption of clocks in cities in the Middle Ages. With more people gathered in a single community, having a common time and calendar could be useful for organizing activity.
More broadly, the shift to cities had significant impacts beyond geography and physical locations. The change to city life, specifically big city life, prompted new ways of understanding the world plus new methods for organizing people and knowledge. How people related to each other changed. How government operated changed. Daily activities and the meaning of those changed.
This is why I often start my Urban Sociology course with highlighting how some of the first sociologists in Europe – Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and a few others – noted and commented on urban life. Could you have the capitalism described by Marx without big city life? Durkheim contrasted organic and mechanical solidarity. Weber defined cities as market centers. And so on. The big city as the center of social, economic, political, and religious life had numerous implications for society.
The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.
It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.
Pretty fascinating to think how parts of social life that we often take for granted – the calendar and time, measurement – have complicated social histories. It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way, as the rest of the discussion of the calendar demonstrates. Yet, once we are socialized into a particular system and may even passionately defend the way it is constructed without really knowing the reasons behind it, it can be very hard to conceive of a different way of doing things.