What time of the day did work for professional & clerical jobs begin & end 100, 200 & 300 years ago?

In 1900, 1800, and 1700 what time of the day did professional and and clerical businesses begin and end their workday?

Most jobs of whatever kind were pegged to sunlight in 1700 and 1800. The use of candles was expensive and awkward. And they could set fires when piles of paper were around. Buildings were designed to allow as much light in as possible.

I’ve just been rereading some books by the engineering historian Henry Petroski - highly recommended - and he has a drawing of a pin making factory from a 1772 book. That’s a factory rather than an office, but look at the size of those windows compared to the people.

Building design was a constant battle to create window space while keeping the load stresses on the brick or stone verticals low. In addition, glass was proportionally far more expensive than brick. No doubt, many buildings were built on the cheap with insufficient window space and bad lighting.

Look at contemporary drawings of A Christmas Carol and legendary miser Ebeneezer Scrooge. Forget all those movie scenes with gaslights in the streets and glowing Victorian windows. Here’s a street scene that shows that windows were often small and streets were narrow and gloomy. There does seem to be a gas light at the top but I can’t imagine that was more than minimal light. Here’s an interior. Cratchit has a tiny window that’s framed by one large window. I see a candle in the outer office window, but they couldn’t have gotten much work done after dark. I’m sure that some work went on by candlelight if needed but regular hours would have been doubtful.

You don’t give a location for your question. I’m sure there were many local conventions for starting and stopping time. But day length was probably a much bigger factor. England and especially Scotland are farther from the equator than the 13 colonies, with London being a full 10 degrees north of New York City. That gave a huge variation to the length of the day over the course of the year.

The famed reading room of the British Library is a monument to this. It was built in an underused courtyard that had been overshaded by the four other buildings in the British Museum complex that surrounded it. Sydney Smirke had the brilliant idea of erecting a huge dome that would rise so high that it would capture the light. But it was built without gaslights. Requests for books could only be made until about 4 pm in winter.

By 1900 most offices had gaslight and a rapidly increasing number in large cities had electricity. My guess is that an average office day would be from about 8 to 6, but with a lot of local variation. I’ve read some suggestions that the 9 to 5 workday became common after enough workers moved to the suburbs and so needed the extra time to commute in via railroads. That certainly started before 1900 but probably didn’t become standard until after WWI.


The lower floor probably had small windows for security reasons. I recall reading a link to interviews done in the mid-1800’s with the Oliver-Twist type of thieves that overpopulated London.

If you tour the old businesses of Venice, for example, the typical floor plan is warehouse on the ground level, offices and residence above. (Servants quarters in the attic, least insulated from the weather). Note how the Victorian buildings have tiny ground floor windows but nice airy bay windows up out of reach.

I suppose offices (including, I assme, he safe) would be upstairs - for security, and also because any business that moves goods would reserve the ground floor for heavy goods, and use a room upstairs for work that only required papers and money to be carried up and down.

I’d need to see evidence for this. AFAIK, it isn’t true. In London - and in American cities - offices were on the first floor. Some people may have had offices in their homes and a stairway connection but even in Victorian days offices were commonly separate. A two-story office would be a huge and unnecessary expense. Some people did have their offices on upper floors, of course, but these were cheaper and of less prestige, exactly because people had to walk up a flight (or more) of stairs to get to them.

BTW, my “Cratchit has a tiny window that’s framed by one large window.” is supposed to be “Cratchit has a tiny *office *that’s framed by one large window.”

Excellent post.

I just wanted to add that the window tax and the cost of making and transporting glass contributed heavily towards the way buildings were built at the time. One of the reasons you see so many tall windows in old buildings is that they were charged on number of windows, not size, but wider windows would be less structurally sound.

Like so many things, this varies (all together now!) by location. In Spain, even during the Industrial period, sunlight has had the problem of bringing heat with it; much of our construction is specifically created to keep the sun out, or to come up with ways to make it regulable. The few locations where you see the kind of Industrial-era buildings Exapno Mapcase describes are all on the Northern coast, where the weather is more similar to Ireland’s than to what one would expect to see in a tourist poster of Spain. For a Southern Spain example, google “fabrica de tabaco de sevilla” (I can’t access most of those sites from work). It’s a tall building and has some serious windows… by Spanish standards: compared with the steel-and-glass of the Mercedes factory in Vitoria (which only has brick on the corners), the Real Fábrica de Tabacos is a brick box.

Two of these ways which were very common, and commonly used as work spaces by scribes (in the widest sense of the word) were patios and porches. In Spain you can have a patio with porches around it or with denim awnings over it, so you can sit in the open, covered and shadowed or covered but lit areas depending on the weather and on your needs. The denim awnings can be pulled back when the weather is cool, extended when it’s hot.

In my home town of Coventry, houses were built with a “top shops” on the third floor . These rooms with large windows were used by ribbon weavers, and then later on watch makers, who worked at home. You can see some examples here

I actually thought about including a sentence saying that I hope Nava comes in and talks about Spain, especially what hours were like given the Spanish heat. I understand that many days were until quite recently broken in two separate parts.

The problem for me is that while I study the history of cities, especially during the industrial period of urbanization, even the best urban histories written by the English or Americans tend to leave out Spain. Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, about the size of a compact car, doesn’t have a chapter on Spain in its thousand pages.

A couple of comments, though. Yes, it was common to place areas that needed light at the top of buildings. That was true for library reading rooms as well, including the famed New York Public Library. Those big windows on top are the reading room. The narrow ones underneath are the stacks where the books are kept. And this in a building not opened until 1911.

But the needs of professional offices are different. They depended on contact with the public. Having them on the first floor so that clients could walk right in was a higher priority than having the top floor. Especially since buildings were built up next to one another so that two of the walls would be covered giving much less of an advantage.

That’s also why you saw bow and box windows (one is curved, the other is angled) on many second and higher floors. Normally you couldn’t build them on the first floor because streets were so narrow that they’d intrude. But you could build them on the second floor over traffic. This pattern can be found all over northern Europe. Southern Europe, too, judging by this street view of Madrid. You’d see reading nooks built into them or flowers kept on tables. And they improved air circulation.

I guess it depends on whether the building is an office business, or another business with an office. The Venetian buildings were warehouses, their primary use of the first floor was large goods storage. The second floor was the office/study, ballroom and dining room, etc. The higher floors would be the min bedroms, the top floor in the attic was the servant rooms.

Another question would be how many businesses were “paper-pushers”, office only, no physical work. Banks come to mind - the safe would probably need candle lighting anyway. I imagine smaller-space businesses (colckmakers, shoe repair, etc.) would just have a bench in the corner for office work (near the window too).

So work may have commonly ended at sundown in the past… were clerical workers expected to arrive at sunrise?

Guess I’m [del]predictable[/del] reliable, uh? Forget about the “until quite recently”: store hours in Southern Spain have a much, much larger midday break than in the North. But then, when you’ve got temperatures about or over 100F at 8pm in May, it stands to reason that people will do their best to avoid being in the streets between noonish and 8ish.

That would vary by location, time of year…

When Littlebro came to visit me in Glasgow (not exactly a city reputed by its sunshine), the first morning he woke up, puttered around for a while, and then came into the living room and said “I know you’re half-hen, but how the hell is a normal person expected to live like this? I thought it was at least 8 and it’s 4-effing-a-m!”

Locations and times where the sun is up by 4-f-a.m.: no, clerical workers wouldn’t be at their desks by sunrise. Other locations and times with more-reasonable sunrises: yes, same as farmers or artisans.

Presumably you left enough time for the workers to eat and commute, unless you were paying them a wage that allowed them to afford candles at home to have breakfast and dinner by. Bob Cratchit eating a hearty dinner by a roaring fire suggests firewood was pretty cheap in the middle of a giant city tens of miles from any forest. I doubt it. Fuel was likely a problem even then.

What commute, people lived within walking distance of their jobs.

I was thinking of corporations and desk jobs, trying to keep to the OP. Iberdrola, the huge Spanish energy conglomerate, not only owns Scottish Power but a number of utilities in New York State. I’ve talked to people who work for them and they’ve all commented on the differences in cultures, even though everyone is bending over backward to be polite. They seem to work conventional full workdays, though, so I assumed that modern international business practices had forced the older habits out of multinational companies and presumably local ones as well.

md2000, coal began to overtake firewood for home use in London as early as 1550. By the Victorian Era it was almost universal. All those famous fogs Sherlock Holmes walked through were produced by coal dust in the air.

And Nava is correct that a poor clerk like Cratchit would walk to work, probably no more than a mile. A one mile radius around, say, Westminster, would encompass close to 2 million people and take in most of Central London. You probably could find most of Homes’ London adventures in that circle.

Railway commuting for people who could afford it probably starts around 1850. London had enormous suburbs by the end of the century, but that just concentrated the poor who were left.

A mile walk would take about 20 minutes each way. Unless they were supposed to do this in pitch dark, and eat in the dark, then there was a bit of time allowed. If it was ankle-deep in mud, even 3mph is optimistic.

I agree, the quaint picture of everyone celebrating around a roaring fireplace was probably more rural than urban.

We also need to distinguish between Victorian times, which were probably closer to modern times in some respects, and the 1700’s or 1600’s. Of course, back in those earlier centuries, I assume paper was a lot more expensive, and there was probably a lot less paper-pushing.

related question: Did full-time clerical jobs exist in the 1700’s ?
Before the railroads and the Victorian era, I’m guessing that a typical business didn’t need a full-time clerk.
I’m imagining colonial America and the famous Boston Tea party: The shipper importing the tea had a clerk who kept some records:
–contents of the ship:number of barrels of tea, number of bales of tobacco, number of slaves,etc,
– taxes to be paid,
–salaries for the dock workers
But each of those lists is probably only 20 lines long, and probably less than 2 or 3 ships per week arrived in the port.

Am I wrong?

I recall one of my high school American history books had a copy of rules for a general store about 1880. IIRCC it was a mid west state like Kansas. It was brutal. They had to be at work early 5:00 and open by 6. Sweep floors,dust, wear suits regardless of how hot it was. The list just went on and on. I recall thinking a job on a family farm would be better.

I’ve tried googling that list of rules. Without more info it’s impossible. I wish I could find that list of rules. It makes office work today seem like paradise.

Predictably, there’s a map for that:


Many jobs (since at least the Industrial age) are “full shift”: you get a lunch break/sandwich break but you’re supposed to eat at work, same as in the US.

Office workers may or may not be “full shift” and may get an official “sandwich break” or several official “coffee breaks” (not to be mistaken with the tons of unofficial coffee breaks which are the Spanish version of “trips to the water cooler”). Most civil servants work mornings only and go home to a late lunch; clerical workers in companies may be morning shift (late lunch), full shift (eat at work/in the restaurant which serves that industrial area) or get a long midday break (eat at home, “cut shift”). Long midday breaks are very uncommon in the cities, where the time needed to go home, eat lunch and come back without choking on your meal would be way too long; they’re more common in small towns. This affects family life: children whose parents have a cut shift are likely to eat lunch with their parents at home (we always did, growing up), children whose parents eat at work will eat at school, turning dinner into the only family meal in the day. My big city cousins could go without seeing their mother except as a very harried and hurried ghost for days.

Iberdrola’s main offices are in Bilbao: big city. Their workers have had full shifts since the company got started. I loved your description of how everybody bends backwards to be polite, I remember their CEO laughing about his problems with Scottish English and saying “we said this project’s official language was English but we should have said it was ‘English for foreigners’, sorry!”

chappachula, there have been self-employed scribes (who got paid to write letters and to read the letters received by others, to perform accounting, to copy or certify documents) since at least as far back as the 16th century, as well as both nobles and merchants with full-time secretaries and full-time financial managers.