Inspired by reports that a six-hour shift increased productivity at an English soap company, Kellogg Co. founder W.K. Kellogg changed cereal-plant production schedules from three eight-hour shifts to four six-hour shifts in 1930. The initiative, championed by company president Lewis Brown, let the Battle Creek, Mich., company hire 300 workers who'd been put out of work in the Great Depression. Kellogg's existing workforce took a slight pay cut.
The company found that the shorter workday influenced employees to work harder and more efficiently. The results included drastic reductions in overhead costs, labor costs, and the number of work-related accidents. Unit cost of production "is so lowered we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight," Kellogg boasted in a newspaper in 1935.
Improvement was even more dramatic outside the factory, in the town of Battle Creek. "For the first time they had real leisure," writes Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, professor of leisure arts at the University of Iowa, in his book, Kellogg's Six-Hour Day (Temple University Press, 1996). Parents spent more time with their children, in the neighborhood, and at libraries. Women gardened, canned, sewed, and made ice cream; men played baseball and softball, hunted, and farmed.
In 1943, the labor shortage and product demand brought on by World War II pushed the company back to an eight-hour workday. Union support helped restore the six-hour day immediately after the war, but many workers, most of them men, rallied for eight hours and correspondingly larger paychecks. Hunnicutt contends that growing consumerism helped deflect Americans' attention from leisure time in the postwar era, and that the business community worked to keep the focus on business rather than leisure.
The mortal wound for the six-hour program, Hunnicutt says, was the 1947 decision to let each plant department determine its hours. But it wasn't till 1985, more than 50 years after the program's inception, that the last 530 workers gave up their six-hour shifts at the plant.