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Apprenticeship in the United States

Daniel Jacoby, University of Washington, Bothell

Once the principal means by which craft workers learned their trades, apprenticeship plays a relatively small part in American life today. The essence of this institution has always involved an exchange of labor for training, yet apprenticeship has been far from constant over time as its survival in the United States has required nearly continual adaptation to new challenges.

Four distinct challenges define the periods of major apprenticeship changes. The colonial period required the adaptation of Old World practices to New World contexts. In the era of the new republic, apprenticeship was challenged by the clash between traditional authority and the logic of expanding markets and contracts. The main concern after the Civil War was to find a training contract that could resolve the heightening tensions between organized labor and capital. Finally, in the modern era following World War I, industrialization’s skill-leveling effects constituted a challenge to apprenticeship against which it largely failed. Apprenticeship lost ground as schooling was instead increasingly sought as the vehicle for upward social mobility that offset the leveling effects of industrialization. After reviewing these episodes this essay concludes by speculating whether we are now in a new era of challenges that will reshape apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship came to American soil by way of England, where it was the first step on the road to economic independence. In England, master craftsmen hired apprentices in an exchange of training for service. Once their term of apprenticeship was completed, former apprentices traveled from employer to employer earning wages as journeymen. When, or if, they accumulated enough capital, journeymen set up shop as independent masters and became members of their craft guilds. These institutions had the power to bestow and withdraw rights and privileges upon their members, and thereby to regulate competition among themselves.

One major concern of the guilds was to prevent unrestricted trade entry and thus apprenticeship became the object of much regulation. Epstein (1998), however, argues that monopoly or rent-seeking activity (the deliberate production of scarcity) was only incidental to the guilds’ primary interest in supplying skilled workmen. To the extent that guilds successfully regulated apprenticeship in Britain, that pattern was less readily replicated in the Americas whose colonists came to exploit the bounty of natural resources under mercantilistic proscriptions that forbade most forms of manufacturing. The result was an agrarian society practically devoid of large towns and guilds. Absent these entities, the regulation of apprenticeship relied upon government actions that appear to have been become more pronounced towards the mid-eighteenth century. The passage of Britain’s 1563 Statute of Artificers involved government regulation in the Old World as well. However, as Davies (1956) shows, English apprenticeship was different in that craft guilds and their attendant traditions were more significant.

The Colonial Period

During the colonial period, the U.S was predominantly an agrarian society. As late as 1790 no city possessed a population in excess of 50,000. In 1740, the largest colonial city, Philadelphia, possessed 13,000 inhabitants. Even so, the colonies could not operate successfully without some skilled tradesmen in fields like carpentry, cordwaining (shoemaking), and coopering (barrel making). Neither the training of slaves, nor the immigration of skilled European workmen was sufficient to prevent labor short colonies from developing their own apprenticeship systems. No uniform system of apprenticeship developed because municipalities, and even states, lacked the authority either to enforce their rules outside their own jurisdictions or to restore distant runaways to their masters. Accordingly, apprenticeship remained a local institution.

Records from the colonial period are sparse, but both Philadelphia and Boston have preserved important evidence. In Philadelphia, Quimby (1963) traced official apprenticeship back, at least, to 1716. By 1745 the city had recorded 149 indentures in 33 crafts. The stock of apprentices grew more rapidly than did population and after an additional 25 years it had reached 537.

Quimby’s Colonial Philadelphia data indicate that apprenticeship typically consigned boys, aged 14 to 17, to serve their masters until their twenty-first birthdays. Girls, too, were apprenticed, but females comprised less than one-fifth of recorded indentures, most of whom were apprenticed to learn housewifery. One significant variation on the standard indenture involved the binding of parish orphans. Such paupers were usually indented to less remunerative trades, usually farming. Yet another variation involved the coveted apprenticeships with merchants, lawyers, and other professions. In these instances, parents usually paid masters beforehand to take their children.

Apprenticeship’s distinguishing feature was its contract of indenture, which elaborated the terms of the arrangement. This contract differed in two major ways from the contracts of indenture that bound immigrants. First, the apprenticeship contract involved young people and, as such, required the signature of their parents or guardians. Second, indentured servitude, which Galenson (1981) argues was adapted from apprenticeship, substituted Atlantic transportation for trade instruction in the exchange of a servant’s labor. Both forms of labor involved some degree of mutuality or voluntary agreement. In apprenticeship, however, legal or natural parents transferred legal authority over their child to another, the apprentice’s master, for a substantial portion of his or her youth. In exchange for rights to their child’s labor, parents were also relieved of direct responsibility for child rearing and occupational training. Thus the child’s consent could be of less consequence than that of the parents.

The articles of indenture typically required apprentices to serve their terms faithfully and obediently. Indentures commonly included clauses prohibiting specific behaviors, such a playing dice or fornication. Masters generally pledged themselves to raise, feed, lodge, educate, and train apprentices and then to provide “freedom dues” consisting of clothes, tools, or money once they completed the terms of their indentures. Parents or guardian were co-signatories of the agreements. Although practice in the American colonies is incompletely documented, we know that in Canada parents were held financially responsible to apprentice masters when their children ran away.

To enforce their contracts parties to the agreement could appeal to local magistrates. Problems arose for many reasons, but the long duration of the contract inevitably involved unforeseen contingencies giving rise to dissatisfactions with the arrangements. Unlike other simple exchanges of goods, the complications of child rearing inevitably made apprenticeship a messy concern.

The Early Republic

William Rorabaugh (1986) argues that the revolutionary era increased the complications inherent in apprenticeship. The rhetoric of independence could not be contained within the formal political realm involving relations between nations, but instead involved the interpersonal realms wherein the independence to govern one’s self challenged traditions of deference based upon social status. Freedom was increasingly equated with contractual relations and consent. However, exchange based on contract undermined the authority of masters. And so it was with servants and apprentices who, empowered by Republican ideology, began to challenge their masters conceiving themselves, not as willful children, but as free and independent citizens of the Revolution.

The revolutionary logic of contract ate away at the edges of the long-term apprenticeship relationship and such indentures became substantially less common in the first half of the nineteenth century. Gillian Hamilton (2000) has tested whether the decline in apprenticeship stemmed from problems in enforcing long-term contracts, or whether it was the result of a shift by employers to hire unskilled workers for factory work. While neither theory alone explains the decline in the stock of apprenticeship contracts, both demonstrate how emerging contractual relations undermined tradition by providing new choices. During this period she finds that masters began to pay their apprentices, that over time those payments rose more steeply with experience, and that indenture contracts were shortened, all of which suggest employers consciously patterned contracts to reduce the turnover that resulted when apprentices left for preferable situations. That employers increasingly preferred to be freed from the long-term obligations they owed their apprentices suggests that these responsibilities in loco parentis imposed burdens upon masters as well as apprentices. The payment of money wages reflected, in part, costs associated with their parental authorities that could now, more easily, be avoided in urban areas by shifting responsibilities back to youths and their parents.

Hamilton’s evidence comes from Montreal, where indentures were centrally recorded. While Canadian experiences differed in several identifiable ways from those in the United States, the broader trends she describes are consistent with those observed in the United States. In Frederick County Maryland, for example, Rorabaugh (1986) finds that the percentage of white males formally bound as apprentices fell from nearly 20% of boys aged 15 to 20 to less than 1% between 1800 and 1860. The U.S decline however, is more difficult to gage because informal apprenticeship arrangements that were not officially recorded appear to have risen. In key respects issues pertaining to the master’s authority remained an unresolved complication preventing a uniform apprenticeship system and encouraging informal apprenticeship arrangements into the period well after slavery was abolished.

Postbellum Period

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 formally ended involuntary servitude, the boundary line between involuntary and voluntary contracts remained problematic, especially in regards to apprenticeship. Although courts explained that labor contracts enforced under penalty of imprisonment generally created involuntary servitude, employers explored contract terms that gave them unusual authority over their apprentices. States sometimes developed statutes to protect minors by prescribing the terms of legally enforceable apprenticeship indentures. Yet, doing so necessarily limited freedom of contract: making it difficult, if not impossible, to rearrange the terms of an apprenticeship agreement to fit any particular situation. Both the age of the apprentice and the length of the indenture agreement made the arrangement vulnerable to abuse. However, it proved extremely difficult for lawmakers to specify the precise circumstances warranting statutory indentures without making them unattractive. In good measure this was because representatives of labor and capital seldom agreed when it came to public policy regarding skilled employment. Yet, the need for some policy increased, especially after the labor scarcities created by the Civil War.

Companies, unions and governments all sought solutions to the shortages of skills caused by the Civil War. In Boston and Chicago, for example, women were recruited to perform skilled typography work that had previously been restricted to men. The Connecticut legislature authorized a new company to recruit and contract skilled workers from abroad. Other states either wrote new apprenticeship laws or experimented with new ways of training workers. The success of craft unionism was itself an indication of the dearth of organizations capable of implementing skill standards. Virtually any new action challenged the authority of either labor or capital, leading one or the other to contest them. Jacoby (1996) argues that the most important new strategy involved the introduction of short trade school courses intended to substitute for apprenticeship. Schooling fed employers’ hope that they might sidestep organized labor’s influence in determining the supply of skilled labor.

Independent of the expansion of schooling, issues pertaining to apprenticeship contract rights gained in importance. Firms like Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive held back wages until contract completion in order to keep their apprentices with them. The closer young apprentices were bound to their employers, the less viable became organized labor’s demand to consult over or to unilaterally control the expansion or contraction of training. One-sided long-term apprenticeship contracts provided employers other advantages as well. Once under contract, competitors and unions could be legally enjoined for “enticing” their workers into breaking their contracts. Although employers rarely brought suit against each other for enticement of their apprentices, their associations, like the Metal Manufactures Association in Philadelphia, prevented apprentices from leaving one master for another by requiring consent and recommendation of member employers (Howell, 2000). Employer associations could, in this way, effectively blacklist union supporters and require apprentices to break strikes.

These employer actions did not occur in a vacuum. Many businessmen faulted labor for tying their hands when responding to increased demands for labor. Unions lost support among the working class when they restricted the number of apprentices an employer could hire. Such restrictions frequently involved ethnic, racial and gender preferences that locked minorities out of the well-paid crafts. Organized labor’s control was, nonetheless, less effective than it would have liked: It could not restrict non-union firms from taking on apprentices nor was it able to stem the flow of half-trained craftsmen from the small towns where apprenticeship standards were weak. Yet by fines, boycotts, and walkouts organized labor did intimidate workers and firms who disregarded their rules. Such actions failed to endear it to less skilled workers, who often regarded skilled unionists as a conservative aristocracy only slightly less onerous, if at all, than big business.

This weakness in labor’s support made it vulnerable to Colonel Richard T Auchmuty’s New York Trade School. Auchmuty’s school, begun in 1881, became the leading institution challenging labor’s control over its own supply. The school was designed and marketed as an alternative to apprenticeship and Auchmuty encouraged its use as a weapon in “the battle for the boys” waged by New York City Plumbers in 1886-87. Those years mark the starting point for a series of skirmishes between organized capital and labor in which momentum seesawed back and forth. Those battles encouraged public officials and educators to get involved. Where the public sector took greater interest in training, schooling more frequently supplemented, rather than replaced, on-the-job apprenticeship training. Public involvement also helped formalized the structure of trade learning in ways that apprenticeship laws had failed to do.

The Modern Era

In 1917, with the benefit of prior collaborations involving the public sector, a coalition of labor, business and social services secured passage of the Smith-Hughes Law to provide federal aid for vocational education. Despite this broad support, it is not clear that the bill would have passed had it not been for America’s entry into the First World War and the attendant priority for an increase in the supply of skilled labor. Prior to this law, demands for skilled labor had been partially muted by new mass production technologies and scientific management, both of which reduced industry’s reliance upon craft workers. War changed the equation.

Not only did war spur the Wilson administration into training more workers, it also raised organized labor’s visibility in industries, like shipbuilding, where it had previously been locked out. Under Smith-Hughes, cities as distant as Seattle and New York invited unions to join formal training partnerships. In the twenties, a number of schools systems provided apprentice extension classes where prior employment was made prerequisite, thereby limiting public apprenticeship support to workers who were already unionized. These arrangements made it easier for organized labor to control entry into the craft. This was most true in the building trades, where the unions remained well-organized throughout the twenties. However, in the twenties, the fast expanding factory sector more successfully reduced union influence. The largest firms, such as the General Electric Company, had long since set up their own non-union–usually informal–apprenticeship plans. Large firms able to provide significant employment security, like those that belonged to the National Association for Corporation Schools, typically operated in a union-free environment, which enabled them to establish training arrangements that were flexible and responsive to their needs.

The depression in the early thirties stopped nearly all training. Moreover, the prior industrial transformation shifted power within organized labor from the American Federation of Labor’s bedrock craft unions to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. With this change labor increasingly emphasized pay equality by narrowing skill differentials and accordingly de-emphasized training issues. Even so, by the late 1930s shortages of skilled workers were again felt that led to a national apprenticeship plan. Under the Fitzgerald Act (1937), apprenticeship standards were formalized in indentures that specified the kinds and quantity of training to be provided, as well as the responsibilities of joint labor-management apprenticeship committees. Standards helped minimize incentives to abuse low-wage apprentices through inadequate training and advancement. Nationally, however, the percentage of apprentices nationally remained very small, and overall young people increasingly chose formal education rather than apprenticeship to open opportunity. While the Fitzgerald Law worked to protect labor’s immediate interests, very few firms chose formal apprenticeships when less structured training relationships were possible.

This system persisted through the heyday of organized labor in the forties and fifties, but began to come undone in the late sixties and seventies, particularly when Civil Rights groups attacked the racial and gender discrimination too often used to ration scarce apprenticeship opportunities. Discrimination was sometimes passive, occurring as the result of preferential treatment extended to the sons and friends of craft workers, while in other instances it involved active and deliberate policies aimed at exclusion (Hill, 1968). Affirmative action accords and court orders have forced unions and firms to provide more apprenticeship opportunities for minorities.

Along with a declining influence of labor and civil rights organizations, work relations appear to have changed as we begin the new millennium. Forms of labor contracting that provide fewer benefits and security are on the rise. Incomes once again have become more stratified by education and skill levels, making them a much more important issue. Gary Becker’s (1964) work on human capital theory has encouraged businessmen and educators to rethink the economics of training and apprenticeship. Conceptualizing training as an investment, theory suggests that enforceable long-term apprenticeships enable employers to increase their investments in the skills of their workers. Binding indentures are rationalized as efficient devices to prevent youths from absconding with the capital employers have invested in them. Armed with this understanding, increasingly policy makers have permitted and encouraged arrangements that look more like older-style employer dominated apprenticeships. Whether this is the beginning of new era for apprenticeship, or merely a return to the prior battles over the abuses of one-sided employer control, only time will tell.

References and further reading:

Becker, Gary. Human Capital. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Davies, Margaret. The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship, 1563-1642. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Douglas, Paul. American Apprenticeship and Industrial Education. New York: Columbia University Press, 1921.

Elbaum, Bernard. “Why Apprenticeship Persisted in Britain but Not in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 337-49.

Epstein, S. R. “Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship and Technological Change in Pre-industrial Europe.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 684-713.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hamilton, Gillian. “The Decline of Apprenticeship in North America: Evidence from Montreal.” Journal of Economic History 60, no. 3, (2000): 627-664.

Harris, Howell John. Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Decline of the Open Shop Movement in Philadelphia; 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hill, Herbert. “The Racial Practices of Organized Labor: The Contemporary Record.” In The Negro and The American Labor Movement, edited by Julius Jacobson. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Press, 1968.

Jacoby, Daniel. “The Transformation of Industrial Apprenticeship in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (1991): 887- 910.

Jacoby, Daniel. “Plumbing the Origins of American Vocationalism.” Labor History 37, no. 2 (1996): 235-272.

Licht, Walter. Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Quimby, Ian M.G. “Apprenticeship in Colonial Philadelphia.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Delaware, 1963.

Rorabaugh, William. The Craft Apprentice from Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Citation: Cuff, Timothy. “Historical Anthropometrics”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 29, 2004. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/apprenticeship-in-the-united-states/

Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship

Author(s):Munck, Bert De
Kaplan, Steven L.
Soly, Hugo
Reviewer(s):Ryan, Paul

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Bert De Munck, Steven L. Kaplan and Hugo Soly, editors, Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship. New York: Berghahn, 2007. ix + 232 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84545-341-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Ryan, Department of Management, King?s College London.

This collection comes from a conference held in 2000. The delay in publication is attributed to various disruptions. It is the twelfth volume in the series International Studies in Social History, which is edited by Marcel van der Linden.

Its publication responds to the extensive contemporary interest in apprenticeship ? among historians, as part of discussions of the role of guilds, proto-industrialization and social change; and among policy analysts, reflecting the benefits of apprenticeship for school-to-work transitions, notably in Germany.

The editors, De Munck, Kaplan and Soly, hold appointments at the Universities of Antwerp, Cornell and Brussels (Vrije Universiteit), respectively. They have divided their tasks in an unusual way. De Munck and Soly provide an extensive introduction. Kaplan contributes a lively and acute, if florid, set of ?afterthoughts,? analyzing the key issues and the evidence on display, and suggesting directions for further research. Of the eight intervening papers, seven cover European historical experiences: in broad chronological order, coopers and painters in fifteenth century Flanders (Stabel), various guilds in the Dutch golden age (Davids), Antwerp cabinet makers (De Munck), drawing schools in pre-revolutionary France (Crowston), Viennese weavers and purse makers (Steidl), textiles, metals and construction apprenticeship in Germany (Reith), and brewers in Victorian England (Reinarz). The remaining paper, on training in Japan (Nagata), extends the collection dramatically ? and oddly, given its pole position in the collection, in its forced treatment of contemporary employee training in large companies as a form of apprenticeship.

Most contributors subscribe to a revisionist historical view of apprenticeship, as less monolithic, standardized and guild-regulated, and more determined by economic factors, than in traditional interpretations, notably the ganze Haus perspective of the German historical school. Both individually and collectively, the papers document the heterogeneity of apprenticeship. Thus contract durations and completion rates are shown to have varied considerably, even within particular occupations in particular towns in particular periods, despite clear guild prescriptions.

To what extent should apprenticeship be interpreted in economic rather than in social terms, and is investment in skills its key function? Disagreements on these issues appear to have produced a lively conference. For Crowston, the social and educational functions of apprenticeship predominate. Among those emphasizing the economic functions of apprenticeship, Steidl and Reinartz both emphasize skill acquisition; De Munck, its potential as a signal of quality in the product market; Reith, production and wage labor rather than learning. Several contributions provide evidence in favor of a financial market failure interpretation of the apprenticeship contract, in which contract durations and premia are seen as jointly determined, within a market-oriented relationship, so as to ensure that the master?s training costs are recouped before the end of the contract. The evidence is a recurrently noted inverse relationship between duration and premium: a larger premium purchased a shorter training period.

A central theme is the relationship between the guild system and apprenticeship, traditionally taken to be close, and the degree to which guild restrictions hurt economic performance. Davids presents evidence of extensive disjuncture between the two in the Dutch golden age: some occupations were organized by a guild but lacked apprenticeship, while others had apprenticeship but were not subject to any guild-based regulation. De Munck shows that the Antwerp cabinetmakers? guild actually adopted an inclusive and expansive stance, welcoming skilled labor from other towns and countries. Stabel and Davids find that guild regulations were typically confined to the control of entry, in terms of the registration of new apprentices, the number of apprentices, and payment of the requisite fees; other details, including the apprentice?s length of service, and the compensation and training received, were left, whether by default or by disregard, to negotiation between the parties to the contract.

The growth of wage payments to apprentices has traditionally been read as evidence of the decay of apprenticeship as an institution. Reith?s interpretation focuses on increases in the scale of production and in the productive contributions of apprentices. It neglects however a simple economic interpretation: viz. that it was the very decline of living in (i.e., by the apprentice in the master?s household) that caused the conversion of a payment in kind (board and lodging) into a cash payment (the apprentice wage). In that case, the growth of waged apprenticeship might well have represented the decay of the social functions of apprenticeship, in terms of youth socialization and control. Reinarz? study of apprentices in brewing in Victorian England suggests that living in was not necessary for youth morality to be supervised by the employer-master, but the apprentices in question were potential gentleman managers, not manual workers.

The collection illustrates frequently the frustratingly opaque nature of apprenticeship, particularly in terms of what apprentices did and had done to them in the workplace. The difficulty is compounded by uncertainty as to the meaning and scope of ?apprenticeship,? which in places (Introduction, Nagata) is treated functionally, and confusingly, as coterminous with on-the-job learning, rather than as an occupationally focused and externally regulated subset thereof.

More useful is the contrast drawn by both Crowston and Reinartz between apprenticeship, as experiential learning, and classroom-based instruction, as academic learning, and viewed at the time as alternative modes of learning. By contrast, for apprentice surgeons in seventeenth century Holland, technical education and production-based learning were treated as complementary rather than alternative ways of learning ? as nowadays in most national apprenticeship systems.

The papers all present evidence, some of it statistical, drawn from the archives of guilds, charities, towns, etc. The diversity of evidence is refreshing. A recurrent problem, however, is over-generalization, in terms of the load-bearing potential of the evidence. Thus Steidl concludes that apprenticeship was ?very efficient,? as a source of economic dynamism, but her evidence on contract duration and completions, while interesting in itself, hardly sustains so strong a conclusion. Some findings potentially conflict with the evidence provided. Stabel?s inference that apprentices were widely used as cheap labor in late medieval Flanders sits uneasily with his evidence that masters typically trained only one or two apprentices in a full lifetime. Such phrases as ?it is probable that,? ?is likely to have had? and ?it can be assumed that? occur frequently, as part of a tendency to draw broad conclusions from limited evidence.

The coverage of a conference volume is inevitably limited by its contributors? interests. Topics that are not represented include collective action by apprentices (e.g., in the streets of seventeenth century London) and the rituals associated with apprenticeship (in England, the Shrove Tuesday ?holiday,? when public misbehavior by apprentices was sanctioned).

Among the striking details on view are: the demarcation challenge posed by rag and bone merchants to Antwerp?s guild of cabinet makers (De Munck); a posited link between Madame Bovary and apprenticeship (Kaplan); and Steidl?s enthusiasm over the enrolment books for female apprentices kept by the Viennese silk weavers? guild (?these are marvelous sources?).

Paul Ryan is Professor of Labour Economics and Training in the Department of Management, King?s College London (paul.ryan@kcl.ac.uk). His publications include ?Apprentice Strikes in Twentieth Century UK Engineering and Shipbuilding,? Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, Autumn 2004.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919

Author(s):Zipf, Karin L.
Reviewer(s):Whitman, T. Stephen

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Karin L. Zipf, Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xi + 207 pp. $43 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-3045-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by T. Stephen Whitman, Department of History, Mount St. Mary’s University.

Karin Zipf, of East Carolina University, provides in Labor of Innocents valuable insights into North Carolinians’ evolving views on the respective roles of the state and of women, African Americans, and poor whites in raising, educating, and controlling children and youth. Zipf focuses her attention on the social and political aspects of apprenticeship, surveying its trajectory from eighteenth-century origins to its eventual replacement in the early twentieth century by child welfare agencies and juvenile justice systems. She is not as concerned with apprenticeship as an economic or labor institution.

The greatest strength of this book lies in a meticulous and thoughtful appraisal of the legislative and judicial history of apprenticeship in North Carolina. Historians accustomed to thinking of apprenticeship as having died out in the Early Republic will profit from Zipf’s focus on the period between 1850 and 1919. She identifies four significant “period shifts” (p. 155). Initially used primarily to monitor poor women in single-parent households, North Carolinians began to apply court-ordered apprenticeship to free people of color in the 1850s. In the wake of the Civil War, former slaveholders attempted to use apprenticeship to control the children of ex-slaves. Struggles between planters and freedpeople, mediated by North Carolina’s Reconstruction governments, led to a second redefinition of apprenticeship. Up to this point, courts and legislators regarded parental rights to control children as inviolable, but had effectively excluded poor women and free blacks from recognition as legal parents. The 1867 reforms in apprenticeship law extended parental recognition to African-American men, and acknowledged somewhat wider rights of control for women, as well.

But in the 1890s, a third shift occurred, as appellate courts granted judges wider discretion to assess the fitness of parents to control their children, based on tests of “good character.” This tendency culminated in a fourth shift of policy with the passage of a Child Welfare Act ion 1919 and the statutory elimination of apprenticeship. Over the long run, the state switched from delegating control and surveillance of poor children to apprentice masters and private orphanages to assuming direct responsibility for children’s welfare via modern bureaucratic management.

The book’s focus on elites’ efforts to control socially marginal people and their children puts Zipf in the same part of the historiographical forest as Peter Bardaglio’s Reconstructing the Household, Victoria Bynum’s Unruly Women, and Laura Edwards’ Gendered Strife and Confusion. All of these authors insist that gender issues, as well as race, informed the laws and practices aimed at poor people in the nineteenth-century South. Zipf’s work, with its tight concentration on apprenticeship, operates more narrowly than Bardaglio et al., but does give us a deeper look at the institution, at least as a vehicle for social control.

Some readers will wish to know more about the labor aspects of apprenticeship in North Carolina. Zipf examined apprenticeship records from seven counties in the state, selected to provide a mix of urban and rural settings from the coastal plain, the piedmont, and the western hill country. She uses the data to demonstrate increasing and disproportionate apprenticing of free black children in the 1840s and 1850s, but might have analyzed these indentures more deeply. It would be useful to know in more detail the age distributions of children at time of indenture, the crafts to which they were bound, and the kinds of economic promises made to apprentices. The latter might include how much education the apprentice was to receive or what kinds of goods or amounts of cash were to be paid upon completion of the indenture, and the extent to which these promises varied over time, or according to the race, sex, and age of the apprentice. Providing such a detailed analysis would help determine the extent to which economic forces, as distinct from social control motives, entered into the binding of children, and how these forces interacted.

But one does not wish to commit the reviewer’s sin of wishing the author had written a different book. Karin Zipf set out to explain the form, content, and evolution of North Carolina elites’ impulses to control the poor around them, and she has accomplished her task ably. Anyone interested in the social and cultural history of childhood will profit from reading Labor of Innocents.

T. Stephen Whitman is an Associate Professor of History at Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Maryland, who writes about slavery and emancipation. He is the author of At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake, forthcoming in 2007 from the Press at the Maryland Historical Society.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Walter Lippmann: Public Economist

Author(s):Goodwin, Craufurd D.
Reviewer(s):Barber, William J.

Published by EH.Net (March 2015)

Craufurd D. Goodwin, Walter Lippmann: Public Economist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. ix + 414 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-36813-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William J. Barber, Department of Economics, Wesleyan University.

Few would quarrel with the judgment that Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) ranks as the dean of newspaper pundits.  Indeed he virtually invented the genre.  Over a prolific career that spanned more than six decades, he produced numerous books and articles that appeared in magazines.  He is primarily remembered for the syndicated column he produced — beginning in 1931 — that reached roughly eight million readers of some two hundred papers at its peak.  Craufurd Goodwin, James B. Duke Professor of Economics Emeritus at Duke University, has skillfully mined Lippmann’s voluminous papers, housed at Yale, with special attention to his thinking on economic matters.  By his reckoning, for example, a thousand of Lippmann’s 1,500 columns published between 1931 and 1946 dealt with economic issues.  The product of this research opens a fresh window on the state of economic discourse during turbulent times.

Lippmann’s career path was molded in the first instance by a visit to Harvard by Lincoln Steffens, the prominent muckraker, whose mission was to recruit the ablest young minds to the profession of journalism.  He was advised that Lippmann, a member of the class of 1910, was the most talented of his undergraduate generation.  Lippmann’s principal disciplinary interest at the time was in philosophy; his exposure to Harvard economics had been limited and had not been altogether happy.  Persuaded that journalism had a vital role to play in educating the electorate, he signed on to a post-graduate apprenticeship with Steffens which involved investigations of the banking industry.  Meanwhile he wrote books in which he criticized orthodox economists for “having taken their morals from the exploiter and of having translated them into the grandiloquent language of high public policy.” He characterized this as “intellectual fraud.”

These works attracted the attention of men in high places.  President Wilson appointed him as assistant to the Secretary of War during World War I, a position from which he served as a member of “The Inquiry,” a high-level think tank charged to prepare plans for dealing with post-war problems.  Lippmann called for the insights of an improved social science to be used in shaping public policies and recommended the creation of a body resembling what the Council of Economic Advisers became after World War II.  He also served as a member of the United States delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. There he met John Maynard Keynes, a member of the British Treasury delegation, and struck up a friendship that lasted a lifetime. He shared Keynes’s analysis of the unworkability of the Treaty of Versailles, as set out in his Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Lippmann’s career as a public economist took off in earnest in 1931 when he began his syndicated column.  By then, he had established contact with a wide range of economic thinkers by direct acquaintance or by correspondence.  There was no ambiguity about the overriding issue of the day:  the analysis of the causes of the Great Depression and of potential remedies.  He initially regarded the breakdown of the international economic system as the central problem, but soon realized that he needed to improve his understanding of monetary theory and policy.  From his reading and from consultations with monetary economists, he came to appreciate the value of aggressive monetary expansion as a depression-fighting tool.  By mid-1932, his thinking was still the captive of one component of conservative orthodoxy — the sanctity of balanced budgets and their alleged importance to sustaining business confidence.

Mid-1933 marked a turning point in Lippmann’s economic thinking.  He attended the World Economic Conference held in London which disintegrated in disarray.  The trip provided an opportunity to renew his conversations with Keynes. This shaped his grasp of a conception of compensatory spending which called for increased governmental outlays to offset deficiencies in private demand. This supplied a rationale for the deficit spending of the Roosevelt administration which he conveyed to his readers.  He resisted branding this doctrine as “Keynesian.” Nevertheless, a careful consumer of his columns would have been exposed to the central policy message of Keynes’s General Theory, even before its publication in 1936.  This was well in advance of what was then on offer in the bulk of American academia.  Recall here that Alvin Hansen — who came to be regarded as Keynes’s leading American disciple — wrote a hostile review of The General Theory when it first appeared.  In his capacity as a Visitor to the Harvard Economics Department in the mid-1930s, Lippmann tried — unsuccessfully — to persuade its senior members to broaden their horizons by appointing Lauchlin Currie, then on the staff of the Federal Reserve Board, who championed an activist fiscal policy led by deliberate deficits.

While Lippmann found justification for FDR’s unconventional fiscal practices, he was by no means an uncritical commentator on New Deal programmatic initiatives. He objected strongly to its National Recovery Administration, which awarded immunity from anti-trust prosecution to industries adopting so-called “codes of fair competition” (which were taken to mean agreements not to cut wages and prices).  This he saw as a legalized collusion.  Governments had a responsibility for the behavior of the general price level, but they had no business meddling in the setting of individual prices.  That was properly the function of competitive markets.  In his opinion, the NRA was ineffective, inefficient, and immoral.  He was pleased when the Supreme Court struck it down.

Along with official Washington, Lippmann was unprepared for the events of 1937.  As he read the economy in 1936, recovery was well underway and fiscal stimulants could start to be prudently withdrawn.  1937, however, brought a precipitous decline in economic activity, a phenomenon that was particularly puzzling because the economy was still operating at a level well below full employment.  Currie’s postmortem on the recession of 1937-38 revealed that the “net contribution of government to spending” shifted from sharply positive in 1936 to sharply negative in 1937.  This finding was influential in converting former skeptics about the explanatory power of the new macroeconomics into believers.

In the post-World War II years, the major preoccupation of Lippmann’s writing focused on foreign affairs.  He welcomed the creation of the Council of Economic Advisers, largely cut as it was to a design he had proposed in 1918.  He was enthusiastic about the work of the Keynesians on the Kennedy-Johnson Council in orchestrating the demand-side tax cut of 1964.  But he broke sharply with Johnson’s determination to fight a war on poverty and a war in Southeast Asia simultaneously without taxes to restrain aggregate demand, a decision he believed had “tragic consequences.”

This volume is a creative supplement to the considerable literature on “how the Keynesian revolution came to America.”

William J. Barber is the Andrews Professor of Economics Emeritus at Wesleyan University.  His works include From New Era to New Deal: Herbert Hoover, the Economists, and the Shaping of American Economic Policy, 1921-1933 and Designs within Disorder: Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Economists, and the Shaping of American Economic Policy, 1933-1945.

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (March 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914

Editor(s):Goose , Nigel
Honeyman, Katrina
Reviewer(s):Heywood, Colin

Published by EH.Net (July 2014)

Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, editors, Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013. xii + 358 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-1114-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Colin Heywood, Department of History, University of Nottingham.

The editors set out their stall for this book very clearly in their introduction. Their aim is to move on from the emphasis on exploitation and victimhood in the study of childhood during the Industrial Revolution period in England, so evident among earlier generations of historians. In its place, they take a leaf from recent developments in childhood studies in the social sciences and adopt as their two overarching themes agency and diversity. It is hard to disagree with their assertion that the history of industrial child labor in particular is ripe for a new look. The distinctly misérabiliste and emotive depiction of exploitation in the factories and mines, well established in the popular imagination, captures a dimension to the topic, but now looks a very partial view. By contrast, the desire to treat children as actors in the own right is much in vogue, and the diversity of childhood experiences is now evident as historical research in the area has flourished.

It should be said that finding evidence of children negotiating their own path in life is not always easy, given that they were so often at the mercy of adults. Some of the authors here acknowledge this, and indeed there is plenty of exploitation and victimhood on display, among chimney sweeps, pauper apprentices, and inmates of the workhouse, for example (for a full list of the essays, see below). And one sympathizes with the editors when they note the limits to what can be achieved in one book. The original focus on child labor in industry means that “diversity” is largely confined to the urban working classes, though this does give the book a certain coherence. Besides the varied experiences of work, in small workshops as well as factories, we have interesting material on the childhood dimension to political protest, sexuality, poor relief, human rights, clothing and (perhaps inevitably) schooling. What might have appeared beside them with more space are other new areas of interest such as delinquency, health, environment, and leisure. Following in the footsteps of many childhood historians before them, there is much emphasis in this collection on the role of the state and other institutions. The editors’ justification is persuasive, for as well as leaving extensive collections of records in the archives, institutions were coming to feature prominently in the lives of children during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kathryn Gleadle provides a fine example of children actively engaged in political protest with her study of their mobilization in the industrial north to support the Ten Hours Movement in 1833. She brings out the “complexities” involved in ascribing agency to children in politics, with the suspicion that their addresses to the authorities were written by adults (p. 223). She usefully notes the temptation to romanticize the idea of children’s agency, but also concludes that many young people were politicized during the 1830s by participation in protest movements (p. 229). Two other authors, Niels van Manen and Peter Kirby, draw attention respectively to the efforts made by poor law authorities and children’s employment commissioners to consult young people on matters that concerned them — an outstanding feature of English as opposed to continental administration. At the other extreme, Sarah Toulalan is keen to demonstrate that the young were often denied agency in their sexual activity, for example, when they married during their early teens but were kept apart by their parents.

The theme of diversity is most directly confronted in Nigel Goose’s contribution on the varied experiences of children in the labor market in Hertfordshire. He documents the “stark contrast between parishes with relatively high employment levels and those with virtually none at all” (p. 163), and the broad range of occupations involving young people within the county. He concludes that Victorian England produced varieties of childhood to a degree never seen before or since (p. 176). Otherwise, the essays look beyond the workshops to children in apprenticeships, workhouses, residential care, and elementary schools. There are some interesting challenges to received opinion. Katrina Honeyman, for example, argues that some of the pauper apprentices employed in the early textile mills were privileged in various ways in comparison with “free” children. (Sadly, Professor Honeyman died before this book appeared.) Jane Humphries uses working-class autobiographies to reveal the “lifelines” provided by education in the workhouses for brighter children.

All of the essays in the collection are solidly rooted in both secondary and primary sources, and are written in an approachable prose style. It is a pity that there are no illustrations, notably for Clare Rose’s study of photographs taken in Barnardo’s homes. Doubtless this is a book that will be sipped rather than swallowed whole by most historians, but it is a worthwhile addition to its field.

The essays:
1. Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, Introduction
2. Sarah Toulalan, Child Sexual Abuse in Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century London: Rape, Sexual Assault and the Denial of Agency
3. Alysa Levene, Charity Apprenticeship and Social Capital in Eighteenth-Century England
4. Katrina Honeyman, Compulsion, Compassion and Consent: Parish Apprenticeship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England
5. Niels van Manen, Agency and Reform: The Regulation of Chimney Sweep Apprentices, 1770-1840
6. Jane Humphries, Care and Cruelty in the Warehouse: Children’s Experiences of Residential Poor Relief in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England
7. Peter Kirby, Victorian Social Investigation and the Children’s Employment Commission, 1840-1842
8. Nigel Goose, Child Employment Prospects in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire in Perspective: Varieties of Childhood?
9. Kathryn Gleadle, ‘We Will Have It': Children and Protest in the Ten Hours Movement
10. Colin Creighton, Changing Conceptualizations of Children’s Rights in Early Industrial Britain
11. Nicola Sheldon, ‘Something in the Place of Home': Children in Institutional Care, 1850-1918
12. Susannah Wright, Moral Instruction, Urban Poverty and English Elementary Schools in the Late Nineteenth Century
13. Clare Rose, Working Lads in Late-Victorian London

Colin Heywood is Professor Emeritus of Modern French History at the University of Nottingham. He is currently writing a history of childhood and youth in modern Europe.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution

Joyce Burnette, Wabash College

Historians disagree about whether the British Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) was beneficial for women. Frederick Engels, writing in the late nineteenth century, thought that the Industrial Revolution increased women’s participation in labor outside the home, and claimed that this change was emancipating. 1 More recent historians dispute the claim that women’s labor force participation rose, and focus more on the disadvantages women experienced during this time period.2 One thing is certain: the Industrial Revolution was a time of important changes in the way that women worked.

The Census

Unfortunately, the historical sources on women’s work are neither as complete nor as reliable as we would like. Aggregate information on the occupations of women is available only from the census, and while census data has the advantage of being comprehensive, it is not a very good measure of work done by women during the Industrial Revolution. For one thing, the census does not provide any information on individual occupations until 1841, which is after the period we wish to study.3 Even then the data on women’s occupations is questionable. For the 1841 census, the directions for enumerators stated that “The professions &c. of wives, or of sons or daughters living with and assisting their parents but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be inserted.” Clearly this census would not give us an accurate measure of female labor force participation. Table One illustrates the problem further; it shows the occupations of men and women recorded in the 1851 census, for 20 occupational categories. These numbers suggest that female labor force participation was low, and that 40 percent of occupied women worked in domestic service. However, economic historians have demonstrated that these numbers are misleading. First, many women who were actually employed were not listed as employed in the census. Women who appear in farm wage books have no recorded occupation in the census.4 At the same time, the census over-estimates participation by listing in the “domestic service” category women who were actually family members. In addition, the census exaggerates the extent to which women were concentrated in domestic service occupations because many women listed as “maids”, and included in the domestic servant category in the aggregate tables, were really agricultural workers.5

Table One

Occupational Distribution in the 1851 Census of Great Britain

Occupational Category Males (thousands) Females (thousands) Percent Female
Public Administration

64

3

4.5

Armed Forces

63

0

0.0

Professions

162

103

38.9

Domestic Services

193

1135

85.5

Commercial

91

0

0.0

Transportation & Communications

433

13

2.9

Agriculture

1788

229

11.4

Fishing

36

1

2.7

Mining

383

11

2.8

Metal Manufactures

536

36

6.3

Building & Construction

496

1

0.2

Wood & Furniture

152

8

5.0

Bricks, Cement, Pottery, Glass

75

15

16.7

Chemicals

42

4

8.7

Leather & Skins

55

5

8.3

Paper & Printing

62

16

20.5

Textiles

661

635

49.0

Clothing

418

491

54.0

Food, Drink, Lodging

348

53

13.2

Other

445

75

14.4

Total Occupied

6545

2832

30.2

Total Unoccupied

1060

5294

83.3

Source: B.R. Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962, p. 60.

Domestic Service

Domestic work – cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the sick, fetching water, making and mending clothing – took up the bulk of women’s time during the Industrial Revolution period. Most of this work was unpaid. Some families were well-off enough that they could employ other women to do this work, as live-in servants, as charring women, or as service providers. Live-in servants were fairly common; even middle-class families had maids to help with the domestic chores. Charring women did housework on a daily basis. In London women were paid 2s.6d. per day for washing, which was more than three times the 8d. typically paid for agricultural labor in the country. However, a “day’s work” in washing could last 20 hours, more than twice as long as a day’s work in agriculture.6 Other women worked as laundresses, doing the washing in their own homes.

Cottage Industry

Before factories appeared, most textile manufacture (including the main processes of spinning and weaving) was carried out under the “putting-out” system. Since raw materials were expensive, textile workers rarely had enough capital to be self-employed, but would take raw materials from a merchant, spin or weave the materials in their homes, and then return the finished product and receive a piece-rate wage. This system disappeared during the Industrial Revolution as new machinery requiring water or steam power appeared, and work moved from the home to the factory.

Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so most of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew and took the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.

Another important cottage industry was the pillow-lace industry, so called because women wove the lace on pins stuck in a pillow. In the late-eighteenth century women in Bedford could earn 6s. a week making lace, which was about 50 percent more than women earned in argiculture. However, this industry too disappeared due to mechanization. Following Heathcote’s invention of the bobbinet machine (1809), cheaper lace could be made by embroidering patterns on machine-made lace net. This new type of lace created a new cottage industry, that of “lace-runners” who emboidered patterns on the lace.

The straw-plaiting industry employed women braiding straw into bands used for making hats and bonnets. The industry prospered around the turn of the century due to the invention of a simple tool for splitting the straw and war, which cut off competition from Italy. At this time women could earn 4s. to 6s. per week plaiting straw. This industry also declined, though, following the increase in free trade with the Continent in the 1820s.

Factories

A defining feature of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of factories, particularly textile factories. Work moved out of the home and into a factory, which used a central power source to run its machines. Water power was used in most of the early factories, but improvements in the steam engine made steam power possible as well. The most dramatic productivity growth occurred in the cotton industry. The invention of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (1764), Richard Arkwright’s “throstle” or “water frame” (1769), and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1779, so named because it combined features of the two earlier machines) revolutionized spinning. Britain began to manufacture cotton cloth, and declining prices for the cloth encouraged both domestic consumption and export. Machines also appeared for other parts of the cloth-making process, the most important of which was Edmund Cartwright’s powerloom, which was adopted slowly because of imperfections in the early designs, but was widely used by the 1830s. While cotton was the most important textile of the Industrial Revolution, there were advances in machinery for silk, flax, and wool production as well.7

The advent of new machinery changed the gender division of labor in textile production. Before the Industrial Revolution, women spun yarn using a spinning wheel (or occasionally a distaff and spindle). Men didn’t spin, and this division of labor made sense because women were trained to have more dexterity than men, and because men’s greater strength made them more valuable in other occupations. In contrast to spinning, handloom weaving was done by both sexes, but men outnumbered women. Men monopolized highly skilled preparation and finishing processes such as wool combing and cloth-dressing. With mechanization, the gender division of labor changed. Women used the spinning jenny and water frame, but mule spinning was almost exclusively a male occupation because it required more strength, and because the male mule-spinners actively opposed the employment of female mule-spinners. Women mule-spinners in Glasgow, and their employers, were the victims of violent attacks by male spinners trying to reduce the competition in their occupation.8 While they moved out of spinning, women seem to have increased their employment in weaving (both in handloom weaving and eventually in powerloom factories). Both sexes were employed as powerloom operators.

Table Two

Factory Workers in 1833: Females as a Percent of the Workforce

Industry Ages 12 and under Ages 13-20 Ages 21+ All Ages
Cotton 51.8 65.0 52.2 58.0
Wool 38.6 46.2 37.7 40.9
Flax 54.8 77.3 59.5 67.4
Silk 74.3 84.3 71.3 78.1
Lace 38.7 57.4 16.6 36.5
Potteries 38.1 46.9 27.1 29.4
Dyehouse 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Glass 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Paper - 100.0 39.2 53.6
Whole Sample 52.8 66.4 48.0 56.8

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX. Mitchell collected data from 82 cotton factories, 65 wool factories, 73 flax factories, 29 silk factories, 7 potteries, 11 lace factories, one dyehouse, one “glass works”, and 2 paper mills throughout Great Britain.

While the highly skilled and highly paid task of mule-spinning was a male occupation, many women and girls were engaged in other tasks in textile factories. For example, the wet-spinning of flax, introduced in Leeds in 1825, employed mainly teenage girls. Girls often worked as assistants to mule-spinners, piecing together broken threads. In fact, females were a majority of the factory labor force. Table Two shows that 57 percent of factory workers were female, most of them under age 20. Women were widely employed in all the textile industries, and constituted the majority of workers in cotton, flax, and silk. Outside of textiles, women were employed in potteries and paper factories, but not in dye or glass manufacture. Of the women who worked in factories, 16 percent were under age 13, 51 percent were between the ages of 13 and 20, and 33 percent were age 21 and over. On average, girls earned the same wages as boys. Children’s wages rose from about 1s.6d. per week at age 7 to about 5s. per week at age 15. Beginning at age 16, and a large gap between male and female wages appeared. At age 30, women factory workers earned only one-third as much as men.

Figure One

Distribution of Male and Female Factory Employment by Age, 1833

Figure 1

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.

The y-axis shows the percentage of total employment within each sex that is in that five-year age category.

Figure Two

Wages of Factory Workers in 1833

Figure 2

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.

Agriculture

Wage Workers

Wage-earners in agriculture generally fit into one of two broad categories – servants who were hired annually and received part of their wage in room and board, and day-laborers who lived independently and were paid a daily or weekly wage. Before industrialization servants comprised between one-third and one-half of labor in agriculture.9 For servants the value of room and board was a substantial portion of their compensation, so the ratio of money wages is an under-estimate of the ratio of total wages (see Table Three). Most servants were young and unmarried. Because servants were paid part of their wage in kind, as board, the use of the servant contract tended to fall when food prices were high. During the Industrial Revolution the use of servants seems to have fallen in the South and East.10 The percentage of servants who were female also declined in the first half of the nineteenth century.11

Table Three

Wages of Agricultural Servants (£ per year)

Year Location Male Money Wage Male In-Kind Wage Female Money Wage Female In-Kind Wage Ratio of Money Wages Ratio of Total Wages
1770 Lancashire

7

9

3

6

0.43

0.56

1770 Oxfordshire

10

12

4

8

0.40

0.55

1770 Staffordshire

11

9

4

6

0.36

0.50

1821 Yorkshire

16.5

27

7

18

0.42

0.57

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

While servants lived with the farmer and received food and lodging as part of their wage, laborers lived independently, received fewer in-kind payments, and were paid a daily or a weekly wage. Though the majority of laborers were male, some were female. Table Four shows the percentage of laborers who were female at various farms in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. These numbers suggest that female employment was widespread, but varied considerably from one location to the next. Compared to men, female laborers generally worked fewer days during the year. The employment of female laborers was concentrated around the harvest, and women rarely worked during the winter. While men commonly worked six days per week, outside of harvest women generally averaged around four days per week.

Year Location Percent Female
1772-5 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire

17

1774-7 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

27

1785-92 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

40

1794-5 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

42

1801-3 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

35

1801-4 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset

10

1814-6 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset

7

1826-8 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset

5

1828-39 Shipton Moyne, Gloucestershire

19

1831-45 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire

6

1836-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

26

1839-40 Lustead, Norfolk

6

1846-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset

29

Sources: Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 59 (March 1999): 41-67; Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999. Sotheron-Estcourt accounts, G.R.O. D1571; Ketton-Cremer accounts, N.R.O. WKC 5/250

The wages of female day-laborers were fairly uniform; generally a farmer paid the same wage to all the adult women he hired. Women’s daily wages were between one-third and one-half of male wages. Women generally worked shorter days, though, so the gap in hourly wages was not quite this large.12 In the less populous counties of Northumberland and Durham, male laborers were required to provide a “bondager,” a woman (usually a family member) who was available for day-labor whenever the employer wanted her.13

Table Five

Wages of Agricultural Laborers

Year Location Male Wage (d./day) Female Wage (d./day) Ratio
1770 Yorkshire 5 12 0.42
1789 Hertfordshire 6 16 0.38
1797 Warwickshire 6 14 0.43
1807 Oxfordshire 9 23 0.39
1833 Cumberland 12 24 0.50
1833 Essex 10 22 0.45
1838 Worcester 9 18 0.50

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

Various sources suggest that women’s employment in agriculture declined during the early nineteenth century. Enclosure increased farm size and changed the patterns of animal husbandry, both of which seem to have led to reductions in female employment.14 More women were employed during harvest than during other seasons, but women’s employment during harvest declined as the scythe replaced the sickle as the most popular harvest tool. While women frequently harvested with the sickle, they did not use the heavier scythe.15 Female employment fell the most in the East, where farms increasingly specialized in grain production. Women had more work in the West, which specialized more in livestock and dairy farming.16

Non-Wage-Earners

During the eighteenth century there were many opportunities for women to be productively employed in farm work on their own account, whether they were wives of farmers on large holdings, or wives of landless laborers. In the early nineteenth century, however, many of these opportunities disappeared, and women’s participation in agricultural production fell.

In a village that had a commons, even if the family merely rented a cottage the wife could be self-employed in agriculture because she could keep a cow, or other animals, on the commons. By careful management of her stock, a woman might earn as much during the year as her husband earned as a laborer. Women also gathered fuel from the commons, saving the family considerable expense. The enclosure of the commons, though, eliminated these opportunities. In an enclosure, land was re-assigned so as to eliminate the commons and consolidate holdings. Even when the poor had clear legal rights to use the commons, these rights were not always compensated in the enclosure agreement. While enclosure occurred at different times for different locations, the largest waves of enclosures occurred in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, meaning that, for many, opportunities for self-employment in agriculture declined as the same time as employment in cottage industry declined. 17

Only a few opportunities for agricultural production remained for the landless laboring family. In some locations landlords permitted landless laborers to rent small allotments, on which they could still grow some of their own food. The right to glean on fields after harvest seems to have been maintained at least through the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time it had become one of the few agricultural activities available to women in some areas. Gleaning was a valuable right; the value of the grain gleaned was often between 5 and 10 percent of the family’s total annual income.18

In the eighteenth century it was common for farmers’ wives to be actively involved in farm work, particularly in managing the dairy, pigs, and poultry. The diary was an important source of income for many farms, and its success depended on the skill of the mistress, who usually ran the operation with no help from men. In the nineteenth century, however, farmer’s wives were more likely to withdraw from farm management, leaving the dairy to the management of dairymen who paid a fixed fee for the use of the cows.19 While poor women withdrew from self-employment in agriculture because of lost opportunities, farmer’s wives seem to have withdraw because greater prosperity allowed them to enjoy more leisure.

It was less common for women to manage their own farms, but not unknown. Commercial directories list numerous women farmers. For example, the 1829 Directory of the County of Derby lists 3354 farmers, of which 162, or 4.8%, were clearly female.20 While the commercial directories themselves do not indicate to what extent these women were actively involved in their farms, other evidence suggests that at least some women farmers were actively involved in the work of the farm.21

Self-Employed

During the Industrial Revolution period women were also active businesswomen in towns. Among business owners listed in commercial directories, about 10 percent were female. Table Seven shows the percentage female in all the trades with at least 25 people listed in the 1788 Manchester commercial directory. Single women, married women, and widows are included in these numbers. Sometimes these women were widows carrying on the businesses of their deceased husbands, but even in this case that does not mean they were simply figureheads. Widows often continued their husband’s businesses because they had been active in management of the business while their husband was alive, and wished to continue.22 Sometimes married women were engaged in trade separately from their husbands. Women most commonly ran shops and taverns, and worked as dressmakers and milliners, but they were not confined to these areas, and appear in most of the trades listed in commercial directories. Manchester, for example, had six female blacksmiths and five female machine makers in 1846. Between 1730 and 1800 there were 121 “rouping women” selling off estates in Edinburgh. 23

Table Six

Business Owners Listed in Commercial Directories

Date City Male Female Unknown Gender Percent Female
1788 Manchester

2033

199

321

8.9

1824-5 Manchester

4185

297

1671

6.6

1846 Manchester

11,942

1222

2316

9.3

1850 Birmingham

15,054

2020

1677

11.8

1850 Derby

2415

332

194

12.1

Sources: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984); Pigot and Dean’s Directory for Manchester, Salford, &c. for 1824-5 (Manchester 1825); Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland (Manchester, 1846); Slater’s Royal National and Commercial Directory (Manchester, 1850)

Table Seven

Women in Trades in Manchester, 1788

Trade Men Women Gender Unknown Percent Female
Apothecary/ Surgeon / Midwife

29

1

5

3.3

Attorney

39

0

3

0.0

Boot and Shoe makers

87

0

1

0.0

Butcher

33

1

1

2.9

Calenderer

31

4

5

11.4

Corn & Flour Dealer

45

4

5

8.2

Cotton Dealer

23

0

2

0.0

Draper, Mercer, Dealer of Cloth

46

15

19

24.6

Dyer

44

3

18

6.4

Fustian Cutter / Shearer

54

2

0

3.6

Grocers & Tea Dealers

91

16

12

15.0

Hairdresser & Peruke maker

34

1

0

2.9

Hatter

45

3

4

6.3

Joiner

34

0

1

0.0

Liquor dealer

30

4

14

11.8

Manufacturer, cloth

257

4

118

1.5

Merchant

58

1

18

1.7

Publichouse / Inn / Tavern

126

13

2

9.4

School master / mistress

18

10

0

35.7

Shopkeeper

107

16

4

13.0

Tailor

59

0

1

0.0

Warehouse

64

0

14

0.0

Source: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984)

Guilds often controlled access to trades, admitting only those who had served an apprenticeship and thus earned the “freedom” of the trade. Women could obtain “freedom” not only by apprenticeship, but also by widowhood. The widow of a tradesman was often considered knowledgeable enough in the trade that she was given the right to carry on the trade even without an apprenticeship. In the eighteenth century women were apprenticed to a wide variety of trades, including butchery, bookbinding, brush making, carpentry, ropemaking and silversmithing.24 Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the number of females apprenticed to trades declined, possibly suggesting reduced participation by women. However, the power of the guilds and the importance of apprenticeship were also declining during this time, so the decline in female apprenticeships may not have been an important barrier to employment.25

Many women worked in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, and a few women actually owned factories. In Keighley, West Yorkshire, Ann Illingworth, Miss Rachael Leach, and Mrs. Betty Hudson built and operated textile mills.26 In 1833 Mrs. Doig owned a powerloom factory in Scotland, which employed 60 workers.27

While many women did successfully enter trades, there were obstacles to women’s employment that kept their numbers low. Women generally received less education than men (though education of the time was of limited practical use). Women may have found it more difficult than men to raise the necessary capital because English law did not consider a married woman to have any legal existence; she could not sue or be sued. A married woman was a feme covert and technically could not make any legally binding contracts, a fact which may have discouraged others from loaning money to or making other contracts with married women. However, this law was not as limiting in practice as it would seem to be in theory because a married woman engaged in trade on her own account was treated by the courts as a feme sole and was responsible for her own debts.28

The professionalization of certain occupations resulted in the exclusion of women from work they had previously done. Women had provided medical care for centuries, but the professionalization of medicine in the early-nineteenth century made it a male occupation. The Royal College of Physicians admitted only graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, schools to which women were not admitted until the twentieth century. Women were even replaced by men in midwifery. The process began in the late-eighteenth century, when we observe the use of the term “man-midwife,” an oxymoronic title suggestive of changing gender roles. In the nineteenth century the “man-midwife” disappeared, and women were replaced by physicians or surgeons for assisting childbirth. Professionalization of the clergy was also effective in excluding women. While the Church of England did not allow women ministers, the Methodists movement had many women preachers during its early years. However, even among the Methodists female preachers disappeared when lay preachers were replaced with a professional clergy in the early nineteenth century.29

In other occupations where professionalization was not as strong, women remained an important part of the workforce. Teaching, particularly in the lower grades, was a common profession for women. Some were governesses, who lived as household servants, but many opened their own schools and took in pupils. The writing profession seems to have been fairly open to women; the leading novelists of the period include Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Fanny Burney, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Trollope. Female non-fiction writers of the period include Jane Marcet, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Other Occupations

The occupations listed above are by no means a complete listing of the occupations of women during the Industrial Revolution. Women made buttons, nails, screws, and pins. They worked in the tin plate, silver plate, pottery and Birmingham “toy” trades (which made small articles like snuff boxes). Women worked in the mines until The Mines Act of 1842 prohibited them from working underground, but afterwards women continued to pursue above-ground mining tasks.

Married Women in the Labor Market

While there are no comprehensive sources of information on the labor force participation of married women, household budgets reported by contemporary authors give us some information on women’s participation.30 For the period 1787 to 1815, 66 percent of married women in working-class households had either a recorded occupation or positive earnings. For the period 1816-20 the rate fell to 49 percent, but in 1821-40 it recovered to 62 percent. Table Eight gives participation rates of women by date and occupation of the husband.

Table Eight

Participation Rates of Married Women

High-Wage Agriculture

Low-Wage Agriculture

Mining

Factory

Outwork

Trades

All

1787-1815

55

85

40

37

46

63

66

1816-1820

34

NA

28

4

42

30

49

1821-1840

22

85

33

86

54

63

62

Source: Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review 48 (February 1995): 89-117

While many wives worked, the amount of their earnings was small relative to their husband’s earnings. Annual earnings of married women who did work averaged only about 28 percent of their husband’s earnings. Because not all women worked, and because children usually contributed more to the family budget than their mothers, for the average family the wife contributed only around seven percent of total family income.

Childcare

Women workers used a variety of methods to care for their children. Sometimes childcare and work were compatible, and women took their children with them to the fields or shops where they worked.31 Sometimes women working at home would give their infants opiates such as “Godfrey’s Cordial” in order to keep the children quiet while their mothers worked.32 The movement of work into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and childcare. In most factory work the hours were rigidly set, and women who took the jobs had to accept the twelve or thirteen hour days. Work in the factories was very disciplined, so the women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will. However, these difficulties did not prevent women with small children from working.

Nineteenth-century mothers used older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools to provide child care while they worked.33 Occasionally mothers would leave young children home alone, but this was dangerous enough that only a few did so.34 Children as young as two might be sent to dame schools, in which women would take children into their home and provide child care, as well as some basic literacy instruction.35 In areas where lace-making or straw-plaiting thrived, children were sent from about age seven to “schools” where they learned the trade.36

Mothers might use a combination of different types of childcare. Elizabeth Wells, who worked in a Leicester worsted factory, had five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 2, and four months. The eldest, a daughter, stayed home to tend the house and care for the infant. The second child worked, and the six-year-old and two-year-old were sent to “an infant school.”37 Mary Wright, an “over-looker” in the rag-cutting room of a Buckinghamshire paper factory, had five children. The eldest worked in the rag-cutting room with her, the youngest was cared for at home, and the middle three were sent to a school; “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for the three others. They go to a school, where they are taken care of and taught to read.”38

The cost of childcare was substantial. At the end of the eighteenth century the price of child-care was about 1s. a week, which was about a quarter of a woman’s weekly earnings in agriculture.39 In the 1840s mothers paid anywhere from 9d. to 2s.6d. per week for child care, out of a wage of around 7s. per week.40

For Further Reading

Burnette, Joyce. “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” Economic History Review 50 (1997): 257-281.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700-1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Horrell, Sara, and Jane Humphries. “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865.” Economic History Review 48 (1995): 89-117.

Humphries, Jane. “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 17-42.

King, Peter. “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850.” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 461-476

Kussmaul, Ann. Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1930.

Sanderson, Elizabeth. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Snell, K.D.M. Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

1 “Since large-scale industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and makes her, often enough, the bread-winner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation – except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy. . . .It will then become evidence that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry.” Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1986, p. 508, 510.

2 Ivy Pinchbeck (Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930) claimed that higher incomes allowed some women to withdraw from the labor force. While she saw some disadvantages resulting from this withdrawal, particularly the loss of independence, she thought that overall women benefited from having more time to devote to their homes and families. Davidoff and Hall (Family Fortunes: Man and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987) agree that women withdrew from work, but they see the change as a negative result of gender discrimination. Similarly, Horrell and Humphries (“Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117) do not find that rising incomes caused declining labor force participation, and they believe that declining demand for female workers caused the female exodus from the workplace.

3 While the British census began in 1801, individual enumeration did not begin until 1841. For a detailed description of the British censuses of the nineteenth century, see Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census, London: HMSO, 1989.

4 For example, Helen Speechley, in her dissertation, showed that seven women who worked for wages at a Somerset farm had no recorded occupation in the 1851 census See Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999.

5 Edward Higgs finds that removing family members from the “servants” category reduced the number of servants in Rochdale in 1851. Enumerators did not clearly distinguish between the terms “housekeeper” and “housewife.” See Edward Higgs, “Domestic Service and Household Production” in Angela John, ed., Unequal Opportunities, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and “Women, Occupations and Work in the Nineteenth Century Censuses,” History Workshop, 1987, 23:59-80. In contrast, the censuses of the early 20th century seem to be fairly accurate; see Tim Hatton and Roy Bailey, “Women’s Work in Census and Survey, 1911-1931,” Economic History Review, Feb. 2001, LIV:87-107.

6 A shilling was equal to 12 pence, so if women earned 2s.6d. for 20 hours, they earned 1.5d. per hour. Women agricultural laborers earned closer to 1d. per hour, so the London wage was higher. See Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth-Century, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925, p. 208, and Patricia Malcolmson, English Laundresses, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 25. .

7 On the technology of the Industrial Revolution, see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969, and Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.

8 A petition from Glasgow cotton manufactures makes the following claim, “In almost every department of the cotton spinning business, the labour of women would be equally efficient with that of men; yet in several of these departments, such measures of violence have been adopted by the combination, that the women who are willing to be employed, and who are anxious by being employed to earn the bread of their families, have been driven from their situations by violence. . . . Messrs. James Dunlop and Sons, some years ago, erected cotton mills in Calton of Glasgow, on which they expended upwards of [£]27,000 forming their spinning machines, (Chiefly with the view of ridding themselves of the combination [the male union],) of such reduced size as could easily be wrought by women. They employed women alone, as not being parties to the combination, and thus more easily managed, and less insubordinate than male spinners. These they paid at the same rate of wages, as were paid at other works to men. But they were waylaid and attacked, in going to, and returning from their work; the houses in which they resided, were broken open in the night. The women themselves were cruelly beaten and abused; and the mother of one of them killed; . . . And these nefarious attempts were persevered in so systematically, and so long, that Messrs. Dunlop and sons, found it necessary to dismiss all female spinners from their works, and to employ only male spinners, most probably the very men who had attempted their ruin.” First Report from the Select Committee on Artizans and Machinery, British Parliamentary Papers, 1824 vol. V, p. 525.

9 Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1

10 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, Ch. 1, and K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Ch. 2.

11 For the period 1574 to 1821 about 45 percent of servants were female, but this fell to 32 percent in 1851. See Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1.

12 Men usually worked 12-hour days, and women averaged closer to 10 hours. See Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review, May 1997, 50:257-281.

13 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 65.

14 See Robert Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman, Clarendon Press, 1992, and Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economics History, March 1999, 59:41-67.

15 While the scythe had been used for mowing grass for hay or cheaper grains for some time, the sickle was used for harvesting wheat until the nineteenth century. Thus adoption of the scythe for harvesting wheat seems to be a response to changing prices rather than invention of a new technology. The scythe required less labor to harvest a given acre, but left more grain on the ground, so as grain prices fell relative to wages, farmers substituted the scythe for the sickle. See E.J.T. Collins, “Harvest Technology and Labour Supply in Britain, 1790-1870,” Economic History Review, Dec. 1969, XXIII:453-473.

16 K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge, 1985.

17 See Jane Humphries, “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of Economic History, March 1990, 50:17-42, and J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Rights, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

18 See Peter King, “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850,” Economic History Review, 1991, XLIV:461-476.

19 Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 41-42 See also Deborah Valenze, The First Industrial Woman, Oxford Univ. Press, 1995

20 Stephen Glover, The Directory of the County of Derby, Derby: Henry Mozley and Son, 1829.

21 Eden gives an example of gentlewomen who, on the death of their father, began to work as farmers. He notes, “not seldom, in one and the same day, they have divided their hours in helping to fill the dung-cart, and receiving company of the highest rank and distinction.” (F.M. Eden, The State of the Poor, vol. i., p. 626.) One woman farmer who was clearly an active manager celebrated her success in a letter sent to the Annals of Agriculture, (quoted by Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 30): “I bought a small estate, and took possession of it in the month of July, 1803. . . . As a woman undertaking to farm is generally a subject of ridicule, I bought the small estate by way of experiment: the gentlemen of the county have now complimented me so much on having set so good and example to the farmers, that I have determined on taking a very large farm into my hands.” The Annals of Agriculture give a number of examples of women farmers cited for their experiments or their prize-winning crops.

22 Tradesmen considered themselves lucky to find a wife who was good at business. In his autobiography James Hopkinson, a cabinetmaker, said of his wife, “I found I had got a good and suitable companion one with whom I could take sweet council and whose love and affections was only equall’d by her ability as a business woman.” Victorian Cabinet Maker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, 1968, p. 96.

23 See Elizabeth Sanderson, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

24 See K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Table 6.1.

25 The law requiring a seven-year apprenticeship before someone could work in a trade was repealed in 1814.

26 See Francois Crouzet, The First Industrialists, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, and M.L. Baumber, From Revival to Regency: A History of Keighley and Haworth, 1740-1820, Crabtree Ltd., Keighley, 1983.

27 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiry into the Employment of Children in Factories, with Minutes of Evidence, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, A1, p. 120. \

28 For example, in the case of “LaVie and another Assignees against Philips and another Assignees,” the court upheld the right of a woman to operate as feme sole. In 1764 James Cox and his wife Jane were operating separate businesses, and both went bankrupt within the space of two months. Jane’s creditors sued James’s creditors for the recovery of five fans, goods from her shop that had been taken for James’s debts. The court ruled that, since Jane was trading as a feme sole, her husband did not own the goods in her shop, and thus James’s creditors had no right to seize them. See William Blackstone, Reports of Cases determined in the several Courts of Westminster-Hall, from 1746 to 1779, London, 1781, p. 570-575.

29 See Deborah Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, Princeton Univ. Press, 1985.

30 See Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117.

31 In his autobiography James Hopkinson says of his wife, “How she laboured at the press and assisted me in the work of my printing office, with a child in her arms, I have no space to tell, nor in fact have I space to allude to the many ways she contributed to my good fortune.” James Hopkinson, Victorian Cabinet Marker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, J.B. Goodman, ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p. 96. A 1739 poem by Mary Collier suggests that carrying babies into the field was fairly common; it contains these lines:

Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,

And wrap them in our Cloaths to keep them warm,

While round about we gather up the Corn;

. . .

When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,

Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too.

Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour, Augustan Reprint Society, #230, 1985, p. 10. A 1835 Poor Law report stated that in Sussex, “the custom of the mother of a family carrying her infant with her in its cradle into the field, rather than lose the opportunity of adding her earnings to the general stock, though partially practiced before, is becoming very much more general now.” (Quoted in Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 85.)

32 Sarah Johnson of Nottingham claimed that she ” Knows it is quite a common custom for mothers to give Godfrey’s and the Anodyne cordial to their infants, ‘it is quite too common.’ It is given to infants at the breast; it is not given because the child is ill, but ‘to compose it to rest, to sleep it,’ so that the mother may get to work. ‘Has seen an infant lay asleep on its mother’s lap whilst at the lace-frame for six or eight hours at a time.’ This has been from the effects of the cordial.” [Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 157] Mary Colton, a lace worker from Nottingham, described her use of the drug to parliamentary investigators thus: ‘Was confined of an illegitimate child in November, 1839. When the child was a week old she gave it a half teaspoonful of Godfrey’s twice a-day. She could not afford to pay for the nursing of the child, and so gave it Godfrey’s to keep it quiet, that she might not be interrupted at the lace piece; she gradually increased the quantity by a drop or two at a time until it reached a teaspoonful; when the infant was four months old it was so “wankle” and thin that folks persuaded her to give it laudanum to bring it on, as it did other children. A halfpenny worth, which was about a teaspoonful and three-quarters, was given in two days; continued to give her this quantity since February, 1840, until this last past (1841), and then reduced the quantity. She now buys a halfpenny worth of laudanum and a halfpenny worth of Godfrey’s mixed, which lasts her three days. . . . If it had not been for her having to sit so close to work she would never have given the child Godfrey’s. She has tried to break it off many times but cannot, for if she did, she should not have anything to eat.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary
Papers
, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 630].

33 Elizabeth Leadbeater, who worked for a Birmingham brass-founder, worked while she was nursing and had her mother look after the infant. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 710.] Mrs. Smart, an agricultural worker from Calne, Wiltshire, noted, “Sometimes I have had my mother, and sometimes my sister, to take care of the children, or I could not have gone out.” [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 65.] More commonly, though, older siblings provided the childcare. “Older siblings” generally meant children of nine or ten years old, and included boys as well as girls. Mrs. Britton of Calne, Wiltshire, left her children in the care of her eldest boy. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 66] In a family from Presteign, Wales, containing children aged 9, 7, 5, 3, and 1, we find that “The oldest children nurse the youngest.” [F.M. Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797, vol. iii, p. 904] When asked what income a labourer’s wife and children could earn, some respondents to the 1833 “Rural Queries” assumed that the eldest child would take care of the others, leaving the mother free to work. The returns from Bengeworth, Worcester, report that, “If the Mother goes to field work, the eldest Child had need to stay at home, to tend the younger branches of the Family.” Ewhurst, Surrey, reported that “If the Mother were employed, the elder Children at home would probably be required to attend to the younger Children.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B,
“Rural Queries,” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 488 and 593]

34 Parents heard of incidents, such as one reported in the Times (Feb. 6, 1819):

A shocking accident occurred at Llandidno, near Conway, on Tuesday night, during the absence of a miner and his wife, who had gone to attend a methodist meeting, and locked the house door, leaving two children within; the house by some means took fire, and was, together with the unfortunate children, consumed to ashes; the eldest only four years old!

Mothers were aware of these dangers. One mother who admitted to leaving her children at home worried greatly about the risks:

I have always left my children to themselves, and, God be praised! nothing has ever happened to them, though I thought it dangerous. I have many a time come home, and have thought it a mercy to find nothing has happened to them. . . . Bad accidents often happen. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 68.]

Leaving young children home without child care had real dangers, and the fact that most working mothers paid for childcare suggests that they did not consider leaving young children alone to be an acceptable option.

35 In 1840 an observer of Spitalfields noted, “In this neighborhood, where the women as well as the men are employed in the manufacture of silk, many children are sent to small schools, not for instruction, but to be taken care of whilst their mothers are at work.”[ Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 261] In 1840 the wife of a Gloucester weaver earned 2s. a week from running a school; she had twelve students and charged each 2d. a week. [Reports from Assistant Handloom Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (220) XXIV, p. 419] In 1843 the lace-making schools of the midlands generally charged 3d. per week. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46, 64, 71, 72]

36 At one straw-plaiting school in Hertfordshire,

Children commence learning the trade about seven years old: parents pay 3d. a-week for each child, and for this they are taught the trade and taught to read. The mistress employs about from 15 to 20 at work in a room; the parents get the profits of the children’s labour.[ Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 64]

At these schools there was very little instruction; some time was devoted to teaching the children to read, but they spent most of their time working. One mistress complained that the children worked too much and learned too little, “In my judgment I think the mothers task the children too much; the mistress is obliged to make them perform it, otherwise they would put them to other schools.” Ann Page of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, had “eleven scholars” and claimed to “teach them all reading once a-day.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 66, 71] The standard rate of 3d. per week seems to have been paid for supervision of the children rather than for the instruction.

37 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, C1 p. 33.

38 Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46.

39 David Davies, The Case of Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered, London: Robinson, 1795, p.14. Agricultural wages for this time period are found in Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797.

40 In 1843 parliamentary investigator Alfred Austin reports, “Where a girl is hired to take care of children, she is paid about 9d. a week, and has her food besides, which is a serious deduction from the wages of the woman at work.”[ Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers,1843 (510) XII, p.26] Agricultural wages in the area were 8d. per day, so even without the cost of food, the cost of child care was about one-fifth a woman’s wage. One Scottish woman earned 7s. per week in a coal mine and paid 2s.6d., or 36 percent of her income, for the care of her children.[ B.P.P. 1844 (592) XVI, p. 6] In 1843 Mary Wright, a “over-looker” at a Buckinghamshire paper factory, paid even more for child care; she told parliamentary investigators that “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for three others.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46] She earned 10s.6d. per week, so her total child-care payments were 21 percent of her wage. Engels put the cost of child care at 1s. or 18d. a week. [Engels, [1845] 1926, p. 143] Factory workers often made 7s. a week, so again these women may have paid around one-fifth of their earnings for child care. Some estimates suggest even higher fractions of women’s income went to child care. The overseer of Wisbech, Cambridge, suggests a higher fraction; he reports, “The earnings of the Wife we consider comparatively small, in cases where she has a large family to attend to; if she has one or two children, she has to pay half, or perhaps more of her earnings for a person to take care of them.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B, “Rural Queries,”
British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 76
]

 

Citation: Burnette, Joyce. “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/women-workers-in-the-british-industrial-revolution/

English Poor Laws

George Boyer, Cornell University

A compulsory system of poor relief was instituted in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Although the role played by poor relief was significantly modified by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Crusade Against Outrelief of the 1870s, and the adoption of various social insurance programs in the early twentieth century, the Poor Law continued to assist the poor until it was replaced by the welfare state in 1948. For nearly three centuries, the Poor Law constituted “a welfare state in miniature,” relieving the elderly, widows, children, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed and underemployed (Blaug 1964). This essay will outline the changing role played by the Poor Law, focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Origins of the Poor Law

While legislation dealing with vagrants and beggars dates back to the fourteenth century, perhaps the first English poor law legislation was enacted in 1536, instructing each parish to undertake voluntary weekly collections to assist the “impotent” poor. The parish had been the basic unit of local government since at least the fourteenth century, although Parliament imposed few if any civic functions on parishes before the sixteenth century. Parliament adopted several other statutes relating to the poor in the next sixty years, culminating with the Acts of 1597-98 and 1601 (43 Eliz. I c. 2), which established a compulsory system of poor relief that was administered and financed at the parish (local) level. These Acts laid the groundwork for the system of poor relief up to the adoption of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Relief was to be administered by a group of overseers, who were to assess a compulsory property tax, known as the poor rate, to assist those within the parish “having no means to maintain them.” The poor were divided into three groups: able-bodied adults, children, and the old or non-able-bodied (impotent). The overseers were instructed to put the able-bodied to work, to give apprenticeships to poor children, and to provide “competent sums of money” to relieve the impotent.

Deteriorating economic conditions and loss of traditional forms of charity in the 1500s

The Elizabethan Poor Law was adopted largely in response to a serious deterioration in economic circumstances, combined with a decline in more traditional forms of charitable assistance. Sixteenth century England experienced rapid inflation, caused by rapid population growth, the debasement of the coinage in 1526 and 1544-46, and the inflow of American silver. Grain prices more than tripled from 1490-1509 to 1550-69, and then increased by an additional 73 percent from 1550-69 to 1590-1609. The prices of other commodities increased nearly as rapidly — the Phelps Brown and Hopkins price index rose by 391 percent from 1495-1504 to 1595-1604. Nominal wages increased at a much slower rate than did prices; as a result, real wages of agricultural and building laborers and of skilled craftsmen declined by about 60 percent over the course of the sixteenth century. This decline in purchasing power led to severe hardship for a large share of the population. Conditions were especially bad in 1595-98, when four consecutive poor harvests led to famine conditions. At the same time that the number of workers living in poverty increased, the supply of charitable assistance declined. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-40, followed by the dissolution of religious guilds, fraternities, almshouses, and hospitals in 1545-49, “destroyed much of the institutional fabric which had provided charity for the poor in the past” (Slack 1990). Given the circumstances, the Acts of 1597-98 and 1601 can be seen as an attempt by Parliament both to prevent starvation and to control public order.

The Poor Law, 1601-1750

It is difficult to determine how quickly parishes implemented the Poor Law. Paul Slack (1990) contends that in 1660 a third or more of parishes regularly were collecting poor rates, and that by 1700 poor rates were universal. The Board of Trade estimated that in 1696 expenditures on poor relief totaled £400,000 (see Table 1), slightly less than 1 percent of national income. No official statistics exist for this period concerning the number of persons relieved or the demographic characteristics of those relieved, but it is possible to get some idea of the makeup of the “pauper host” from local studies undertaken by historians. These suggest that, during the seventeenth century, the bulk of relief recipients were elderly, orphans, or widows with young children. In the first half of the century, orphans and lone-parent children made up a particularly large share of the relief rolls, while by the late seventeenth century in many parishes a majority of those collecting regular weekly “pensions” were aged sixty or older. Female pensioners outnumbered males by as much as three to one (Smith 1996). On average, the payment of weekly pensions made up about two-thirds of relief spending in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; the remainder went to casual benefits, often to able-bodied males in need of short-term relief because of sickness or unemployment.

Settlement Act of 1662

One of the issues that arose in the administration of relief was that of entitlement: did everyone within a parish have a legal right to relief? Parliament addressed this question in the Settlement Act of 1662, which formalized the notion that each person had a parish of settlement, and which gave parishes the right to remove within forty days of arrival any newcomer deemed “likely to be chargeable” as well as any non-settled applicant for relief. While Adam Smith, and some historians, argued that the Settlement Law put a serious brake on labor mobility, available evidence suggests that parishes used it selectively, to keep out economically undesirable migrants such as single women, older workers, and men with large families.

Relief expenditures increased sharply in the first half of the eighteenth century, as can be seen in Table 1. Nominal expenditures increased by 72 percent from 1696 to 1748-50 despite the fact that prices were falling and population was growing slowly; real expenditures per capita increased by 84 percent. A large part of this rise was due to increasing pension benefits, especially for the elderly. Some areas also experienced an increase in the number of able-bodied relief recipients. In an attempt to deter some of the poor from applying for relief, Parliament in 1723 adopted the Workhouse Test Act, which empowered parishes to deny relief to any applicant who refused to enter a workhouse. While many parishes established workhouses as a result of the Act, these were often short-lived, and the vast majority of paupers continued to receive outdoor relief (that is, relief in their own homes).

The Poor Law, 1750-1834

The period from 1750 to 1820 witnessed an explosion in relief expenditures. Real per capita expenditures more than doubled from 1748-50 to 1803, and remained at a high level until the Poor Law was amended in 1834 (see Table 1). Relief expenditures increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1748-50 to a peak of 2.7% of GDP in 1818-20 (Lindert 1998). The demographic characteristics of the pauper host changed considerably in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the rural south and east of England. There was a sharp increase in numbers receiving casual benefits, as opposed to regular weekly pensions. The age distribution of those on relief became younger — the share of paupers who were prime-aged (20- 59) increased significantly, and the share aged 60 and over declined. Finally, the share of relief recipients in the south and east who were male increased from about a third in 1760 to nearly two-thirds in 1820. In the north and west there also were shifts toward prime-age males and casual relief, but the magnitude of these changes was far smaller than elsewhere (King 2000).

Gilbert’s Act and the Removal Act

There were two major pieces of legislation during this period. Gilbert’s Act (1782) empowered parishes to join together to form unions for the purpose of relieving their poor. The Act stated that only the impotent poor should be relieved in workhouses; the able-bodied should either be found work or granted outdoor relief. To a large extent, Gilbert’s Act simply legitimized the policies of a large number of parishes that found outdoor relief both less and expensive and more humane that workhouse relief. The other major piece of legislation was the Removal Act of 1795, which amended the Settlement Law so that no non-settled person could be removed from a parish unless he or she applied for relief.

Speenhamland System and other forms of poor relief

During this period, relief for the able-bodied took various forms, the most important of which were: allowances-in-aid-of-wages (the so-called Speenhamland system), child allowances for laborers with large families, and payments to seasonally unemployed agricultural laborers. The system of allowances-in-aid-of-wages was adopted by magistrates and parish overseers throughout large parts of southern England to assist the poor during crisis periods. The most famous allowance scale, though by no means the first, was that adopted by Berkshire magistrates at Speenhamland on May 6, 1795. Under the allowance system, a household head (whether employed or unemployed) was guaranteed a minimum weekly income, the level of which was determined by the price of bread and by the size of his or her family. Such scales typically were instituted only during years of high food prices, such as 1795-96 and 1800-01, and removed when prices declined. Child allowance payments were widespread in the rural south and east, which suggests that laborers’ wages were too low to support large families. The typical parish paid a small weekly sum to laborers with four or more children under age 10 or 12. Seasonal unemployment had been a problem for agricultural laborers long before 1750, but the extent of seasonality increased in the second half of the eighteenth century as farmers in southern and eastern England responded to the sharp increase in grain prices by increasing their specialization in grain production. The increase in seasonal unemployment, combined with the decline in other sources of income, forced many agricultural laborers to apply for poor relief during the winter.

Regional differences in relief expenditures and recipients

Table 2 reports data for fifteen counties located throughout England on per capita relief expenditures for the years ending in March 1783-85, 1803, 1812, and 1831, and on relief recipients in 1802-03. Per capita expenditures were higher on average in agricultural counties than in more industrial counties, and were especially high in the grain-producing southern counties — Oxford, Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, and Sussex. The share of the population receiving poor relief in 1802-03 varied significantly across counties, being 15 to 23 percent in the grain- producing south and less than 10 percent in the north. The demographic characteristics of those relieved also differed across regions. In particular, the share of relief recipients who were elderly or disabled was higher in the north and west than it was in the south; by implication, the share that were able-bodied was higher in the south and east than elsewhere. Economic historians typically have concluded that these regional differences in relief expenditures and numbers on relief were caused by differences in economic circumstances; that is, poverty was more of a problem in the agricultural south and east than it was in the pastoral southwest or in the more industrial north (Blaug 1963; Boyer 1990). More recently, King (2000) has argued that the regional differences in poor relief were determined not by economic structure but rather by “very different welfare cultures on the part of both the poor and the poor law administrators.”

Causes of the Increase in Relief to Able-bodied Males

What caused the increase in the number of able-bodied males on relief? In the second half of the eighteenth century, a large share of rural households in southern England suffered significant declines in real income. County-level cross-sectional data suggest that, on average, real wages for day laborers in agriculture declined by 19 percent from 1767-70 to 1795 in fifteen southern grain-producing counties, then remained roughly constant from 1795 to 1824, before increasing to a level in 1832 about 10 percent above that of 1770 (Bowley 1898). Farm-level time-series data yield a similar result — real wages in the southeast declined by 13 percent from 1770-79 to 1800-09, and remained low until the 1820s (Clark 2001).

Enclosures

Some historians contend that the Parliamentary enclosure movement, and the plowing over of commons and waste land, reduced the access of rural households to land for growing food, grazing animals, and gathering fuel, and led to the immiseration of large numbers of agricultural laborers and their families (Hammond and Hammond 1911; Humphries 1990). More recent research, however, suggests that only a relatively small share of agricultural laborers had common rights, and that there was little open access common land in southeastern England by 1750 (Shaw-Taylor 2001; Clark and Clark 2001). Thus, the Hammonds and Humphries probably overstated the effect of late eighteenth-century enclosures on agricultural laborers’ living standards, although those laborers who had common rights must have been hurt by enclosures.

Declining cottage industry

Finally, in some parts of the south and east, women and children were employed in wool spinning, lace making, straw plaiting, and other cottage industries. Employment opportunities in wool spinning, the largest cottage industry, declined in the late eighteenth century, and employment in the other cottage industries declined in the early nineteenth century (Pinchbeck 1930; Boyer 1990). The decline of cottage industry reduced the ability of women and children to contribute to household income. This, in combination with the decline in agricultural laborers’ wage rates and, in some villages, the loss of common rights, caused many rural household’s incomes in southern England to fall dangerously close to subsistence by 1795.

North and Midlands

The situation was different in the north and midlands. The real wages of day laborers in agriculture remained roughly constant from 1770 to 1810, and then increased sharply, so that by the 1820s wages were about 50 percent higher than they were in 1770 (Clark 2001). Moreover, while some parts of the north and midlands experienced a decline in cottage industry, in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire the concentration of textile production led to increased employment opportunities for women and children.

The Political Economy of the Poor Law, 1795-1834

A comparison of English poor relief with poor relief on the European continent reveals a puzzle: from 1795 to 1834 relief expenditures per capita, and expenditures as a share of national product, were significantly higher in England than on the continent. However, differences in spending between England and the continent were relatively small before 1795 and after 1834 (Lindert 1998). Simple economic explanations cannot account for the different patterns of English and continental relief.

Labor-hiring farmers take advantage of the poor relief system

The increase in relief spending in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was partly a result of politically-dominant farmers taking advantage of the poor relief system to shift some of their labor costs onto other taxpayers (Boyer 1990). Most rural parish vestries were dominated by labor-hiring farmers as a result of “the principle of weighting the right to vote according to the amount of property occupied,” introduced by Gilbert’s Act (1782), and extended in 1818 by the Parish Vestry Act (Brundage 1978). Relief expenditures were financed by a tax levied on all parishioners whose property value exceeded some minimum level. A typical rural parish’s taxpayers can be divided into two groups: labor-hiring farmers and non-labor-hiring taxpayers (family farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans). In grain-producing areas, where there were large seasonal variations in the demand for labor, labor-hiring farmers anxious to secure an adequate peak season labor force were able to reduce costs by laying off unneeded workers during slack seasons and having them collect poor relief. Large farmers used their political power to tailor the administration of poor relief so as to lower their labor costs. Thus, some share of the increase in relief spending in the early nineteenth century represented a subsidy to labor-hiring farmers rather than a transfer from farmers and other taxpayers to agricultural laborers and their families. In pasture farming areas, where the demand for labor was fairly constant over the year, it was not in farmers’ interests to shed labor during the winter, and the number of able-bodied laborers receiving casual relief was smaller. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 reduced the political power of labor-hiring farmers, which helps to account for the decline in relief expenditures after that date.

The New Poor Law, 1834-70

The increase in spending on poor relief in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, combined with the attacks on the Poor Laws by Thomas Malthus and other political economists and the agricultural laborers’ revolt of 1830-31 (the Captain Swing riots), led the government in 1832 to appoint the Royal Commission to Investigate the Poor Laws. The Commission published its report, written by Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick, in March 1834. The report, described by historian R. H. Tawney (1926) as “brilliant, influential and wildly unhistorical,” called for sweeping reforms of the Poor Law, including the grouping of parishes into Poor Law unions, the abolition of outdoor relief for the able-bodied and their families, and the appointment of a centralized Poor Law Commission to direct the administration of poor relief. Soon after the report was published Parliament adopted the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which implemented some of the report’s recommendations and left others, like the regulation of outdoor relief, to the three newly appointed Poor Law Commissioners.

By 1839 the vast majority of rural parishes had been grouped into poor law unions, and most of these had built or were building workhouses. On the other hand, the Commission met with strong opposition when it attempted in 1837 to set up unions in the industrial north, and the implementation of the New Poor Law was delayed in several industrial cities. In an attempt to regulate the granting of relief to able-bodied males, the Commission, and its replacement in 1847, the Poor Law Board, issued several orders to selected Poor Law Unions. The Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, sent to unions without workhouses or where the workhouse test was deemed unenforceable, stated that able-bodied males could be given outdoor relief only if they were set to work by the union. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 prohibited outdoor relief for both able-bodied males and females except on account of sickness or “sudden and urgent necessity.” The Outdoor Relief Regulation Order of 1852 extended the labor test for those relieved outside of workhouses.

Historical debate about the effect of the New Poor Law

Historians do not agree on the effect of the New Poor Law on the local administration of relief. Some contend that the orders regulating outdoor relief largely were evaded by both rural and urban unions, many of whom continued to grant outdoor relief to unemployed and underemployed males (Rose 1970; Digby 1975). Others point to the falling numbers of able- bodied males receiving relief in the national statistics and the widespread construction of union workhouses, and conclude that the New Poor Law succeeded in abolishing outdoor relief for the able-bodied by 1850 (Williams 1981). A recent study by Lees (1998) found that in three London parishes and six provincial towns in the years around 1850 large numbers of prime-age males continued to apply for relief, and that a majority of those assisted were granted outdoor relief. The Poor Law also played an important role in assisting the unemployed in industrial cities during the cyclical downturns of 1841-42 and 1847-48 and the Lancashire cotton famine of 1862-65 (Boot 1990; Boyer 1997). There is no doubt, however, that spending on poor relief declined after 1834 (see Table 1). Real per capita relief expenditures fell by 43 percent from 1831 to 1841, and increased slowly thereafter.

Beginning in 1840, data on the number of persons receiving poor relief are available for two days a year, January 1 and July 1; the “official” estimates in Table 1 of the annual number relieved were constructed as the average of the number relieved on these two dates. Studies conducted by Poor Law administrators indicate that the number recorded in the day counts was less than half the number assisted during the year. Lees’s “revised” estimates of annual relief recipients (see Table 1) assumes that the ratio of actual to counted paupers was 2.24 for 1850- 1900 and 2.15 for 1905-14; these suggest that from 1850 to 1870 about 10 percent of the population was assisted by the Poor Law each year. Given the temporary nature of most spells of relief, over a three year period as much as 25 percent of the population made use of the Poor Law (Lees 1998).

The Crusade Against Outrelief

In the 1870s Poor Law unions throughout England and Wales curtailed outdoor relief for all types of paupers. This change in policy, known as the Crusade Against Outrelief, was not a result of new government regulations, although it was encouraged by the newly formed Local Government Board (LGB). The Board was aided in convincing the public of the need for reform by the propaganda of the Charity Organization Society (COS), founded in 1869. The LGB and the COS maintained that the ready availability of outdoor relief destroyed the self-reliance of the poor. The COS went on to argue that the shift from outdoor to workhouse relief would significantly reduce the demand for assistance, since most applicants would refuse to enter workhouses, and therefore reduce Poor Law expenditures. A policy that promised to raise the morals of the poor and reduce taxes was hard for most Poor Law unions to resist (MacKinnon 1987).

The effect of the Crusade can be seen in Table 1. The deterrent effect associated with the workhouse led to a sharp fall in numbers on relief — from 1871 to 1876, the number of paupers receiving outdoor relief fell by 33 percent. The share of paupers relieved in workhouses increased from 12-15 percent in 1841-71 to 22 percent in 1880, and it continued to rise to 35 percent in 1911. The extent of the crusade varied considerably across poor law unions. Urban unions typically relieved a much larger share of their paupers in workhouses than did rural unions, but there were significant differences in practice across cities. In 1893, over 70 percent of the paupers in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and in many London Poor Law unions received indoor relief; however, in Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Nottingham and several other industrial and mining cities the majority of paupers continued to receive outdoor relief (Booth 1894).

Change in the attitude of the poor toward relief

The last third of the nineteenth century also witnessed a change in the attitude of the poor towards relief. Prior to 1870, a large share of the working class regarded access to public relief as an entitlement, although they rejected the workhouse as a form of relief. Their opinions changed over time, however, and by the end of the century most workers viewed poor relief as stigmatizing (Lees 1998). This change in perceptions led many poor people to go to great lengths to avoid applying for relief, and available evidence suggests that there were large differences between poverty rates and pauperism rates in late Victorian Britain. For example, in York in 1900, 3,451 persons received poor relief at some point during the year, less than half of the 7,230 persons estimated by Rowntree to be living in primary poverty.

The Declining Role of the Poor Law, 1870-1914

Increased availability of alternative sources of assistance

The share of the population on relief fell sharply from 1871 to 1876, and then continued to decline, at a much slower pace, until 1914. Real per capita relief expenditures increased from 1876 to 1914, largely because the Poor Law provided increasing amounts of medical care for the poor. Otherwise, the role played by the Poor Law declined over this period, due in large part to an increase in the availability of alternative sources of assistance. There was a sharp increase in the second half of the nineteenth century in the membership of friendly societies — mutual help associations providing sickness, accident, and death benefits, and sometimes old age (superannuation) benefits — and of trade unions providing mutual insurance policies. The benefits provided workers and their families with some protection against income loss, and few who belonged to friendly societies or unions providing “friendly” benefits ever needed to apply to the Poor Law for assistance.

Work relief

Local governments continued to assist unemployed males after 1870, but typically not through the Poor Law. Beginning with the Chamberlain Circular in 1886 the Local Government Board encouraged cities to set up work relief projects when unemployment was high. The circular stated that “it is not desirable that the working classes should be familiarised with Poor Law relief,” and that the work provided should “not involve the stigma of pauperism.” In 1905 Parliament adopted the Unemployed Workman Act, which established in all large cities distress committees to provide temporary employment to workers who were unemployed because of a “dislocation of trade.”

Liberal welfare reforms, 1906-1911

Between 1906 and 1911 Parliament passed several pieces of social welfare legislation collectively known as the Liberal welfare reforms. These laws provided free meals and medical inspections (later treatment) for needy school children (1906, 1907, 1912) and weekly pensions for poor persons over age 70 (1908), and established national sickness and unemployment insurance (1911). The Liberal reforms purposely reduced the role played by poor relief, and paved the way for the abolition of the Poor Law.

The Last Years of the Poor Law

During the interwar period the Poor Law served as a residual safety net, assisting those who fell through the cracks of the existing social insurance policies. The high unemployment of 1921-38 led to a sharp increase in numbers on relief. The official count of relief recipients rose from 748,000 in 1914 to 1,449,000 in 1922; the number relieved averaged 1,379,800 from 1922 to 1938. A large share of those on relief were unemployed workers and their dependents, especially in 1922-26. Despite the extension of unemployment insurance in 1920 to virtually all workers except the self-employed and those in agriculture or domestic service, there still were large numbers who either did not qualify for unemployment benefits or who had exhausted their benefits, and many of them turned to the Poor Law for assistance. The vast majority were given outdoor relief; from 1921 to 1923 the number of outdoor relief recipients increased by 1,051,000 while the number receiving indoor relieve increased by 21,000.

The Poor Law becomes redundant and is repealed

Despite the important role played by poor relief during the interwar period, the government continued to adopt policies, which bypassed the Poor Law and left it “to die by attrition and surgical removals of essential organs” (Lees 1998). The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished the Poor Law unions, and transferred the administration of poor relief to the counties and county boroughs. In 1934 the responsibility for assisting those unemployed who were outside the unemployment insurance system was transferred from the Poor Law to the Unemployment Assistance Board. Finally, from 1945 to 1948, Parliament adopted a series of laws that together formed the basis for the welfare state, and made the Poor Law redundant. The National Assistance Act of 1948 officially repealed all existing Poor Law legislation, and replaced the Poor Law with the National Assistance Board to act as a residual relief agency.

Table 1
Relief Expenditures and Numbers on Relief, 1696-1936

Expend. Real Expend. Expend. Number Share of Number Share of Share of
on expend. as share as share relieved Pop. relieved pop. paupers
Year Relief per capita of GDP of GDP (Official) relieved (Lees) relieved relieved
(£s) 1803=100 (Slack) (Lindert) 1 000s (Official) 1 000s (Lees) indoors
1696 400 24.9 0.8
1748-50 690 45.8 1.0 0.99
1776 1 530 64.0 1.6 1.59
1783-85 2 004 75.6 2.0 1.75
1803 4 268 100.0 1.9 2.15 1 041 11.4 8.0
1813 6 656 91.8 2.58
1818 7 871 116.8
1821 6 959 113.6 2.66
1826 5 929 91.8
1831 6 799 107.9 2.00
1836 4 718 81.1
1841 4 761 61.8 1.12 1 299 8.3 2 910 18.5 14.8
1846 4 954 69.4 1 332 8.0 2 984 17.8 15.0
1851 4 963 67.8 1.07 941 5.3 2 108 11.9 12.1
1856 6 004 62.0 917 4.9 2 054 10.9 13.6
1861 5 779 60.0 0.86 884 4.4 1 980 9.9 13.2
1866 6 440 65.0 916 4.3 2 052 9.7 13.7
1871 7 887 73.3 1 037 4.6 2 323 10.3 14.2
1876 7 336 62.8 749 3.1 1 678 7.0 18.1
1881 8 102 69.1 0.70 791 3.1 1 772 6.9 22.3
1886 8 296 72.0 781 2.9 1 749 6.4 23.2
1891 8 643 72.3 760 2.6 1 702 5.9 24.0
1896 10 216 84.7 816 2.7 1 828 6.0 25.9
1901 11 549 84.7 777 2.4 1 671 5.2 29.2
1906 14 036 96.9 892 2.6 1 918 5.6 31.1
1911 15 023 93.6 886 2.5 1 905 5.3 35.1
1921 31 925 75.3 627 1.7 35.7
1926 40 083 128.3 1 331 3.4 17.7
1931 38 561 133.9 1 090 2.7 21.5
1936 44 379 165.7 1 472 3.6 12.6

Notes: Relief expenditure data are for the year ended on March 25. In calculating real per capita expenditures, I used cost of living and population data for the previous year.

Table 2
County-level Poor Relief Data, 1783-1831

Per capita Per capita Per capita Per capita Share of Percent Share of
relief relief relief relief Percent of Recipients of land in Pop
spending spending spending spending population over 60 or arable Employed
County (s.) (s.) (s.) (s.) relieved Disabled farming in Agric
1783-5 1802-03 1812 1831 1802-03 1802-03 c. 1836 1821
North
Durham 2.78 6.50 9.92 6.83 9.3 22.8 54.9 20.5
Northumberland 2.81 6.67 7.92 6.25 8.8 32.2 46.5 26.8
Lancashire 3.48 4.42 7.42 4.42 6.7 15.0 27.1 11.2
West Riding 2.91 6.50 9.92 5.58 9.3 18.1 30.0 19.6
Midlands
Stafford 4.30 6.92 8.50 6.50 9.1 17.2 44.8 26.6
Nottingham 3.42 6.33 10.83 6.50 6.8 17.3 na 35.4
Warwick 6.70 11.25 13.33 9.58 13.3 13.7 47.5 27.9
Southeast
Oxford 7.07 16.17 24.83 16.92 19.4 13.2 55.8 55.4
Berkshire 8.65 15.08 27.08 15.75 20.0 12.7 58.5 53.3
Essex 9.10 12.08 24.58 17.17 16.4 12.7 72.4 55.7
Suffolk 7.35 11.42 19.33 18.33 16.6 11.4 70.3 55.9
Sussex 11.52 22.58 33.08 19.33 22.6 8.7 43.8 50.3
Southwest
Devon 5.53 7.25 11.42 9.00 12.3 23.1 22.5 40.8
Somerset 5.24 8.92 12.25 8.83 12.0 20.8 24.4 42.8
Cornwall 3.62 5.83 9.42 6.67 6.6 31.0 23.8 37.7
England & Wales 4.06 8.92 12.75 10.08 11.4 16.0 48.0 33.0

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Labor Unions in the United States

Gerald Friedman, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Unions and Collective Action

In capitalist labor markets, which developed in the nineteenth-century in the United States and Western Europe, workers exchange their time and effort for wages. But even while laboring under the supervision of others, wage earners have never been slaves, because they have recourse from abuse. They can quit to seek better employment. Or they are free to join with others to take collective action, forming political movements or labor unions. By the end of the nineteenth century, labor unions and labor-oriented political parties had become major forces influencing wages and working conditions. This article explores the nature and development of labor unions in the United States. It reviews the growth and recent decline of the American labor movement and makes comparisons with the experience of foreign labor unions to clarify particular aspects of the history of labor unions in the United States.

Unions and the Free-Rider Problem

Quitting, exit, is straightforward, a simple act for individuals unhappy with their employment. By contrast, collective action, such as forming a labor union, is always difficult because it requires that individuals commit themselves to produce “public goods” enjoyed by all, including those who “free ride” rather than contribute to the group effort. If the union succeeds, free riders receive the same benefits as do activists; but if it fails, the activists suffer while those who remained outside lose nothing. Because individualist logic leads workers to “free ride,” unions cannot grow by appealing to individual self-interest (Hirschman, 1970; 1982; Olson, 1966; Gamson, 1975).

Union Growth Comes in Spurts

Free riding is a problem for all collective movements, including Rotary Clubs, the Red Cross, and the Audubon Society. But unionization is especially difficult because unions must attract members against the opposition of often-hostile employers. Workers who support unions sacrifice money and risk their jobs, even their lives. Success comes only when large numbers simultaneously follow a different rationality. Unions must persuade whole groups to abandon individualism to throw themselves into the collective project. Rarely have unions grown incrementally, gradually adding members. Instead, workers have joined unions en masse in periods of great excitement, attracted by what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim labeled “collective effervescence” or the joy of participating in a common project without regard for individual interest. Growth has come in spurts, short periods of social upheaval punctuated by major demonstrations and strikes when large numbers see their fellow workers publicly demonstrating a shared commitment to the collective project. Union growth, therefore, is concentrated in short periods of dramatic social upheaval; in the thirteen countries listed in Tables 1 and 2, 67 percent of growth comes in only five years, and over 90 percent in only ten years. As Table 3 shows, in these thirteen countries, unions grew by over 10 percent a year in years with the greatest strike activity but by less than 1 percent a year in the years with the fewest strikers (Friedman, 1999; Shorter and Tilly, 1974; Zolberg, 1972).

Table 1
Union Members per 100 Nonagricultural Workers, 1880-1985: Selected Countries

Year Canada US Austria Denmark France Italy Germany Netherlands Norway Sweden UK Australia Japan
1880 n.a. 1.8 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
1900 4.6 7.5 n.a. 20.8 5.0 n.a. 7.0 n.a. 3.4 4.8 12.7 n.a. n.a.
1914 8.6 10.5 n.a. 25.1 8.1 n.a. 16.9 17.0 13.6 9.9 23.0 32.8 n.a.
1928 11.6 9.9 41.7 39.7 8.0 n.a. 32.5 26.0 17.4 32.0 25.6 46.2 n.a.
1939 10.9 20.7 n.a. 51.8 22.4 n.a. n.a. 32.5 57.0 53.6 31.6 39.2 n.a.
1947 24.6 31.4 64.6 55.9 40.0 n.a. 29.1 40.4 55.1 64.6 44.5 52.9 45.3
1950 26.3 28.4 62.3 58.1 30.2 49.0 33.1 43.0 58.4 67.7 44.1 56.0 46.2
1960 28.3 30.4 63.4 64.4 20.0 29.6 37.1 41.8 61.5 73.0 44.2 54.5 32.2
1975 35.6 26.4 58.5 66.6 21.4 50.1 38.2 39.1 60.5 87.2 51.0 54.7 34.4
1985 33.7 18.9 57.8 82.2 14.5 51.0 39.3 28.6 65.3 103.0 44.2 51.5 28.9

Note: This table shows the unionization rate, the share of nonagricultural workers belonging to unions, in different countries in different years, 1880-1985. Because union membership often includes unemployed and retired union members it may exceed the number of employed workers, giving a unionization rate of greater than 100 percent.

Table 2
Union Growth in Peak and Other Years

Country Years Membership Growth Share of Growth (%) Excess Growth (%)
Top 5 Years Top 10 Years All Years 5 Years 10 Years 5 Years 10 Years
Australia 83 720 000 1 230 000 3 125 000 23.0 39.4 17.0 27.3
Austria 52 5 411 000 6 545 000 3 074 000 176.0 212.9 166.8 194.4
Canada 108 855 000 1 532 000 4 028 000 21.2 38.0 16.6 28.8
Denmark 85 521 000 795 000 1 883 000 27.7 42.2 21.8 30.5
France 92 6 605 000 7 557 000 2 872 000 230.0 263.1 224.5 252.3
Germany 82 10 849 000 13 543 000 9 120 000 119.0 148.5 112.9 136.3
Italy 38 3 028 000 4 671 000 3 713 000 81.6 125.8 68.4 99.5
Japan 43 4 757 000 6 692 000 8 983 000 53.0 74.5 41.3 51.2
Netherlands 71 671 000 1 009 000 1 158 000 57.9 87.1 50.9 73.0
Norway 85 304 000 525 000 1 177 000 25.8 44.6 19.9 32.8
Sweden 99 633 000 1 036 000 3 859 000 16.4 26.8 11.4 16.7
UK 96 4 929 000 8 011 000 8 662 000 56.9 92.5 51.7 82.1
US 109 10 247 000 14 796 000 22 293 000 46.0 66.4 41.4 57.2
Total 1043 49 530 000 67 942 000 73 947 000 67.0 91.9 60.7 79.4

Note: This table shows that most union growth comes in a few years. Union membership growth (net of membership losses) has been calculated for each country for each year. Years were then sorted for each country according to membership growth. This table reports growth for each country for the five and the ten years with the fastest growth and compares this with total growth over all years for which data are available. Excess growth has been calculated as the difference between the share of growth in the top five or ten years and the share that would have come in these periods if growth had been distributed evenly across all years.

Note that years of rapid growth are not necessarily contiguous. There can be more growth in years of rapid growth than over the entire period. This is because some is temporary when years of rapid growth are followed by years of decline.

Sources: Bain and Price (1980): 39, Visser (1989)

Table 3
Impact of Strike Activity on Union Growth
Average Union Membership Growth in Years Sorted by Proportion of Workers Striking

Country Striker Rate Quartile Change
Lowest Third Second Highest
Australia 5.1 2.5 4.5 2.7 -2.4
Austria 0.5 -1.9 0.4 2.4 1.9
Canada 1.3 1.9 2.3 15.8 14.5
Denmark 0.3 1.1 3.0 11.3 11.0
France 0.0 2.1 5.6 17.0 17.0
Germany -0.2 0.4 1.3 20.3 20.5
Italy -2.2 -0.3 2.3 5.8 8.0
Japan -0.2 5.1 3.0 4.3 4.5
Netherlands -0.9 1.2 3.5 6.3 7.2
Norway 1.9 4.3 8.6 10.3 8.4
Sweden 2.5 3.2 5.9 16.9 14.4
UK 1.7 1.7 1.9 3.4 1.7
US -0.5 0.6 2.1 19.9 20.4
Total: Average 0.72 1.68 3.42 10.49 9.78

Note: This table shows that except in Australia unions grew fastest in years with large number of strikers. The proportion of workers striking was calculated for each country for each year as the number of strikers divided by the nonagricultural labor force. Years were then sorted into quartiles, each including one-fourth of the years, according to this striker rate statistic. The average annual union membership growth rate was then calculated for each quartile as the mean of the growth rate in each year in the quartile.

Rapid Union Growth Provokes a Hostile Reaction

These periods of rapid union growth end because social upheaval provokes a hostile reaction. Union growth leads employers to organize, to discover their own collective interests. Emulating their workers, they join together to discharge union activists, to support each other in strikes, and to demand government action against unions. This rising opposition ends periods of rapid union growth, beginning a new phase of decline followed by longer periods of stagnant membership. The weakest unions formed during the union surge succumb to the post-boom reaction; but if enough unions survive they leave a movement larger and broader than before.

Early Labor Unions, Democrats and Socialists

Guilds

Before modern labor unions, guilds united artisans and their employees. Craftsmen did the work of early industry, “masters” working beside “journeymen” and apprentices in small workplaces. Throughout the cities and towns of medieval Europe, guilds regulated production by setting minimum prices and quality, and capping wages, employment, and output. Controlled by independent craftsmen, “masters” who employed journeymen and trained apprentices, guilds regulated industry to protect the comfort and status of the masters. Apprentices and journeymen benefited from guild restrictions only when they advanced to master status.

Guild power was gradually undermined in the early-modern period. Employing workers outside the guild system, including rural workers and semiskilled workers in large urban workplaces, merchants transformed medieval industry. By the early 1800s, few could anticipate moving up to becoming a master artisan or owning their own establishment. Instead, facing the prospect of a lifetime of wage labor punctuated by periods of unemployment, some wage earners began to seek a collective regulation of their individual employment (Thompson, 1966; Scott, 1974; Dawley, 1976; Sewell, 1980; Wilentz, 1984; Blewett, 1988).

The labor movement within the broader movement for democracy

This new wage-labor regime led to the modern labor movement. Organizing propertyless workers who were laboring for capitalists, organized labor formed one wing of a broader democratic movement struggling for equality and for the rights of commoners (Friedman, 1998). Within the broader democratic movement for legal and political equality, labor fought the rise of a new aristocracy that controlled the machinery of modern industry just as the old aristocracy had monopolized land. Seen in this light, the fundamental idea of the labor movement, that employees should have a voice in the management of industry, is comparable to the demand that citizens should have a voice in the management of public affairs. Democratic values do not, by any means, guarantee that unions will be fair and evenhanded to all workers. In the United States, by reserving good jobs for their members, unions of white men sometimes contributed to the exploitation of women and nonwhites. Democracy only means that exploitation will be carried out at the behest of a political majority rather than at the say of an individual capitalist (Roediger, 1991; Arnesen, 2001; Foner, 1974; 1979; Milkman, 1985).

Craft unions’ strategy

Workers formed unions to voice their interests against their employers, and also against other workers. Rejecting broad alliances along class lines, alliances uniting workers on the basis of their lack of property and their common relationship with capitalists, craft unions followed a narrow strategy, uniting workers with the same skill against both the capitalists and against workers in different trades. By using their monopoly of knowledge of the work process to restrict access to the trade, craft unions could have a strong bargaining position that was enhanced by alliances with other craftsmen to finance long strikes. A narrow craft strategy was followed by the first successful unions throughout Europe and America, especially in small urban shops using technologies that still depended on traditional specialized skills, including printers, furniture makers, carpenters, gold beaters and jewelry makers, iron molders, engineers, machinists, and plumbers. Craft unions’ characteristic action was the small, local strike, the concerted withdrawal of labor by a few workers critical to production. Typically, craft unions would present a set of demands to local employers on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis; either the employer accepted their demands or fought a contest of strength to determine whether the employers could do without the skilled workers for longer than the workers could manage without their jobs.

The craft strategy offered little to the great masses of workers. Because it depends on restricting access to trades it could not be applied by common laborers, who were untrained, nor by semi-skilled employees in modern mass-production establishments whose employers trained them on-the-job. Shunned by craft unions, most women and African-Americans in the United States were crowded into nonunion occupations. Some sought employment as strikebreakers in occupations otherwise monopolized by craft unions controlled by white, native-born males (Washington, 1913; Whatley, 1993).

Unions among unskilled workers

To form unions, the unskilled needed a strategy of the weak that would utilize their numbers rather than specialized knowledge and accumulated savings. Inclusive unions have succeeded but only when they attract allies among politicians, state officials, and the affluent public. Sponsoring unions and protecting them from employer repression, allies can allow organization among workers without specialized skills. When successful, inclusive unions can grow quickly in mass mobilization of common laborers. This happened, for example, in Germany at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, during the French Popular Front of 1936-37, and in the United States during the New Deal of the 1930s. These were times when state support rewarded inclusive unions for organizing the unskilled. The bill for mass mobilization usually came later. Each boom was followed by a reaction against the extensive promises of the inclusive labor movement when employers and conservative politicians worked to put labor’s genie back in the bottle.

Solidarity and the Trade Unions

Unionized occupations of the late 1800s

By the late-nineteenth century, trade unions had gained a powerful position in several skilled occupations in the United States and elsewhere. Outside of mining, craft unions were formed among well-paid skilled craft workers — workers whom historian Eric Hobsbawm labeled the “labor aristocracy” (Hobsbawm, 1964; Geary, 1981). In 1892, for example, nearly two-thirds of British coal miners were union members, as were a third of machinists, millwrights and metal workers, cobblers and shoe makers, glass workers, printers, mule spinners, and construction workers (Bain and Price, 1980). French miners had formed relatively strong unions, as had skilled workers in the railroad operating crafts, printers, jewelry makers, cigar makers, and furniture workers (Friedman, 1998). Cigar makers, printers, furniture workers, some construction and metal craftsmen took the lead in early German unions (Kocka, 1986). In the United States, there were about 160,000 union members in 1880, including 120,000 belonging to craft unions, including carpenters, engineers, furniture makers, stone-cutters, iron puddlers and rollers, printers, and several railroad crafts. Another 40,000 belonged to “industrial” unions organized without regard for trade. About half of these were coal miners; most of the rest belonged to the Knights of Labor (KOL) (Friedman, 1999).

The Knights of Labor

In Europe, these craft organizations were to be the basis of larger, mass unions uniting workers without regard for trade or, in some cases, industry (Ansell, 2001). This process began in the United States in the 1880s when craft workers in the Knights of Labor reached out to organize more broadly. Formed by skilled male, native-born garment cutters in 1869, the Knights of Labor would seem an odd candidate to mobilize the mass of unskilled workers. But from a few Philadelphia craft workers, the Knights grew to become a national and even international movement. Membership reached 20,000 in 1881 and grew to 100,000 in 1885. Then, in 1886, when successful strikes on some western railroads attracted a mass of previously unorganized unskilled workers, the KOL grew to a peak membership of a million workers. For a brief time, the Knights of Labor was a general movement of the American working class (Ware, 1929; Voss, 1993).

The KOL became a mass movement with an ideology and program that united workers without regard for occupation, industry, race or gender (Hattam, 1993). Never espousing Marxist or socialist doctrines, the Knights advanced an indigenous form of popular American radicalism, a “republicanism” that would overcome social problems by extending democracy to the workplace. Valuing citizens according to their work, their productive labor, the Knights were true heirs of earlier bourgeois radicals. Open to all producers, including farmers and other employers, they excluded only those seen to be parasitic on the labor of producers — liquor dealers, gamblers, bankers, stock manipulators and lawyers. Welcoming all others without regard for race, gender, or skill, the KOL was the first American labor union to attract significant numbers of women, African-Americans, and the unskilled (Foner, 1974; 1979; Rachleff, 1984).

The KOL’s strategy

In practice, most KOL local assemblies acted like craft unions. They bargained with employers, conducted boycotts, and called members out on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. But unlike craft unions that depended on the bargaining leverage of a few strategically positioned workers, the KOL’s tactics reflected its inclusive and democratic vision. Without a craft union’s resources or control over labor supply, the Knights sought to win labor disputes by widening them to involve political authorities and the outside public able to pressure employers to make concessions. Activists hoped that politicizing strikes would favor the KOL because its large membership would tempt ambitious politicians while its members’ poverty drew public sympathy.

In Europe, a strategy like that of the KOL succeeded in promoting the organization of inclusive unions. But it failed in the United States. Comparing the strike strategies of trade unions and the Knights provides insight into the survival and eventual success of the trade unions and their confederation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in late-nineteenth century America. Seeking to transform industrial relations, local assemblies of the KOL struck frequently with large but short strikes involving skilled and unskilled workers. The Knights’ industrial leverage depended on political and social influence. It could succeed where trade unions would not go because the KOL strategy utilized numbers, the one advantage held by common laborers. But this strategy could succeed only where political authorities and the outside public might sympathize with labor. Later industrial and regional unions tried the same strategy, conducting short but large strikes. By demonstrating sufficient numbers and commitment, French and Italian unions, for example, would win from state officials concessions they could not force from recalcitrant employers (Shorter and Tilly, 1974; Friedman, 1998). But compared with the small strikes conducted by craft unions, “solidarity” strikes must walk a fine line, aggressive enough to draw attention but not so threatening to provoke a hostile reaction from threatened authorities. Such a reaction doomed the KOL.

The Knights’ collapse in 1886

In 1886, the Knights became embroiled in a national general strike demanding an eight-hour workday, the world’s first May Day. This led directly to the collapse of the KOL. The May Day strike wave in 1886 and the bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago provoked a “red scare” of historic proportions driving membership down to half a million in September 1887. Police in Chicago, for example, broke up union meetings, seized union records, and even banned the color red from advertisements. The KOL responded politically, sponsoring a wave of independent labor parties in the elections of 1886 and supporting the Populist Party in 1890 (Fink, 1983). But even relatively strong showings by these independent political movements could not halt the KOL’s decline. By 1890, its membership had fallen by half again, and it fell to under 50,000 members by 1897.

Unions and radical political movements in Europe in the late 1800s

The KOL spread outside the United States, attracting an energetic following in the Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries. Industrial and regional unionism fared better in these countries than in the United States. Most German unionists belonged to industrial unions allied with the Social Democratic Party. Under Marxist leadership, unions and political party formed a centralized labor movement to maximize labor’s political leverage. English union membership was divided between members of a stable core of craft unions and a growing membership in industrial and regional unions based in mining, cotton textiles, and transportation. Allied with political radicals, these industrial and regional unions formed the backbone of the Labor Party, which held the balance of power in British politics after 1906.

The most radical unions were found in France. By the early 1890s, revolutionary syndicalists controlled the national union center, the Confédération générale du travail (or CGT), which they tried to use as a base for a revolutionary general strike where the workers would seize economic and political power. Consolidating craft unions into industrial and regional unions, the Bourses du travail, syndicalists conducted large strikes designed to demonstrate labor’s solidarity. Paradoxically, the syndicalists’ large strikes were effective because they provoked friendly government mediation. In the United States, state intervention was fatal for labor because government and employers usually united to crush labor radicalism. But in France, officials were more concerned to maintain a center-left coalition with organized labor against reactionary employers opposed to the Third Republic. State intervention helped French unionists to win concessions beyond any they could win with economic leverage. A radical strategy of inclusive industrial and regional unionism could succeed in France because the political leadership of the early Third Republic needed labor’s support against powerful economic and social groups who would replace the Republic with an authoritarian regime. Reminded daily of the importance of republican values and the coalition that sustained the Republic, French state officials promoted collective bargaining and labor unions. Ironically, it was the support of liberal state officials that allowed French union radicalism to succeed, and allowed French unions to grow faster than American unions and to organize the semi-skilled workers in the large establishments of France’s modern industries (Friedman, 1997; 1998).

The AFL and American Exceptionalism

By 1914, unions outside the United States had found that broad organization reduced the availability of strike breakers, advanced labor’s political goals, and could lead to state intervention on behalf of the unions. The United States was becoming exceptional, the only advanced capitalist country without a strong, united labor movement. The collapse of the Knights of Labor cleared the way for the AFL. Formed in 1881 as the Federation of Trade and Labor Unions, the AFL was organized to uphold the narrow interests of craft workers against the general interests of common laborers in the KOL. In practice, AFL-craft unions were little labor monopolies, able to win concessions because of their control over uncommon skills and because their narrow strategy did not frighten state officials. Many early AFL leaders, notably the AFL’s founding president Samuel Gompers and P. J. McGuire of the Carpenters, had been active in radical political movements. But after 1886, they learned to reject political involvements for fear that radicalism might antagonize state officials or employers and provoke repression.

AFL successes in the early twentieth-century

Entering the twentieth century, the AFL appeared to have a winning strategy. Union membership rose sharply in the late 1890s, doubling between 1896 and 1900 and again between 1900 and 1904. Fewer than 5 percent of industrial wage earners belonged to labor unions in 1895, but this share rose to 7 percent in 1900 and 13 percent in 1904, including over 21 percent of industrial wage earners (workers outside of commerce, government, and the professions). Half of coal miners in 1904 belonged to an industrial union (the United Mine Workers of America), but otherwise, most union members belonged to craft organizations, including nearly half the printers, and a third of cigar makers, construction workers and transportation workers. As shown in Table 4, other pockets of union strength included skilled workers in the metal trades, leather, and apparel. These craft unions had demonstrated their economic power, raising wages by around 15 percent and reducing hours worked (Friedman, 1991; Mullin, 1993).

Table 4
Unionization rates by industry in the United States, 1880-2000

Industry 1880 1910 1930 1953 1974 1983 2000
Agriculture Forestry Fishing 0.0 0.1 0.4 0.6 4.0 4.8 2.1
Mining 11.2 37.7 19.8 64.7 34.7 21.1 10.9
Construction 2.8 25.2 29.8 83.8 38.0 28.0 18.3
Manufacturing 3.4 10.3 7.3 42.4 37.2 27.9 14.8
Transportation Communication Utilities 3.7 20.0 18.3 82.5 49.8 46.4 24.0
Private Services 0.1 3.3 1.8 9.5 8.6 8.7 4.8
Public Employment 0.3 4.0 9.6 11.3 38.0 31.1 37.5
All Private 1.7 8.7 7.0 31.9 22.4 18.4 10.9
All 1.7 8.5 7.1 29.6 24.8 20.4 14.1

Note: This table shows the unionization rate, the share of workers belonging to unions, in different industries in the United States, 1880-1996.

Sources: 1880 and 1910: Friedman (1999): 83; 1930: Union membership from Wolman (1936); employment from United States, Bureau of the Census (1932); 1953: Troy (1957); 1974, 1986, 2000: United States, Current Population Survey.

Limits to the craft strategy

Even at this peak, the craft strategy had clear limits. Craft unions succeeded only in a declining part of American industry among workers still performing traditional tasks where training was through apprenticeship programs controlled by the workers themselves. By contrast, there were few unions in the rapidly growing industries employing semi-skilled workers. Nor was the AFL able to overcome racial divisions and state opposition to organize in the South (Friedman, 2000; Letwin, 1998). Compared with the KOL in the early 1880s, or with France’s revolutionary syndicalist unions, American unions were weak in steel, textiles, chemicals, paper and metal fabrication using technologies without traditional craft skills. AFL strongholds included construction, printing, cigar rolling, apparel cutting and pressing, and custom metal engineering, employed craft workers in relatively small establishments little changed from 25 years earlier (see Table 4).

Dependent on skilled craftsmen’s economic leverage, the AFL was poorly organized to battle large, technologically dynamic corporations. For a brief time, the revolutionary International Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, organized semi-skilled workers in some mass production industries. But by 1914, it too had failed. It was state support that forced powerful French employers to accept unions. Without such assistance, no union strategy could force large American employers to accept unions.

Unions in the World War I Era

The AFL and World War I

For all its limits, it must be acknowledged that the AFL and its craft affiliates survived after their rivals ignited and died. The AFL formed a solid union movement among skilled craftsmen that with favorable circumstances could form the core of a broader union movement like what developed in Europe after 1900. During World War I, the Wilson administration endorsed unionization and collective bargaining in exchange for union support for the war effort. AFL affiliates used state support to organize mass-production workers in shipbuilding, metal fabrication, meatpacking and steel doubling union membership between 1915 and 1919. But when Federal support ended after the war’s end, employers mobilized to crush the nascent unions. The post-war union collapse has been attributed to the AFL’s failings. The larger truth is that American unions needed state support to overcome the entrenched power of capital. The AFL did not fail because of its deficient economic strategy; it failed because it had an ineffective political strategy (Friedman, 1998; Frank, 1994; Montgomery, 1987).

International effects of World War I

War gave labor extraordinary opportunities. Combatant governments rewarded pro-war labor leaders with positions in the expanded state bureaucracy and support for collective bargaining and unions. Union growth also reflected economic conditions when wartime labor shortages strengthened the bargaining position of workers and unions. Unions grew rapidly during and immediately after the war. British unions, for example, doubled their membership between 1914 and 1920, to enroll eight million workers, almost half the nonagricultural labor force (Bain and Price, 1980; Visser, 1989). Union membership tripled in Germany and Sweden, doubled in Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway, and almost doubled in the United States (see Table 5 and Table 1). For twelve countries, membership grew by 121 percent between 1913 and 1920, including 119 percent growth in seven combatant countries and 160 percent growth in five neutral states.

Table 5
Impact of World War I on Union Membership Growth
Membership Growth in Wartime and After

12 Countries 7 Combatants 5 Neutrals
War-Time 1913 12 498 000 11 742 000 756 000
1920 27 649 000 25 687 000 1 962 000
Growth 1913-20: 121% 119% 160%
Post-war 1920 27 649 000
1929 18 149 000
Growth 1920-29: -34%

Shift toward the revolutionary left

Even before the war, frustration with the slow pace of social reform had led to a shift towards the revolutionary socialist and syndicalist left in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Nolan, 1981; Montgomery, 1987). In Europe, frustrations with rising prices, declining real wages and working conditions, and anger at catastrophic war losses fanned the flames of discontent into a raging conflagration. Compared with pre-war levels, the number of strikers rose ten or even twenty times after the war, including 2.5 million strikers in France in 1919 and 1920, compared with 200,000 strikers in 1913, 13 million German strikers, up from 300,000 in 1913, and 5 million American strikers, up from under 1 million in 1913. British Prime Minister Lloyd George warned in March 1919 that “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen . . . The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other” (quoted in Cronin, 1983: 22).

Impact of Communists

Inspired by the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, revolutionary Communist Parties were organized throughout the world to promote revolution by organizing labor unions, strikes, and political protest. Communism was a mixed blessing for labor. The Communists included some of labor’s most dedicated activists and organizers who contributed greatly to union organization. But Communist help came at a high price. Secretive, domineering, intolerant of opposition, the Communists divided unions between their dwindling allies and a growing collection of outraged opponents. Moreover, they galvanized opposition, depriving labor of needed allies among state officials and the liberal bourgeoisie.

The “Lean Years”: Welfare Capitalism and the Open Shop

Aftermath of World War I

As with most great surges in union membership, the postwar boom was self-limiting. Helped by a sharp post- war economic contraction, employers and state officials ruthlessly drove back the radical threat, purging their workforce of known union activists and easily absorbing futile strikes during a period of rising unemployment. Such campaigns drove membership down by a third from a 1920 peak of 26 million members in eleven countries in 1920 to fewer than 18 million in 1924. In Austria, France, Germany, and the United States, labor unrest contributed to the election of conservative governments; in Hungary, Italy, and Poland it led to the installation of anti- democratic dictatorships that ruthlessly crushed labor unions. Economic stagnation, state repression, and anti-union campaigns by employers prevented any union resurgence through the rest of the 1920s. By 1929, unions in these eleven countries had added only 30,000 members, one-fifth of one percent.

Injunctions and welfare capitalism

The 1920s was an especially dark period for organized labor in the United States where weaknesses visible before World War I became critical failures. Labor’s opponents used fear of Communism to foment a post-war red scare that targeted union activists for police and vigilante violence. Hundreds of foreign-born activists were deported, and mobs led by the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan broke up union meetings and destroyed union offices (see, for example, Frank, 1994: 104-5). Judges added law to the campaign against unions. Ignoring the intent of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) they used anti-trust law and injunctions against unions, forbidding activists from picketing or publicizing disputes, holding signs, or even enrolling new union members. Employers competed for their workers’ allegiance, offering paternalist welfare programs and systems of employee representation as substitutes for independent unions. They sought to build a nonunion industrial relations system around welfare capitalism (Cohen, 1990).

Stagnation and decline

After the promises of the war years, the defeat of postwar union drives in mass production industries like steel and meatpacking inaugurated a decade of union stagnation and decline. Membership fell by a third between 1920 and 1924. Unions survived only in the older trades where employment was usually declining. By 1924, they were almost completely eliminated from the dynamic industries of the second industrial revolution: including steel, automobiles, consumer electronics, chemicals and rubber manufacture.

New Deals for Labor

Great Depression

The nonunion industrial relations system of the 1920s might have endured and produced a docile working class organized in company unions (Brody, 1985). But the welfare capitalism of the 1920s collapsed when the Great Depression of the 1930s exposed its weaknesses and undermined political support for the nonunion, open shop. Between 1929 and 1933, real national income in the United States fell by one third, nonagricultural employment fell by a quarter, and unemployment rose from under 2 million in 1929 to 13 million in 1933, a quarter of the civilian labor force. Economic decline was nearly as great elsewhere, raising unemployment to over 15 percent in Austria, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom (Maddison, 1991: 260-61). Only the Soviet Union, with its authoritarian political economy was largely spared the scourge of unemployment and economic collapse — a point emphasized by Communists throughout the 1930s and later. Depression discredited the nonunion industrial relations system by forcing welfare capitalists to renege on promises to stabilize employment and to maintain wages. Then, by ignoring protests from members of employee representation plans, welfare capitalists further exposed the fundamental weakness of their system. Lacking any independent support, paternalist promises had no standing but depended entirely on the variable good will of employers. And sometimes that was not enough (Cohen, 1990).

Depression-era political shifts

Voters, too, lost confidence in employers. The Great Depression discredited the old political economy. Even before Franklin Roosevelt’s election as President of the United States in 1932, American states enacted legislation restricting the rights of creditors and landlords, restraining the use of the injunction in labor disputes, and providing expanded relief for the unemployed (Ely, 1998; Friedman, 2001). European voters abandoned centrist parties, embracing extremists of both left and right, Communists and Fascists. In Germany, the Nazis won, but Popular Front governments uniting Communists and socialists with bourgeois liberals assumed power in other countries, including Sweden, France and Spain. (The Spanish Popular Front was overthrown by a Fascist rebellion that installed a dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.) Throughout there was an impulse to take public control over the economy because free market capitalism and orthodox finance had led to disaster (Temin, 1990).

Economic depression lowers union membership when unemployed workers drop their membership and employers use their stronger bargaining position to defeat union drives (Bain and Elsheikh, 1976). Indeed, union membership fell with the onset of the Great Depression but, contradicting the usual pattern, membership rebounded sharply after 1932 despite high unemployment, rising by over 76 percent in ten countries by 1938 (see Table 6 and Table 1). The fastest growth came in countries with openly pro-union governments. In France, where the Socialist Léon Blum led a Popular Front government, and the United States, during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, membership rose by 160 percent 1933-38. But membership grew by 33 percent in eight other countries even without openly pro-labor governments.

Table 6
Impact of the Great Depression and World War II on Union Membership Growth

11 Countries (no Germany) 10 Countries (no Austria)
Depression 1929 12 401 000 11 508 000
1933 11 455 000 10 802 000
Growth 1929-33 -7.6% -6.1%
Popular Front Period 1933 10 802 000
1938 19 007 000
Growth 1933-38 76.0%
Second World War 1938 19 007 000
1947 35 485 000
Growth 1938-47 86.7%

French unions and the Matignon agreements

French union membership rose from under 900,000 in 1935 to over 4,500,000 in 1937. The Popular Front’s victory in the elections of June 1936 precipitated a massive strike wave and the occupation of factories and workplaces throughout France. Remembered in movie, song and legend, the factory occupations were a nearly spontaneous uprising of French workers that brought France’s economy to a halt. Contemporaries were struck by the extraordinarily cheerful feelings that prevailed, the “holiday feeling” and sense that the strikes were a new sort of non-violent revolution that would overturn hierarchy and replace capitalist authoritarianism with true social democracy (Phillippe and Dubief, 1993: 307-8). After Blum assumed office, he brokered the Matignon agreements, named after the premier’s official residence in Paris. Union leaders and heads of France’s leading employer associations agreed to end the strikes and occupations in exchange for wage increases of around 15 percent, a 40 hour workweek, annual vacations, and union recognition. Codified in statute by the Popular Front government, French unions gained new rights and protections from employer repression. Only then did workers flock into unions. In a few weeks, French unions gained four million members with the fastest growth in the new industries of the second industrial revolution. Unions in metal fabrication and chemicals grew by 1,450 percent and 4,000 percent respectively (Magraw, 1992: 2, 287-88).

French union leader Léon Jouhaux hailed the Matignon agreements as “the greatest victory of the workers’ movement.” It included lasting gains, including annual vacations and shorter workweeks. But Simone Weil described the strikers of May 1936 as “soldiers on leave,” and they were soon returned to work. Regrouping, employers discharged union activists and attacked the precarious unity of the Popular Front government. Fighting an uphill battle against renewed employer resistance, the Popular Front government fell before it could build a new system of cooperative industrial relations. Contained, French unions were unable to maintain their momentum towards industrial democracy. Membership fell by a third in 1937-39.

The National Industrial Recovery Act

A different union paradigm was developed in the United States. Rather than vehicles for a democratic revolution, the New Deal sought to integrate organized labor into a reformed capitalism that recognized capitalist hierarchy in the workplace, using unions only to promote macroeconomic stabilization by raising wages and consumer spending (Brinkley, 1995). Included as part of a program for economic recovery was section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) giving “employees . . . the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers.” AFL-leader William Green pronounced this a “charter of industrial freedom” and workers rushed into unions in a wave unmatched since the Knights of Labor in 1886. As with the KOL, the greatest increase came among the unskilled. Coal miners, southern textile workers, northern apparel workers, Ohio tire makers, Detroit automobile workers, aluminum, lumber and sawmill workers all rushed into unions. For the first time in fifty years, American unions gained a foothold in mass production industries.

AFL’s lack of enthusiasm

Promises of state support brought common laborers into unions. But once there, the new unionists received little help from aging AFL leaders. Fearing that the new unionists’ impetuous zeal and militant radicalism would provoke repression, AFL leaders tried to scatter the new members among contending craft unions with archaic craft jurisdictions. The new unionists were swept up in the excitement of unity and collective action but a half-century of experience had taught the AFL’s leadership to fear such enthusiasms.

The AFL dampened the union boom of 1933-34, but, again, the larger problem was not with the AFL’s flawed tactics but with its lack of political leverage. Doing little to enforce the promises of Section 7(a), the Federal government left employers free to ignore the law. Some flatly prohibited union organization; others formally honored the law but established anemic employee representation plans while refusing to deal with independent unions (Irons, 2000). By 1935 almost as many industrial establishments had employer-dominated employee- representation plans (27 percent) as had unions (30 percent). The greatest number had no labor organization at all (43 percent).

Birth of the CIO

Implacable management resistance and divided leadership killed the early New Deal union surge. It died even before the NIRA was ruled unconstitutional in 1935. Failure provoked rebellion within the AFL. Led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, eight national unions launched a campaign for industrial organization as the Committee for Industrial Organization. After Lewis punched Carpenter’s Union leader William L Hutcheson on the floor of the AFL convention in 1935, the Committee became an independent Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). Including many Communist activists, CIO committees fanned out to organize workers in steel, automobiles, retail trade, journalism and other industries. Building effectively on local rank and file militancy, including sitdown strikes in automobiles, rubber, and other industries, the CIO quickly won contracts from some of the strongest bastions of the open shop, including United States Steel and General Motors (Zieger, 1995).

The Wagner Act

Creative strategy and energetic organizing helped. But the CIO owed its lasting success to state support. After the failure of the NIRA, New Dealers sought another way to strengthen labor as a force for economic stimulus. This led to the enactment in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the “Wagner Act.” The Wagner Act established a National Labor Relations Board charged to enforce employees’ “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” It provided for elections to choose union representation and required employers to negotiate “in good faith” with their workers’ chosen representatives. Shifting labor conflict from strikes to elections and protecting activists from dismissal for their union work, the Act lowered the cost to individual workers of supporting collective action. It also put the Federal government’s imprimatur on union organization.

Crucial role of rank-and-file militants and state government support

Appointed by President Roosevelt, the first NLRB was openly pro-union, viewing the Act’s preamble as mandate to promote organization. By 1945 the Board had supervised 24,000 union elections involving some 6,000,000 workers, leading to the unionization of nearly 5,000,000 workers. Still, the NLRB was not responsible for the period’s union boom. The Wagner Act had no direct role in the early CIO years because it was ignored for two years until its constitutionality was established by the Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company (1937). Furthermore, the election procedure’s gross contribution of 5,000,000 members was less than half of the period’s net union growth of 11,000,000 members. More important than the Wagner Act were crucial union victories over prominent open shop employers in cities like Akron, Ohio, Flint, Michigan, and among Philadelphia-area metal workers. Dedicated rank-and-file militants and effective union leadership were crucial in these victories. As important was the support of pro-New Deal local and state governments. The Roosevelt landslides of 1934 and 1936 brought to office liberal Democratic governors and mayors who gave crucial support to the early CIO. Placing a right to collective bargaining above private property rights, liberal governors and other elected officials in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere refused to send police to evict sit-down strikers who had seized control of factories. This state support allowed the minority of workers who actively supported unionization to use force to overcome the passivity of the majority of workers and the opposition of the employers. The Open Shop of the 1920s was not abandoned; it was overwhelmed by an aggressive, government-backed labor movement (Gall, 1999; Harris, 2000).

World War II

Federal support for union organization was also crucial during World War II. Again, war helped unions both by eliminating unemployment and because state officials supported unions to gain support for the war effort. Established to minimize labor disputes that might disrupt war production, the National War Labor Board instituted a labor truce where unions exchanged a no-strike pledge for employer recognition. During World War II, employers conceded union security and “maintenance of membership” rules requiring workers to pay their union dues. Acquiescing to government demands, employers accepted the institutionalization of the American labor movement, guaranteeing unions a steady flow of dues to fund an expanded bureaucracy, new benefit programs, and even to raise funds for political action. After growing from 3.5 to 10.2 million members between 1935 and 1941, unions added another 4 million members during the war. “Maintenance of membership” rules prevented free riders even more effectively than had the factory takeovers and violence of the late-1930s. With millions of members and money in the bank, labor leaders like Sidney Hillman and Phillip Murray had the ear of business leaders and official Washington. Large, established, and respected: American labor had made it, part of a reformed capitalism committed to both property and prosperity.

Even more than the First World War, World War Two promoted unions and social change. A European civil war, the war divided the continent not only between warring countries but within countries between those, usually on the political right, who favored fascism over liberal parliamentary government and those who defended democracy. Before the war, left and right contended over the appeasement of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy; during the war, many businesses and conservative politicians collaborated with the German occupation against a resistance movement dominated by the left. Throughout Europe, victory over Germany was a triumph for labor that led directly to the entry into government of socialists and Communists.

Successes and Failures after World War II

Union membership exploded during and after the war, nearly doubling between 1938 and 1946. By 1947, unions had enrolled a majority of nonagricultural workers in Scandinavia, Australia, and Italy, and over 40 percent in most other European countries (see Table 1). Accumulated depression and wartime grievances sparked a post- war strike wave that included over 6 million strikers in France in 1948, 4 million in Italy in 1949 and 1950, and 5 million in the United States in 1946. In Europe, popular unrest led to a dramatic political shift to the left. The Labor Party government elected in the United Kingdom in 1945 established a new National Health Service, and nationalized mining, the railroads, and the Bank of England. A center-left post-war coalition government in France expanded the national pension system and nationalized the Bank of France, Renault, and other companies associated with the wartime Vichy regime. Throughout Europe, the share of national income devoted to social services jumped dramatically, as did the share of income going to the working classes.

Europeans unions and the state after World War II

Unions and the political left were stronger everywhere throughout post-war Europe, but in some countries labor’s position deteriorated quickly. In France, Italy, and Japan, the popular front uniting Communists, socialists, and bourgeois liberals dissolved, and labor’s management opponents recovered state support, with the onset of the Cold War. In these countries, union membership dropped after 1947 and unions remained on the defensive for over a decade in a largely adversarial industrial relations system. Elsewhere, notably in countries with weak Communist movements, such as in Scandinavia but also in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, labor was able to compel management and state officials to accept strong and centralized labor movements as social partners. In these countries, stable industrial relations allowed cooperation between management and labor to raise productivity and to open new markets for national companies. High-union-density and high-union-centralization allowed Scandinavian and German labor leaders to negotiate incomes policies with governments and employers restraining wage inflation in exchange for stable employment, investment, and wages linked to productivity growth. Such policies could not be instituted in countries with weaker and less centralized labor movements, including France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States because their unions had not been accepted as bargaining partners by management and they lacked the centralized authority to enforce incomes policies and productivity bargains (Alvarez, Garrett, and Lange, 1992).

Europe since the 1960s

Even where European labor was the weakest, in France or Italy in the 1950s, unions were stronger than before World War II. Working with entrenched socialist and labor political parties, European unions were able to maintain high wages, restrictions on managerial autonomy, and social security. The wave of popular unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s would carry most European unions to new heights, briefly bringing membership to over 50 percent of the labor force in the United Kingdom and in Italy, and bringing socialists into the government in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Since 1980, union membership has declined some and there has been some retrenchment in the welfare state. But the essentials of European welfare states and labor relations have remained (Western, 1997; Golden and Pontusson, 1992).

Unions begin to decline in the US

It was after World War II that American Exceptionalism became most valid, when the United States emerged as the advanced, capitalist democracy with the weakest labor movement. The United States was the only advanced capitalist democracy where unions went into prolonged decline right after World War II. At 35 percent, the unionization rate in 1945 was the highest in American history, but even then it was lower than in most other advanced capitalist economies. It has been falling since. The post-war strike wave, including three million strikers in 1945 and five million in 1946, was the largest in American history but it did little to enhance labor’s political position or bargaining leverage. Instead, it provoked a powerful reaction among employers and others suspicious of growing union power. A concerted drive by the CIO to organize the South, “Operation Dixie,” failed dismally in 1946. Unable to overcome private repression, racial divisions, and the pro-employer stance of southern local and state governments, the CIO’s defeat left the South as a nonunion, low-wage domestic enclave and a bastion of anti- union politics (Griffith, 1988). Then, in 1946, a conservative Republican majority was elected to Congress, dashing hopes for a renewed, post-war New Deal.

The Taft-Hartley Act and the CIO’s Expulsion of Communists

Quickly, labor’s wartime dreams turned to post-war nightmares. The Republican Congress amended the Wagner Act, enacting the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 to give employers and state officials new powers against strikers and unions. The law also required union leaders to sign a non-Communist affidavit as a condition for union participation in NLRB-sponsored elections. This loyalty oath divided labor during a time of weakness. With its roots in radical politics and an alliance of convenience between Lewis and the Communists, the CIO was torn by the new Red Scare. Hoping to appease the political right, the CIO majority in 1949 expelled ten Communist-led unions with nearly a third of the organization’s members. This marked the end of the CIO’s expansive period. Shorn of its left, the CIO lost its most dynamic and energetic organizers and leaders. Worse, it plunged the CIO into a civil war; non-Communist affiliates raided locals belonging to the “communist-led” unions fatally distracting both sides from the CIO’s original mission to organize the unorganized and empower the dispossessed. By breaking with the Communists, the CIO’s leadership signaled that it had accepted its place within a system of capitalist hierarchy. Little reason remained for the CIO to remain independent. In 1955 it merged with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO.

The Golden Age of American Unions

Without the revolutionary aspirations now associated with the discredited Communists, America’s unions settled down to bargain over wages and working conditions without challenging such managerial prerogatives as decisions about prices, production, and investment. Some labor leaders, notably James Hoffa of the Teamsters but also local leaders in construction and service trades, abandoned all higher aspirations to use their unions for purely personal financial gain. Allying themselves with organized crime, they used violence to maintain their power over employers and their own rank-and-file membership. Others, including former-CIO leaders, like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, continued to push the envelope of legitimate bargaining topics, building challenges to capitalist authority at the workplace. But even the UAW was unable to force major managerial prerogatives onto the bargaining table.

The quarter century after 1950 formed a ‘golden age’ for American unions. Established unions found a secure place at the bargaining table with America’s leading firms in such industries as autos, steel, trucking, and chemicals. Contracts were periodically negotiated providing for the exchange of good wages for cooperative workplace relations. Rules were negotiated providing a system of civil authority at work, with negotiated regulations for promotion and layoffs, and procedures giving workers opportunities to voice grievances before neutral arbitrators. Wages rose steadily, by over 2 percent per year and union workers earned a comfortable 20 percent more than nonunion workers of similar age, experience and education. Wages grew faster in Europe but American wages were higher and growth was rapid enough to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and between management salaries and worker wages. Unions also won a growing list of benefit programs, medical and dental insurance, paid holidays and vacations, supplemental unemployment insurance, and pensions. Competition for workers forced many nonunion employers to match the benefit packages won by unions, but unionized employers provided benefits worth over 60 percent more than were given nonunion workers (Freeman and Medoff, 1984; Hirsch and Addison, 1986).

Impact of decentralized bargaining in the US

In most of Europe, strong labor movements limit the wage and benefit advantages of union membership by forcing governments to extend union gains to all workers in an industry regardless of union status. By compelling nonunion employers to match union gains, this limited the competitive penalty borne by unionized firms. By contrast, decentralized bargaining and weak unions in the United States created large union wage differentials that put unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage, encouraging them to seek out nonunion labor and localities. A stable and vocal workforce with more experience and training did raise unionized firms’ labor productivity by 15 percent or more above the level of nonunion firms and some scholars have argued that unionized workers earn much of their wage gain. Others, however, find little productivity gain for unionized workers after account is taken of greater use of machinery and other nonlabor inputs by unionized firms (compare Freeman and Medoff, 1984 and Hirsch and Addison, 1986). But even unionized firms with higher labor productivity were usually more conscious of the wages and benefits paid to union worker than they were of unionization’s productivity benefits.

Unions and the Civil Rights Movement

Post-war unions remained politically active. European unions were closely associated with political parties, Communists in France and Italy, socialists or labor parties elsewhere. In practice, notwithstanding revolutionary pronouncements, even the Communist’s political agenda came to resemble that of unions in the United States, liberal reform including a commitment to full employment and the redistribution of income towards workers and the poor (Boyle, 1998). Golden age unions have also been at the forefront of campaigns to extend individual rights. The major domestic political issue of the post-war United States, civil rights, was troubling for many unions because of the racist provisions in their own practice. Nonetheless, in the 1950s and 1960s, the AFL-CIO strongly supported the civil rights movement, funded civil rights organizations and lobbied in support of civil rights legislation. The AFL-CIO pushed unions to open their ranks to African-American workers, even at the expense of losing affiliates in states like Mississippi. Seizing the opportunity created by the civil rights movement, some unions gained members among nonwhites. The feminist movement of the 1970s created new challenges for the masculine and sometimes misogynist labor movement. But, here too, the search for members and a desire to remove sources of division eventually brought organized labor to the forefront. The AFL-CIO supported the Equal Rights Amendment and began to promote women to leadership positions.

Shift of unions to the public sector

In no other country have women and members of racial minorities assumed such prominent positions in the labor movement as they have in the United States. The movement of African-American and women to leadership positions in the late-twentieth century labor movement was accelerated by a shift in the membership structure of the United States union movement. Maintaining their strength in traditional, masculine occupations in manufacturing, construction, mining, and transportation, European unions remained predominantly male. Union decline in these industries combined with growth in heavily female public sector employments in the United States led to the femininization of the American labor movement. Union membership began to decline in the private sector in the United States immediately after World War II. Between 1953 and 1983, for example, the unionization rate fell from 42 percent to 28 percent in manufacturing, by nearly half in transportation, and by over half in construction and mining (see Table 4). By contrast, after 1960, public sector workers won new opportunities to form unions. Because women and racial minorities form a disproportionate share of these public sector workers, increasing union membership there has changed the American labor movement’s racial and gender composition. Women comprised only 19 percent of American union members in the mid-1950s but their share rose to 40 percent by the late 1990s. By then, the most unionized workers were no longer the white male skilled craftsmen of old. Instead, they were nurses, parole officers, government clerks, and most of all, school teachers.

Union Collapse and Union Avoidance in the US

Outside the United States, unions grew through the 1970s and, despite some decline since the 1980s, European and Canadian unions remain large and powerful. The United States is different. Union decline since World War II has brought the United States private-sector labor movement down to early twentieth century levels. As a share of the nonagricultural labor force, union membership fell from its 1945 peak of 35 percent down to under 30 percent in the early 1970s. From there, decline became a general rout. In the 1970s, rising unemployment, increasing international competition, and the movement of industry to the nonunion South and to rural areas undermined the bargaining position of many American unions leaving them vulnerable to a renewed management offensive. Returning to pre-New Deal practices, some employers established new welfare and employee representation programs, hoping to lure worker away from unions (Heckscher, 1987; Jacoby, 1997). Others returned to pre-New Deal repression. By the early 1980s, union avoidance had become an industry. Anti-union consultants and lawyers openly counseled employers how to use labor law to evade unions. Findings of employers’ unfair labor practices in violation of the Wagner Act tripled in the 1970s; by the 1980s, the NLRB reinstated over 10,000 workers a year who were illegally discharged for union activity, nearly one for every twenty who voted for a union in an NLRB election (Weiler, 1983). By the 1990s, the unionization rate in the United States fell to under 14 percent, including only 9 percent of the private sector workers and 37 percent of those in the public sector. Unions now have minimal impact on wages or working conditions for most American workers.

Nowhere else have unions collapsed as in the United States. With a unionization rate dramatically below that of other countries, including Canada, the United States has achieved exceptional status (see Table 7). There remains great interest in unions among American workers; where employers do not resist, unions thrive. In the public sector and in some private employers where workers have free choice to join a union, they are as likely as they ever were, and as likely as workers anywhere. In the past, as after 1886 and in the 1920s, when American employers broke unions, they revived when a government committed to workplace democracy sheltered them from employer repression. If we see another such government, we may yet see another union revival.

Table 7
Union Membership Rates for the United States and Six Other Leading Industrial Economies, 1970 to 1990

1970 1980 1990
U.S.: Unionization Rate: All industries 30.0 24.7 17.6
U.S.: Unionization Rate: Manufacturing 41.0 35.0 22.0
U.S.: Unionization Rate: Financial services 5.0 4.0 2.0
Six Countries: Unionization Rate: All industries 37.1 39.7 35.3
Six Countries: Unionization Rate: Manufacturing 38.8 44.0 35.2
Five Countries: Unionization Rate: Financial services 23.9 23.8 24.0
Ratio: U.S./Six Countries: All industries 0.808 0.622 0.499
Ratio: U.S./Six Countries: Manufacturing 1.058 0.795 0.626
Ratio: U.S./Five Countries: Financial services 0.209 0.168 0.083

Note: The unionization rate reported is the number of union members out of 100 workers in the specified industry. The ratio shown is the unionization rate for the United States divided by the unionization rate for the other countries. The six countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Data on union membership in financial services in France are not available.

Source: Visser (1991): 110.

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Citation: Friedman, Gerald. “Labor Unions in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/labor-unions-in-the-united-states/

The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Non-Agriculture
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/lf/aat37.txt.

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).

Conclusions

The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.

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Citation: Rosenbloom, Joshua. “The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-american-labor-market-institutions-and-outcomes/

Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution

Joyce Burnette, Wabash College

Historians disagree about whether the British Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) was beneficial for women. Frederick Engels, writing in the late nineteenth century, thought that the Industrial Revolution increased women’s participation in labor outside the home, and claimed that this change was emancipating. 1 More recent historians dispute the claim that women’s labor force participation rose, and focus more on the disadvantages women experienced during this time period.2 One thing is certain: the Industrial Revolution was a time of important changes in the way that women worked.

The Census

Unfortunately, the historical sources on women’s work are neither as complete nor as reliable as we would like. Aggregate information on the occupations of women is available only from the census, and while census data has the advantage of being comprehensive, it is not a very good measure of work done by women during the Industrial Revolution. For one thing, the census does not provide any information on individual occupations until 1841, which is after the period we wish to study.3 Even then the data on women’s occupations is questionable. For the 1841 census, the directions for enumerators stated that “The professions &c. of wives, or of sons or daughters living with and assisting their parents but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be inserted.” Clearly this census would not give us an accurate measure of female labor force participation. Table One illustrates the problem further; it shows the occupations of men and women recorded in the 1851 census, for 20 occupational categories. These numbers suggest that female labor force participation was low, and that 40 percent of occupied women worked in domestic service. However, economic historians have demonstrated that these numbers are misleading. First, many women who were actually employed were not listed as employed in the census. Women who appear in farm wage books have no recorded occupation in the census.4 At the same time, the census over-estimates participation by listing in the “domestic service” category women who were actually family members. In addition, the census exaggerates the extent to which women were concentrated in domestic service occupations because many women listed as “maids”, and included in the domestic servant category in the aggregate tables, were really agricultural workers.5

Table One

Occupational Distribution in the 1851 Census of Great Britain

Occupational Category Males (thousands) Females (thousands) Percent Female
Public Administration 64 3 4.5
Armed Forces 63 0 0.0
Professions 162 103 38.9
Domestic Services 193 1135 85.5
Commercial 91 0 0.0
Transportation & Communications 433 13 2.9
Agriculture 1788 229 11.4
Fishing 36 1 2.7
Mining 383 11 2.8
Metal Manufactures 536 36 6.3
Building & Construction 496 1 0.2
Wood & Furniture 152 8 5.0
Bricks, Cement, Pottery, Glass 75 15 16.7
Chemicals 42 4 8.7
Leather & Skins 55 5 8.3
Paper & Printing 62 16 20.5
Textiles 661 635 49.0
Clothing 418 491 54.0
Food, Drink, Lodging 348 53 13.2
Other 445 75 14.4
Total Occupied 6545 2832 30.2
Total Unoccupied 1060 5294 83.3

Source: B.R. Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962, p. 60.

Domestic Service

Domestic work – cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the sick, fetching water, making and mending clothing – took up the bulk of women’s time during the Industrial Revolution period. Most of this work was unpaid. Some families were well-off enough that they could employ other women to do this work, as live-in servants, as charring women, or as service providers. Live-in servants were fairly common; even middle-class families had maids to help with the domestic chores. Charring women did housework on a daily basis. In London women were paid 2s.6d. per day for washing, which was more than three times the 8d. typically paid for agricultural labor in the country. However, a “day’s work” in washing could last 20 hours, more than twice as long as a day’s work in agriculture.6 Other women worked as laundresses, doing the washing in their own homes.

Cottage Industry

Before factories appeared, most textile manufacture (including the main processes of spinning and weaving) was carried out under the “putting-out” system. Since raw materials were expensive, textile workers rarely had enough capital to be self-employed, but would take raw materials from a merchant, spin or weave the materials in their homes, and then return the finished product and receive a piece-rate wage. This system disappeared during the Industrial Revolution as new machinery requiring water or steam power appeared, and work moved from the home to the factory.

Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so most of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew and took the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.

Another important cottage industry was the pillow-lace industry, so called because women wove the lace on pins stuck in a pillow. In the late-eighteenth century women in Bedford could earn 6s. a week making lace, which was about 50 percent more than women earned in argiculture. However, this industry too disappeared due to mechanization. Following Heathcote’s invention of the bobbinet machine (1809), cheaper lace could be made by embroidering patterns on machine-made lace net. This new type of lace created a new cottage industry, that of “lace-runners” who emboidered patterns on the lace.

The straw-plaiting industry employed women braiding straw into bands used for making hats and bonnets. The industry prospered around the turn of the century due to the invention of a simple tool for splitting the straw and war, which cut off competition from Italy. At this time women could earn 4s. to 6s. per week plaiting straw. This industry also declined, though, following the increase in free trade with the Continent in the 1820s.

Factories

A defining feature of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of factories, particularly textile factories. Work moved out of the home and into a factory, which used a central power source to run its machines. Water power was used in most of the early factories, but improvements in the steam engine made steam power possible as well. The most dramatic productivity growth occurred in the cotton industry. The invention of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (1764), Richard Arkwright’s “throstle” or “water frame” (1769), and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1779, so named because it combined features of the two earlier machines) revolutionized spinning. Britain began to manufacture cotton cloth, and declining prices for the cloth encouraged both domestic consumption and export. Machines also appeared for other parts of the cloth-making process, the most important of which was Edmund Cartwright’s powerloom, which was adopted slowly because of imperfections in the early designs, but was widely used by the 1830s. While cotton was the most important textile of the Industrial Revolution, there were advances in machinery for silk, flax, and wool production as well.7

The advent of new machinery changed the gender division of labor in textile production. Before the Industrial Revolution, women spun yarn using a spinning wheel (or occasionally a distaff and spindle). Men didn’t spin, and this division of labor made sense because women were trained to have more dexterity than men, and because men’s greater strength made them more valuable in other occupations. In contrast to spinning, handloom weaving was done by both sexes, but men outnumbered women. Men monopolized highly skilled preparation and finishing processes such as wool combing and cloth-dressing. With mechanization, the gender division of labor changed. Women used the spinning jenny and water frame, but mule spinning was almost exclusively a male occupation because it required more strength, and because the male mule-spinners actively opposed the employment of female mule-spinners. Women mule-spinners in Glasgow, and their employers, were the victims of violent attacks by male spinners trying to reduce the competition in their occupation.8 While they moved out of spinning, women seem to have increased their employment in weaving (both in handloom weaving and eventually in powerloom factories). Both sexes were employed as powerloom operators.

Table Two

Factory Workers in 1833: Females as a Percent of the Workforce

Industry Ages 12 and under Ages 13-20 Ages 21+ All Ages
Cotton 51.8 65.0 52.2 58.0
Wool 38.6 46.2 37.7 40.9
Flax 54.8 77.3 59.5 67.4
Silk 74.3 84.3 71.3 78.1
Lace 38.7 57.4 16.6 36.5
Potteries 38.1 46.9 27.1 29.4
Dyehouse 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Glass 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Paper - 100.0 39.2 53.6
Whole Sample 52.8 66.4 48.0 56.8

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX. Mitchell collected data from 82 cotton factories, 65 wool factories, 73 flax factories, 29 silk factories, 7 potteries, 11 lace factories, one dyehouse, one “glass works”, and 2 paper mills throughout Great Britain.

While the highly skilled and highly paid task of mule-spinning was a male occupation, many women and girls were engaged in other tasks in textile factories. For example, the wet-spinning of flax, introduced in Leeds in 1825, employed mainly teenage girls. Girls often worked as assistants to mule-spinners, piecing together broken threads. In fact, females were a majority of the factory labor force. Table Two shows that 57 percent of factory workers were female, most of them under age 20. Women were widely employed in all the textile industries, and constituted the majority of workers in cotton, flax, and silk. Outside of textiles, women were employed in potteries and paper factories, but not in dye or glass manufacture. Of the women who worked in factories, 16 percent were under age 13, 51 percent were between the ages of 13 and 20, and 33 percent were age 21 and over. On average, girls earned the same wages as boys. Children’s wages rose from about 1s.6d. per week at age 7 to about 5s. per week at age 15. Beginning at age 16, and a large gap between male and female wages appeared. At age 30, women factory workers earned only one-third as much as men.

Figure One
Distribution of Male and Female Factory Employment by Age, 1833

Figure 1

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.
The y-axis shows the percentage of total employment within each sex that is in that five-year age category.

Figure Two
Wages of Factory Workers in 1833

Figure 2

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.

Agriculture

Wage Workers

Wage-earners in agriculture generally fit into one of two broad categories – servants who were hired annually and received part of their wage in room and board, and day-laborers who lived independently and were paid a daily or weekly wage. Before industrialization servants comprised between one-third and one-half of labor in agriculture.9 For servants the value of room and board was a substantial portion of their compensation, so the ratio of money wages is an under-estimate of the ratio of total wages (see Table Three). Most servants were young and unmarried. Because servants were paid part of their wage in kind, as board, the use of the servant contract tended to fall when food prices were high. During the Industrial Revolution the use of servants seems to have fallen in the South and East.10 The percentage of servants who were female also declined in the first half of the nineteenth century.11

Table Three

Wages of Agricultural Servants (£ per year)

Year Location Male Money Wage Male In-Kind Wage Female Money Wage Female In-Kind Wage Ratio of Money Wages Ratio of Total Wages
1770 Lancashire 7 9 3 6 0.43 0.56
1770 Oxfordshire 10 12 4 8 0.40 0.55
1770 Staffordshire 11 9 4 6 0.36 0.50
1821 Yorkshire 16.5 27 7 18 0.42 0.57

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

While servants lived with the farmer and received food and lodging as part of their wage, laborers lived independently, received fewer in-kind payments, and were paid a daily or a weekly wage. Though the majority of laborers were male, some were female. Table Four shows the percentage of laborers who were female at various farms in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. These numbers suggest that female employment was widespread, but varied considerably from one location to the next. Compared to men, female laborers generally worked fewer days during the year. The employment of female laborers was concentrated around the harvest, and women rarely worked during the winter. While men commonly worked six days per week, outside of harvest women generally averaged around four days per week.

Table Four

Employment of Women as Laborers in Agriculture:
Percentage of Annual Work-Days Worked by Females

Year Location Percent Female
1772-5 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire 17
1774-7 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 27
1785-92 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 40
1794-5 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 42
1801-3 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 35
1801-4 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 10
1814-6 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 7
1826-8 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 5
1828-39 Shipton Moyne, Gloucestershire 19
1831-45 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire 6
1836-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 26
1839-40 Lustead, Norfolk 6
1846-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 29

Sources: Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 59 (March 1999): 41-67; Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999. Sotheron-Estcourt accounts, G.R.O. D1571; Ketton-Cremer accounts, N.R.O. WKC 5/250

The wages of female day-laborers were fairly uniform; generally a farmer paid the same wage to all the adult women he hired. Women’s daily wages were between one-third and one-half of male wages. Women generally worked shorter days, though, so the gap in hourly wages was not quite this large.12 In the less populous counties of Northumberland and Durham, male laborers were required to provide a “bondager,” a woman (usually a family member) who was available for day-labor whenever the employer wanted her.13

Table Five

Wages of Agricultural Laborers

Year Location Male Wage (d./day) Female Wage (d./day) Ratio
1770 Yorkshire 5 12 0.42
1789 Hertfordshire 6 16 0.38
1797 Warwickshire 6 14 0.43
1807 Oxfordshire 9 23 0.39
1833 Cumberland 12 24 0.50
1833 Essex 10 22 0.45
1838 Worcester 9 18 0.50

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

Various sources suggest that women’s employment in agriculture declined during the early nineteenth century. Enclosure increased farm size and changed the patterns of animal husbandry, both of which seem to have led to reductions in female employment.14 More women were employed during harvest than during other seasons, but women’s employment during harvest declined as the scythe replaced the sickle as the most popular harvest tool. While women frequently harvested with the sickle, they did not use the heavier scythe.15 Female employment fell the most in the East, where farms increasingly specialized in grain production. Women had more work in the West, which specialized more in livestock and dairy farming.16

Non-Wage-Earners

During the eighteenth century there were many opportunities for women to be productively employed in farm work on their own account, whether they were wives of farmers on large holdings, or wives of landless laborers. In the early nineteenth century, however, many of these opportunities disappeared, and women’s participation in agricultural production fell.

In a village that had a commons, even if the family merely rented a cottage the wife could be self-employed in agriculture because she could keep a cow, or other animals, on the commons. By careful management of her stock, a woman might earn as much during the year as her husband earned as a laborer. Women also gathered fuel from the commons, saving the family considerable expense. The enclosure of the commons, though, eliminated these opportunities. In an enclosure, land was re-assigned so as to eliminate the commons and consolidate holdings. Even when the poor had clear legal rights to use the commons, these rights were not always compensated in the enclosure agreement. While enclosure occurred at different times for different locations, the largest waves of enclosures occurred in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, meaning that, for many, opportunities for self-employment in agriculture declined as the same time as employment in cottage industry declined. 17

Only a few opportunities for agricultural production remained for the landless laboring family. In some locations landlords permitted landless laborers to rent small allotments, on which they could still grow some of their own food. The right to glean on fields after harvest seems to have been maintained at least through the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time it had become one of the few agricultural activities available to women in some areas. Gleaning was a valuable right; the value of the grain gleaned was often between 5 and 10 percent of the family’s total annual income.18

In the eighteenth century it was common for farmers’ wives to be actively involved in farm work, particularly in managing the dairy, pigs, and poultry. The diary was an important source of income for many farms, and its success depended on the skill of the mistress, who usually ran the operation with no help from men. In the nineteenth century, however, farmer’s wives were more likely to withdraw from farm management, leaving the dairy to the management of dairymen who paid a fixed fee for the use of the cows.19 While poor women withdrew from self-employment in agriculture because of lost opportunities, farmer’s wives seem to have withdraw because greater prosperity allowed them to enjoy more leisure.

It was less common for women to manage their own farms, but not unknown. Commercial directories list numerous women farmers. For example, the 1829 Directory of the County of Derby lists 3354 farmers, of which 162, or 4.8%, were clearly female.20 While the commercial directories themselves do not indicate to what extent these women were actively involved in their farms, other evidence suggests that at least some women farmers were actively involved in the work of the farm.21

Self-Employed

During the Industrial Revolution period women were also active businesswomen in towns. Among business owners listed in commercial directories, about 10 percent were female. Table Seven shows the percentage female in all the trades with at least 25 people listed in the 1788 Manchester commercial directory. Single women, married women, and widows are included in these numbers. Sometimes these women were widows carrying on the businesses of their deceased husbands, but even in this case that does not mean they were simply figureheads. Widows often continued their husband’s businesses because they had been active in management of the business while their husband was alive, and wished to continue.22 Sometimes married women were engaged in trade separately from their husbands. Women most commonly ran shops and taverns, and worked as dressmakers and milliners, but they were not confined to these areas, and appear in most of the trades listed in commercial directories. Manchester, for example, had six female blacksmiths and five female machine makers in 1846. Between 1730 and 1800 there were 121 “rouping women” selling off estates in Edinburgh. 23

Table Six

Business Owners Listed in Commercial Directories

Date City Male Female Unknown Gender Percent Female
1788 Manchester 2033 199 321 8.9
1824-5 Manchester 4185 297 1671 6.6
1846 Manchester 11,942 1222 2316 9.3
1850 Birmingham 15,054 2020 1677 11.8
1850 Derby 2415 332 194 12.1

Sources: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984); Pigot and Dean’s Directory for Manchester, Salford, &c. for 1824-5 (Manchester 1825); Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland (Manchester, 1846); Slater’s Royal National and Commercial Directory (Manchester, 1850)

Table Seven

Women in Trades in Manchester, 1788

Trade Men Women Gender Unknown Percent Female
Apothecary/ Surgeon / Midwife 29 1 5 3.3
Attorney 39 0 3 0.0
Boot and Shoe makers 87 0 1 0.0
Butcher 33 1 1 2.9
Calenderer 31 4 5 11.4
Corn & Flour Dealer 45 4 5 8.2
Cotton Dealer 23 0 2 0.0
Draper, Mercer, Dealer of Cloth 46 15 19 24.6
Dyer 44 3 18 6.4
Fustian Cutter / Shearer 54 2 0 3.6
Grocers & Tea Dealers 91 16 12 15.0
Hairdresser & Peruke maker 34 1 0 2.9
Hatter 45 3 4 6.3
Joiner 34 0 1 0.0
Liquor dealer 30 4 14 11.8
Manufacturer, cloth 257 4 118 1.5
Merchant 58 1 18 1.7
Publichouse / Inn / Tavern 126 13 2 9.4
School master / mistress 18 10 0 35.7
Shopkeeper 107 16 4 13.0
Tailor 59 0 1 0.0
Warehouse 64 0 14 0.0

Source: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984)

Guilds often controlled access to trades, admitting only those who had served an apprenticeship and thus earned the “freedom” of the trade. Women could obtain “freedom” not only by apprenticeship, but also by widowhood. The widow of a tradesman was often considered knowledgeable enough in the trade that she was given the right to carry on the trade even without an apprenticeship. In the eighteenth century women were apprenticed to a wide variety of trades, including butchery, bookbinding, brush making, carpentry, ropemaking and silversmithing.24 Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the number of females apprenticed to trades declined, possibly suggesting reduced participation by women. However, the power of the guilds and the importance of apprenticeship were also declining during this time, so the decline in female apprenticeships may not have been an important barrier to employment.25

Many women worked in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, and a few women actually owned factories. In Keighley, West Yorkshire, Ann Illingworth, Miss Rachael Leach, and Mrs. Betty Hudson built and operated textile mills.26 In 1833 Mrs. Doig owned a powerloom factory in Scotland, which employed 60 workers.27

While many women did successfully enter trades, there were obstacles to women’s employment that kept their numbers low. Women generally received less education than men (though education of the time was of limited practical use). Women may have found it more difficult than men to raise the necessary capital because English law did not consider a married woman to have any legal existence; she could not sue or be sued. A married woman was a feme covert and technically could not make any legally binding contracts, a fact which may have discouraged others from loaning money to or making other contracts with married women. However, this law was not as limiting in practice as it would seem to be in theory because a married woman engaged in trade on her own account was treated by the courts as a feme sole and was responsible for her own debts.28

The professionalization of certain occupations resulted in the exclusion of women from work they had previously done. Women had provided medical care for centuries, but the professionalization of medicine in the early-nineteenth century made it a male occupation. The Royal College of Physicians admitted only graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, schools to which women were not admitted until the twentieth century. Women were even replaced by men in midwifery. The process began in the late-eighteenth century, when we observe the use of the term “man-midwife,” an oxymoronic title suggestive of changing gender roles. In the nineteenth century the “man-midwife” disappeared, and women were replaced by physicians or surgeons for assisting childbirth. Professionalization of the clergy was also effective in excluding women. While the Church of England did not allow women ministers, the Methodists movement had many women preachers during its early years. However, even among the Methodists female preachers disappeared when lay preachers were replaced with a professional clergy in the early nineteenth century.29

In other occupations where professionalization was not as strong, women remained an important part of the workforce. Teaching, particularly in the lower grades, was a common profession for women. Some were governesses, who lived as household servants, but many opened their own schools and took in pupils. The writing profession seems to have been fairly open to women; the leading novelists of the period include Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Fanny Burney, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Trollope. Female non-fiction writers of the period include Jane Marcet, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Other Occupations

The occupations listed above are by no means a complete listing of the occupations of women during the Industrial Revolution. Women made buttons, nails, screws, and pins. They worked in the tin plate, silver plate, pottery and Birmingham “toy” trades (which made small articles like snuff boxes). Women worked in the mines until The Mines Act of 1842 prohibited them from working underground, but afterwards women continued to pursue above-ground mining tasks.

Married Women in the Labor Market

While there are no comprehensive sources of information on the labor force participation of married women, household budgets reported by contemporary authors give us some information on women’s participation.30 For the period 1787 to 1815, 66 percent of married women in working-class households had either a recorded occupation or positive earnings. For the period 1816-20 the rate fell to 49 percent, but in 1821-40 it recovered to 62 percent. Table Eight gives participation rates of women by date and occupation of the husband.

Table Eight

Participation Rates of Married Women

High-Wage Agriculture Low-Wage Agriculture Mining Factory Outwork Trades All
1787-1815 55 85 40 37 46 63 66
1816-1820 34 NA 28 4 42 30 49
1821-1840 22 85 33 86 54 63 62

Source: Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review 48 (February 1995): 89-117

While many wives worked, the amount of their earnings was small relative to their husband’s earnings. Annual earnings of married women who did work averaged only about 28 percent of their husband’s earnings. Because not all women worked, and because children usually contributed more to the family budget than their mothers, for the average family the wife contributed only around seven percent of total family income.

Childcare

Women workers used a variety of methods to care for their children. Sometimes childcare and work were compatible, and women took their children with them to the fields or shops where they worked.31 Sometimes women working at home would give their infants opiates such as “Godfrey’s Cordial” in order to keep the children quiet while their mothers worked.32 The movement of work into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and childcare. In most factory work the hours were rigidly set, and women who took the jobs had to accept the twelve or thirteen hour days. Work in the factories was very disciplined, so the women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will. However, these difficulties did not prevent women with small children from working.

Nineteenth-century mothers used older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools to provide child care while they worked.33 Occasionally mothers would leave young children home alone, but this was dangerous enough that only a few did so.34 Children as young as two might be sent to dame schools, in which women would take children into their home and provide child care, as well as some basic literacy instruction.35 In areas where lace-making or straw-plaiting thrived, children were sent from about age seven to “schools” where they learned the trade.36

Mothers might use a combination of different types of childcare. Elizabeth Wells, who worked in a Leicester worsted factory, had five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 2, and four months. The eldest, a daughter, stayed home to tend the house and care for the infant. The second child worked, and the six-year-old and two-year-old were sent to “an infant school.”37 Mary Wright, an “over-looker” in the rag-cutting room of a Buckinghamshire paper factory, had five children. The eldest worked in the rag-cutting room with her, the youngest was cared for at home, and the middle three were sent to a school; “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for the three others. They go to a school, where they are taken care of and taught to read.”38

The cost of childcare was substantial. At the end of the eighteenth century the price of child-care was about 1s. a week, which was about a quarter of a woman’s weekly earnings in agriculture.39 In the 1840s mothers paid anywhere from 9d. to 2s.6d. per week for child care, out of a wage of around 7s. per week.40

For Further Reading

Burnette, Joyce. “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” Economic History Review 50 (1997): 257-281.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700-1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Horrell, Sara, and Jane Humphries. “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865.” Economic History Review 48 (1995): 89-117.

Humphries, Jane. “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 17-42.

King, Peter. “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850.” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 461-476

Kussmaul, Ann. Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1930.

Sanderson, Elizabeth. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Snell, K.D.M. Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

1 “Since large-scale industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and makes her, often enough, the bread-winner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation – except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy. . . .It will then become evidence that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry.” Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1986, p. 508, 510.

2 Ivy Pinchbeck (Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930) claimed that higher incomes allowed some women to withdraw from the labor force. While she saw some disadvantages resulting from this withdrawal, particularly the loss of independence, she thought that overall women benefited from having more time to devote to their homes and families. Davidoff and Hall (Family Fortunes: Man and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987) agree that women withdrew from work, but they see the change as a negative result of gender discrimination. Similarly, Horrell and Humphries (“Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117) do not find that rising incomes caused declining labor force participation, and they believe that declining demand for female workers caused the female exodus from the workplace.

3 While the British census began in 1801, individual enumeration did not begin until 1841. For a detailed description of the British censuses of the nineteenth century, see Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census, London: HMSO, 1989.

4 For example, Helen Speechley, in her dissertation, showed that seven women who worked for wages at a Somerset farm had no recorded occupation in the 1851 census See Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999.

5 Edward Higgs finds that removing family members from the “servants” category reduced the number of servants in Rochdale in 1851. Enumerators did not clearly distinguish between the terms “housekeeper” and “housewife.” See Edward Higgs, “Domestic Service and Household Production” in Angela John, ed., Unequal Opportunities, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and “Women, Occupations and Work in the Nineteenth Century Censuses,” History Workshop, 1987, 23:59-80. In contrast, the censuses of the early 20th century seem to be fairly accurate; see Tim Hatton and Roy Bailey, “Women’s Work in Census and Survey, 1911-1931,” Economic History Review, Feb. 2001, LIV:87-107.

6 A shilling was equal to 12 pence, so if women earned 2s.6d. for 20 hours, they earned 1.5d. per hour. Women agricultural laborers earned closer to 1d. per hour, so the London wage was higher. See Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth-Century, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925, p. 208, and Patricia Malcolmson, English Laundresses, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 25. .

7 On the technology of the Industrial Revolution, see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969, and Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.

8 A petition from Glasgow cotton manufactures makes the following claim, “In almost every department of the cotton spinning business, the labour of women would be equally efficient with that of men; yet in several of these departments, such measures of violence have been adopted by the combination, that the women who are willing to be employed, and who are anxious by being employed to earn the bread of their families, have been driven from their situations by violence. . . . Messrs. James Dunlop and Sons, some years ago, erected cotton mills in Calton of Glasgow, on which they expended upwards of [£]27,000 forming their spinning machines, (Chiefly with the view of ridding themselves of the combination [the male union],) of such reduced size as could easily be wrought by women. They employed women alone, as not being parties to the combination, and thus more easily managed, and less insubordinate than male spinners. These they paid at the same rate of wages, as were paid at other works to men. But they were waylaid and attacked, in going to, and returning from their work; the houses in which they resided, were broken open in the night. The women themselves were cruelly beaten and abused; and the mother of one of them killed; . . . And these nefarious attempts were persevered in so systematically, and so long, that Messrs. Dunlop and sons, found it necessary to dismiss all female spinners from their works, and to employ only male spinners, most probably the very men who had attempted their ruin.” First Report from the Select Committee on Artizans and Machinery, British Parliamentary Papers, 1824 vol. V, p. 525.

9 Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1

10 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, Ch. 1, and K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Ch. 2.

11 For the period 1574 to 1821 about 45 percent of servants were female, but this fell to 32 percent in 1851. See Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1.

12 Men usually worked 12-hour days, and women averaged closer to 10 hours. See Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review, May 1997, 50:257-281.

13 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 65.

14 See Robert Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman, Clarendon Press, 1992, and Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economics History, March 1999, 59:41-67.

15 While the scythe had been used for mowing grass for hay or cheaper grains for some time, the sickle was used for harvesting wheat until the nineteenth century. Thus adoption of the scythe for harvesting wheat seems to be a response to changing prices rather than invention of a new technology. The scythe required less labor to harvest a given acre, but left more grain on the ground, so as grain prices fell relative to wages, farmers substituted the scythe for the sickle. See E.J.T. Collins, “Harvest Technology and Labour Supply in Britain, 1790-1870,” Economic History Review, Dec. 1969, XXIII:453-473.

16 K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge, 1985.

17 See Jane Humphries, “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of Economic History, March 1990, 50:17-42, and J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Rights, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

18 See Peter King, “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850,” Economic History Review, 1991, XLIV:461-476.

19 Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 41-42 See also Deborah Valenze, The First Industrial Woman, Oxford Univ. Press, 1995

20 Stephen Glover, The Directory of the County of Derby, Derby: Henry Mozley and Son, 1829.

21 Eden gives an example of gentlewomen who, on the death of their father, began to work as farmers. He notes, “not seldom, in one and the same day, they have divided their hours in helping to fill the dung-cart, and receiving company of the highest rank and distinction.” (F.M. Eden, The State of the Poor, vol. i., p. 626.) One woman farmer who was clearly an active manager celebrated her success in a letter sent to the Annals of Agriculture, (quoted by Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 30): “I bought a small estate, and took possession of it in the month of July, 1803. . . . As a woman undertaking to farm is generally a subject of ridicule, I bought the small estate by way of experiment: the gentlemen of the county have now complimented me so much on having set so good and example to the farmers, that I have determined on taking a very large farm into my hands.” The Annals of Agriculture give a number of examples of women farmers cited for their experiments or their prize-winning crops.

22 Tradesmen considered themselves lucky to find a wife who was good at business. In his autobiography James Hopkinson, a cabinetmaker, said of his wife, “I found I had got a good and suitable companion one with whom I could take sweet council and whose love and affections was only equall’d by her ability as a business woman.” Victorian Cabinet Maker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, 1968, p. 96.

23 See Elizabeth Sanderson, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

24 See K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Table 6.1.

25 The law requiring a seven-year apprenticeship before someone could work in a trade was repealed in 1814.

26 See Francois Crouzet, The First Industrialists, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, and M.L. Baumber, From Revival to Regency: A History of Keighley and Haworth, 1740-1820, Crabtree Ltd., Keighley, 1983.

27 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiry into the Employment of Children in Factories, with Minutes of Evidence, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, A1, p. 120.

28 For example, in the case of “LaVie and another Assignees against Philips and another Assignees,” the court upheld the right of a woman to operate as feme sole. In 1764 James Cox and his wife Jane were operating separate businesses, and both went bankrupt within the space of two months. Jane’s creditors sued James’s creditors for the recovery of five fans, goods from her shop that had been taken for James’s debts. The court ruled that, since Jane was trading as a feme sole, her husband did not own the goods in her shop, and thus James’s creditors had no right to seize them. See William Blackstone, Reports of Cases determined in the several Courts of Westminster-Hall, from 1746 to 1779, London, 1781, p. 570-575.

29 See Deborah Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, Princeton Univ. Press, 1985.

30 See Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117.

31 In his autobiography James Hopkinson says of his wife, “How she laboured at the press and assisted me in the work of my printing office, with a child in her arms, I have no space to tell, nor in fact have I space to allude to the many ways she contributed to my good fortune.” James Hopkinson, Victorian Cabinet Marker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, J.B. Goodman, ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p. 96. A 1739 poem by Mary Collier suggests that carrying babies into the field was fairly common; it contains these lines:

Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,
And wrap them in our Cloaths to keep them warm,
While round about we gather up the Corn;
. . .
When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too.

Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour, Augustan Reprint Society, #230, 1985, p. 10. A 1835 Poor Law report stated that in Sussex, “the custom of the mother of a family carrying her infant with her in its cradle into the field, rather than lose the opportunity of adding her earnings to the general stock, though partially practiced before, is becoming very much more general now.” (Quoted in Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 85.)

32 Sarah Johnson of Nottingham claimed that she ” Knows it is quite a common custom for mothers to give Godfrey’s and the Anodyne cordial to their infants, ‘it is quite too common.’ It is given to infants at the breast; it is not given because the child is ill, but ‘to compose it to rest, to sleep it,’ so that the mother may get to work. ‘Has seen an infant lay asleep on its mother’s lap whilst at the lace-frame for six or eight hours at a time.’ This has been from the effects of the cordial.” [Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 157] Mary Colton, a lace worker from Nottingham, described her use of the drug to parliamentary investigators thus: ‘Was confined of an illegitimate child in November, 1839. When the child was a week old she gave it a half teaspoonful of Godfrey’s twice a-day. She could not afford to pay for the nursing of the child, and so gave it Godfrey’s to keep it quiet, that she might not be interrupted at the lace piece; she gradually increased the quantity by a drop or two at a time until it reached a teaspoonful; when the infant was four months old it was so “wankle” and thin that folks persuaded her to give it laudanum to bring it on, as it did other children. A halfpenny worth, which was about a teaspoonful and three-quarters, was given in two days; continued to give her this quantity since February, 1840, until this last past (1841), and then reduced the quantity. She now buys a halfpenny worth of laudanum and a halfpenny worth of Godfrey’s mixed, which lasts her three days. . . . If it had not been for her having to sit so close to work she would never have given the child Godfrey’s. She has tried to break it off many times but cannot, for if she did, she should not have anything to eat.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 630].

33 Elizabeth Leadbeater, who worked for a Birmingham brass-founder, worked while she was nursing and had her mother look after the infant. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 710.] Mrs. Smart, an agricultural worker from Calne, Wiltshire, noted, “Sometimes I have had my mother, and sometimes my sister, to take care of the children, or I could not have gone out.” [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 65.] More commonly, though, older siblings provided the childcare. “Older siblings” generally meant children of nine or ten years old, and included boys as well as girls. Mrs. Britton of Calne, Wiltshire, left her children in the care of her eldest boy. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 66] In a family from Presteign, Wales, containing children aged 9, 7, 5, 3, and 1, we find that “The oldest children nurse the youngest.” [F.M. Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797, vol. iii, p. 904] When asked what income a labourer’s wife and children could earn, some respondents to the 1833 “Rural Queries” assumed that the eldest child would take care of the others, leaving the mother free to work. The returns from Bengeworth, Worcester, report that, “If the Mother goes to field work, the eldest Child had need to stay at home, to tend the younger branches of the Family.” Ewhurst, Surrey, reported that “If the Mother were employed, the elder Children at home would probably be required to attend to the younger Children.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B, “Rural Queries,” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 488 and 593]

34 Parents heard of incidents, such as one reported in the Times (Feb. 6, 1819):

A shocking accident occurred at Llandidno, near Conway, on Tuesday night, during the absence of a miner and his wife, who had gone to attend a methodist meeting, and locked the house door, leaving two children within; the house by some means took fire, and was, together with the unfortunate children, consumed to ashes; the eldest only four years old!

Mothers were aware of these dangers. One mother who admitted to leaving her children at home worried greatly about the risks:

I have always left my children to themselves, and, God be praised! nothing has ever happened to them, though I thought it dangerous. I have many a time come home, and have thought it a mercy to find nothing has happened to them. . . . Bad accidents often happen. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 68.]

Leaving young children home without child care had real dangers, and the fact that most working mothers paid for childcare suggests that they did not consider leaving young children alone to be an acceptable option.

35 In 1840 an observer of Spitalfields noted, “In this neighborhood, where the women as well as the men are employed in the manufacture of silk, many children are sent to small schools, not for instruction, but to be taken care of whilst their mothers are at work.”[ Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 261] In 1840 the wife of a Gloucester weaver earned 2s. a week from running a school; she had twelve students and charged each 2d. a week. [Reports from Assistant Handloom Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (220) XXIV, p. 419] In 1843 the lace-making schools of the midlands generally charged 3d. per week. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46, 64, 71, 72]

36 At one straw-plaiting school in Hertfordshire,

Children commence learning the trade about seven years old: parents pay 3d. a-week for each child, and for this they are taught the trade and taught to read. The mistress employs about from 15 to 20 at work in a room; the parents get the profits of the children’s labour.[ Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 64]

At these schools there was very little instruction; some time was devoted to teaching the children to read, but they spent most of their time working. One mistress complained that the children worked too much and learned too little, “In my judgment I think the mothers task the children too much; the mistress is obliged to make them perform it, otherwise they would put them to other schools.” Ann Page of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, had “eleven scholars” and claimed to “teach them all reading once a-day.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 66, 71] The standard rate of 3d. per week seems to have been paid for supervision of the children rather than for the instruction.

37 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, C1 p. 33.

38 Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46.

39 David Davies, The Case of Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered, London: Robinson, 1795, p.14. Agricultural wages for this time period are found in Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797.

40 In 1843 parliamentary investigator Alfred Austin reports, “Where a girl is hired to take care of children, she is paid about 9d. a week, and has her food besides, which is a serious deduction from the wages of the woman at work.”[ Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers,1843 (510) XII, p.26] Agricultural wages in the area were 8d. per day, so even without the cost of food, the cost of child care was about one-fifth a woman’s wage. One Scottish woman earned 7s. per week in a coal mine and paid 2s.6d., or 36 percent of her income, for the care of her children.[ B.P.P. 1844 (592) XVI, p. 6] In 1843 Mary Wright, a “over-looker” at a Buckinghamshire paper factory, paid even more for child care; she told parliamentary investigators that “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for three others.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46] She earned 10s.6d. per week, so her total child-care payments were 21 percent of her wage. Engels put the cost of child care at 1s. or 18d. a week. [Engels, [1845] 1926, p. 143] Factory workers often made 7s. a week, so again these women may have paid around one-fifth of their earnings for child care. Some estimates suggest even higher fractions of women’s income went to child care. The overseer of Wisbech, Cambridge, suggests a higher fraction; he reports, “The earnings of the Wife we consider comparatively small, in cases where she has a large family to attend to; if she has one or two children, she has to pay half, or perhaps more of her earnings for a person to take care of them.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B, “Rural Queries,” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 76]

Citation: Burnette, Joyce. “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/women-workers-in-the-british-industrial-revolution/