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Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

Author(s):Pinchbeck, Ivy
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850.London: George Routledge, 1930. x + 342 pp.


Review Essay by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

burnettj@wabash.edu

A Pioneer in Women’s History:

Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

During the past twenty years economic historians have begun to pay more attention to the role of women in the economy of Industrial Revolution Britain, and how our conclusions might change if we no longer neglect them. We can thank Ivy Pinchbeck for blazing the trail seventy years ago. Her Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 is one of the most significant works in twentieth-century economic history both because of its merits and because of the impact it had on later scholarship. Pinchbeck consulted a huge number of primary sources, and was able to synthesize this material into broader conclusions that have shaped our understanding of women’s history. The book was a pioneering effort in the field of women’s economic history, and has served as a valuable resource for later researchers.

Ivy Pinchbeck is not one of economic history’s superstars, and relatively little is known about her. She was born in 1898. In 1930 she received her Ph.D. in Economic History from the London School of Economics, where she worked under Eileen Power. She spent her entire career (1928 through her retirement) at Bedford College, London. In 1969 she published (with Margaret Hewitt) Children in English Society, which examined English children from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century. She also published a couple of articles in the British Journal of Sociology, but her list of publications is not particularly long. Pinchbeck wrote about women’s history before it was considered an important topic, and she lived, and presumably died, in relative obscurity.

Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution is clearly the product of countless hours of research. The number of texts that Pinchbeck consults is amazing, and this wide-ranging research makes her bibliography of primary sources a valuable resource for the student of women’s history. It contains seven manuscript sources, 120 volumes of parliamentary reports, 21 newspapers and periodicals, and 208 contemporary books and pamphlets. This breadth of sources allows her to quote not only from the most famous authors such as Arthur Young and F.M. Eden, but also from more obscure sources such as the pamphlets “A Present for a Servant Maid” and “An Enquiry into the Advantages and Disadvantages Resulting from Bills of Enclosure.” Pinchbeck quotes liberally from these sources, and each chapter is filled with footnotes, providing a gold mine for the researcher. If there is an important quote in the report of a parliamentary committee, chances are high that you will find that quote in Pinchbeck’s book.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on agriculture and the second on “industry and trade.” The first section examines both female laborers, whose participation in agriculture remained high, and farmers’ wives, who withdrew from farm work during this period. The second section examines women in textiles, domestic industries, mining, metals, and various crafts. One admirable feature of the book is that it examines not only the work of poor women, but also the work of women higher up the occupational ladder. Pinchbeck examines the work of women who ran dairies, kept shops, provided medical services, and participated in a wide variety of trades. Pinchbeck finds evidence of women auctioneers and notes that facts such as this “cause some astonishment at the present day when it is so often wrongly assumed that women have only just begun to enter the business world” (Pinchbeck, p. 286).

While Pinchbeck spends most of her time describing the conditions of employment, she does on occasion pause to draw more general conclusions. Her central claim is that, on the whole, the Industrial Revolution made women better off. Initially women suffered from declining employment opportunities, but after the turn of the nineteenth century their prospects improved. Pinchbeck claims that women were better off in 1850 than in 1750 for two reasons. First, many women withdrew from the labor force and were able to enjoy more leisure and higher social standing. Pinchbeck sees the opportunity to specialize in housework as a privilege, and thus she sees withdrawal of some married women from the labor force as an improvement. While Pinchbeck notes that many women lost economic independence, she considers the gains to be large enough to make up for this loss. Noting the withdrawal of farmers’ wives from productive employment, she claims, “In the change she sacrificed her former economic independence according to the extent to which she ceased to manage her household and contributed to the wealth of her family, but for her, the new conditions meant an advance in the social scale and did not entail any material hardship” (Pinchbeck, p. 42). For Pinchbeck, the move toward a “family wage,” which allowed a man to support a family and allowed wives to withdraw from the labor force, was a clear advance.

The second way in which women were better off in 1850 was in improved working conditions for those women who remained in the labor force. Pinchbeck notes that, while contemporaries thought factory conditions were bad, these conditions were actually better than the conditions in alternative employments in domestic industry. Women entering the factories did not leave behind ideal circumstances, but domestic industries with low pay and poor working conditions. Pinchbeck concludes that “the Industrial Revolution has on the whole proved beneficial to women. It has resulted in greater leisure for women in the home and has relieved them from the drudgery and monotony that characterized much of the hand labour previously performed in connection with industrial work under the domestic system. For the woman workers outside the home it has resulted in better conditions, a greater variety of openings and an improved status” (Pinchbeck, p. 4).

When the book appeared, the topic of women’s work was marginal. A decade earlier Alice Clark had written The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, but women’s work was hardly a popular topic. When Pinchbeck’s book came out it was favorably reviewed. General economics journals such as the Economics Journal and the American Economic Review carried reviews. Scholars were familiar with the book and considered it important; Kenneth Walker, in a review of a 1948 book on factory legislation, chides the author for failing to keep up with “recent literature pertinent to this subject” such as Pinchbeck’s book. For the most part, however, the book was politely ignored. Both the topic and the book remained on the margins of economic history for five decades. The first Journal of Economic History article that cites Pinchbeck is a 1959 article on the Industrial Revolution by R.M. Hartwell. Even here, the focus is not on women’s history, but on the standard of living debate; Hartwell quotes Pinchbeck as saying that factories improved the standard of living. Pinchbeck is not cited again in a Journal of Economic History article until the 1980s.

Since 1980 Pinchbeck has received more attention because we have come to realize that an economic history that ignores women is a poor economic history (see Humphries, 1991). Pinchbeck has become required reading for students of women in the Industrial Revolution and is universally cited in current works on that topic. Humphries (1991, p. 32) calls the book a “classic text.” Jane Rendall (1990, p. 7) claims that “Pinchbeck’s work is still of great importance, and for the moment remains the major survey of the impact of industrialization on women workers in Britain.” Many works on women’s history begin with a reference to Pinchbeck. Duncan Bythell begins “Women in the Work Force” by contrasting Pinchbeck’s optimistic view of women’s opportunities to Eric Richards’ more pessimistic view. While Pinchbeck’s book was relatively neglected when it first appeared, it has stood the test of time.

For a historian relying on non-quantitative sources, Pinchbeck did an admirable job of describing the patterns and trends in women’s work. Later historians using more quantitative methods generally agree with her descriptions. A good example is Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries’ 1995 Economic History Review article, which begins with the sentence, “Ivy Pinchbeck argued 65 years ago that the changes in the British economy during the industrial revolution promoted increased dependence on male wages and male wage-earners” (Horrell and Humphries, 1995, p. 89). Using a probit equation to predict female labor force participation, they find a downward trend in female labor force participation throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, which leads them to the conclusion that “Sixty-five years on we find that our evidence largely supports Pinchbeck’s views” (Horrell and Humphries, 1995, p. 113). Other historians have also supported Pinchbeck’s claims. K.D.M. Snell’s Annals of the Labouring Poor finds that, in the early nineteenth century, farmers hired fewer workers as annual servants, supporting Pinchbeck’s conclusion that “the custom of employing annual servants who lived in the farm declined in favour of day laborers who were responsible for their own board and lodging” (Pinchbeck, p. 37). Snell’s examination of the records of parish apprentices confirms Pinchbeck’s observation that women were apprenticed to a wide variety of trades. Investigating the employment of day-laborers at a farm near Sheffield, I have found that the pattern of female employment in agriculture fits well with the pattern that Pinchbeck describes: declining female employment between 1815 and 1834, followed by increasing female employment (Burnette, 1999).

Pinchbeck’s most controversial conclusion is her claim that the Industrial Revolution made women better off. Jane Rendall (1990, p. 7) claims that “Most modern historians would see her interpretation . . . as unduly optimistic.” Many historians see the period as one during which women lost rather than gained. The disagreement seems to be mainly one of interpretation. Pinchbeck notes that many women withdrew from the labor force, and she interprets this as a gain. Women had more leisure, and more time to devote to their housework. Other historians, observing the same change, have interpreted it as a decline in women’s position as they were forced out of the labor market. Women may have gained leisure, but they lost independence and bargaining power. Davidoff and Hall (1987, p. 273), for example, note that “the loss of opportunities to earn increased the dominance of marriage as the only survival route for middle-class women.”

Occasionally Pinchbeck includes statements that resemble theories later formalized by economics. For example, in her introduction Pinchbeck states that “such occupations as were open to women were overstocked” (Pinchbeck, p. 2). This sounds like the crowding model of discrimination developed by Barbara Bergmann in 1971. At other times Pinchbeck’s theory is not so strong. A weak point in her economics is her theory of wage determination. She assumes wages were based on what one needed to survive, not on productivity. Discussing wages earned by spinners, she claims, “Manufacturers were inclined to base wages on the assumption that the spinners were already maintained by their husbands” (Pinchbeck, p. 144). She claims that the withdrawal of women from the labor force was not really an economic loss to the family because “in many instances women’s earnings only served to keep their husbands’ wages at the level of individual subsistence. In this sense the industrial revolution marked a real advance, since it led to the assumption that men’s wages should be paid on a family basis” (Pinchbeck, p. 313). This theory of wage determination probably comes from the classical wage fund doctrine, but this does not excuse her because other economists at that time recognized the weakness of this theory. Frances Gillespie, in her review of the book, notes that “Whether men’s wages were kept down to the level of their own subsistence because women and children earned their own keep, is arguable” (Gillespie, p. 419-420). Gillespie uses better economic theory when she argues that if women’s employment had any effect on male wages it was through competition in the labor market.

Pinchbeck’s book received little attention for fifty years because it took the rest of the profession that long to realize the importance of her topic. We now recognize the importance of investigating the work of women as well as the work of men, and we must thank Ivy Pinchbeck for leading the way.

References:

Bergmann, Barbara. 1971. “The Effect on White Incomes of Discrimination in Employment.” Journal of Political Economy, 79 (March/April): 294-313.

Burnette, Joyce. 1999. “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): 41-67.

Bythell, Duncan. 1993. “Women in the Work Force.” In Patrick O’Brien and Roland Quinault, editors, The Industrial Revolution and British Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Alice. 1919. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. London: Routledge.

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

Hartwell, R.M. 1959. “Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in England: A Methodological Inquiry.” Journal of Economic History, 19 (June): 229-249.

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

Humphries, Jane. 1991. “‘Lurking in the Wings. . .': Women in the Historiography of the Industrial Revolution.” Business and Economic History, 20: 32-44.

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

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1956 and 1957. “State and the Child in Sixteenth-Century England.” British Journal of Sociology, 7 (Dec.): 273-285 and 8 (Mar.): 59-74.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1969. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Augustus M. Kelley.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1977. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Frank Cass.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1981. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Virago.

Pinchbeck, Ivy, and Hewitt, Margaret. 1969. Children in English Society. 2 volumes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rendall, Jane. 1990. Women in an Industrializing Society: England 1750-1880. Oxford: Blackwell.

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

Walker, Kenneth. 1949. Review of The Early Factory Legislation: A Study in Legislative and Administrative Evolution, by Maurice Walton Thomas. Journal of Economic History, 9(Nov.): 247-248.

–Reviews of Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850:

1. Edith Abbott, American Historical Review, 37 (Jan. 1932): 325-326.

2. George Engberg, Journal of Economic History, 31(June 1971): 519-520.

3. Frances E. Gillespie, Journal of Political Economy, 39 (June 1931): 418-420.

4. J. de L. Mann, Economic History Review, 3 (Oct. 1931): 303-305.

5. Helen Sumner Woodbury, American Economic Review, 29 (Dec. 1930): 713-722.

6. Barbara Wootton, Economic Journal, 41(Mar. 1931): 128-129.

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

Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850

Author(s):Kirby, Peter
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

Peter Kirby, Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850.  Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK:  Boydell Press, 2013. xi + 212 pp.  $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-84383-884-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics, Lake Forest College.

This book significantly contributes to the child labor literature in discerning the health of the children who worked in British factories and mines from 1780 to 1850.  Although the debate over the exploitation of children during the British Industrial Revolution continues to rage on between the Optimists and the Pessimists, this is the first extensive examination into the occupational health of early industrial children.  The main contribution of this book is in producing a “comprehensive overview of the factors bearing upon the health and industrial working conditions of children in the context of the major occupational and epidemiological transitions of the Industrial Revolution” (p. 35).  Peter Kirby argues that the health of the industrial child was fairly good, was not worsened by their work or working conditions but rather that “the child workers who staffed the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution were at no greater risk of poor health than those in other occupations” (p. 161).  The book presents several types of evidence, some more compelling than others.  Considerable archival work on child work-related injuries, children’s heights, child muscular and skeletal development and childhood diseases challenges the existing view that children’s health declined once they had worked in the textile mills or coal mines for an extended period of time.  In addition, this research challenges the evidence which led to the prevailing image of the skinny, crooked, bruised factory child.  He casts doubt on the representativeness of Sadler’s Report, the representativeness of two well-known child laborers – Robert Blincoe (the parish apprentice) and William Dodd (the factory cripple) – and the conclusions drawn from the observations of contemporary factory operatives and medical men.

Chapters 1 and 2 rightly put the issue of the health of child laborers into the broader context of growing industrial cities and the emergence of a poor working class.  By identifying the externalities of industrial growth, such as the air pollution caused by the smoke of coal-burning factories, the potential source(s) of children’s poor health is highlighted.  In addition, the detrimental impact of poor nutrition of both the expectant and then nursing mother explains lower birth weights, weaker immune systems and lower heights of children from poor families.  These arguments are convincing as children from poor families, regardless of their occupation, would tend to be smaller and sicklier.  Kirby concludes that “infectious diseases were ubiquitous amongst children and it is likely that many young people commenced their working lives carrying physical impairments conferred by disease in early childhood.  This almost certainly led medical commentators to confuse broader epidemiological effects such as deformity and short stature with the influence of the workplace” (p. 60).

Although some medical doctors may have been misinformed or misled, it is unlikely they all were. Throughout the book Kirby dismisses the observations and examinations of the “medical men” reporting to Parliament by claiming they were not qualified to identify occupational aliments, and therefore erroneously attributed all the diseases and deformities of children to their work and not to their general living conditions.  He argues that many were not trained in occupational health, many had no experience with industrial workplaces, and that the majority of Sadler’s medical witnesses never visited a mill or factory.  Rather than provide a more nuanced assessment of their extensive commentary, Kirby dismisses all of their testimony and concludes that “the evidence of early nineteenth-century medical men is therefore a highly unreliable basis for a serious inquiry into the health of industrial children” (p. 34).

As a result, the main weakness of this book is that the evidence put forth ignores medical commentary at the time and instead uses recent research in occupational medicine and health studies of children working in developing countries.  Although this approach is useful due to the similarities of child labor past and present, it must be placed into context.  There are considerable differences in the technology (or lack thereof), tasks performed, and working conditions of child laborers today that significantly impact their occupational health.  Kirby instead cites a mill surgeon, a lecturer to the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute and a member of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association as reliable “experts” on occupational health; all three found no link between standing for long periods of time and knock-knees and skeletal distortions (p. 64).  Kirby assumes, moreover, that the tasks children performed in the factories were light, the least laborious of all indoor work.  He concludes that this may explain why many children who worked in the mills were disabled, “There is considerable evidence that slender or disabled children were positively selected to work in factories” (p. 77).  This opinion is not supported by the organizational charts of factories in 1833 where children were listed not just as helpers doing light work (“piecers,” “doffers,” and “cleaners”) but were also performing adult tasks (specifically spinners, winders, combers, carders and weavers).  Kirby’s assessment on page 77 also contradicts an earlier statement he made that “the health of children and adolescents was therefore crucial to the formation of contracts with employers and masters would not normally accept a child with an obvious illness or disability” (p. 58).  Kirby’s arguments about how factory conditions affected or didn’t affect child workers are more confusing than convincing.

Chapter 3 has a very interesting and important discussion on the difficulties of establishing a child’s age and therefore enforcing the age requirements set in the Factory Act of 1833 (which prohibited children under age 9 from working).  Age certificates were not valid or reliable until 1846. Early factory legislation made parents primarily responsible for confirming the ages of their working children.  Parents were known to lie in order to insure their children would get hired.  The Factory Act of 1833 shifted the responsibility to the employers, but since children did not have birth certificates, who would verify their age?  The Factory Commission recommended the appointment of certifying surgeons to confirm a child’s age and hence eligibility for work.  Although this system was an improvement, this research identifies the new problems that arose.  How does one determine the age of a child? Kirby has a thorough discussion of the problems with using height and the reasons officials turned to examining the stages of child dentition.

Compelling evidence is offered in Table 4 and Figure 4 illustrating that there was little difference in the height of the factory and non-factory children who attended Sunday school in Manchester and Stockport.  Kirby concludes that the factors stunting their growth occurred before they began working in the factory. “The effect of factory occupation upon the health and growth of working children therefore appears to have been negligible” (p. 115).  One exception is coal mining, where the occupation did contribute to their smaller stature (and larger chests), as Kirby documents carefully in Tables 5, 6 and 7. He astutely argues that children in the mines, due to their hours of work underground had a complete deficiency of ultraviolet light which was thought to have contributed to slow and abnormal bone growth (p. 120).

Chapter 4 discusses an extremely important topic on the ill treatment of working children but does not make a cohesive argument.  The conclusion that “the beating of child factory workers was extremely rare” (p. 150) is based on no new evidence and stands in contrast to Nardinelli’s (1982) findings that systematic corporal punishment occurred in many factories and mines.  Instead of examining the testimony of child laborers and overseers, Kirby makes the claim that life in Industrial Britain was far from peaceful – a working-class child was exposed to either violence at home, at school or at work.  Physical discipline was customary at school and at work and abuse or domestic violence at home was not uncommon.  Thus, rather than deny that corporal punishment occurred (which was his initial position), Kirby admits it did exist but argues it was justifiable – “where corporal punishment was practiced in any systematic manner in industrial situations, it tended to be generally moderate and connected in highly complex ways with the needs of production or the maintenance of workplace safety” (p. 149).

Kirby concludes in Chapter 5 that the “often simplistic stereotype of the health-impaired and abused industrial child can no longer be sustained” (p. 151).  The poor health of child laborers was caused by “a wide range of exogenous factors such as the urban disease environment, social class, household poverty, pre-existing disability or orphanage, and such influences almost certainly proved more harmful to their health and welfare than discrete workplace factors” (p. 151).  This research is thought-provoking and should encourage economic history scholars to delve into the other Factory Inspector Reports (besides Sadler’s 1833 Report) and the 1842 Mining Report for evidence on workplace accidents, the use of corporal punishment, and childhood diseases.  I believe the book has broad appeal and should be of interest to economic historians and social historians, as well as psychologists and sociologists.  It is well written and superbly documented and is accessible to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Carolyn Tuttle is the Betty Jane Schultz Hollender Professor of Economics at Lake Forest College.  Recent publications include “Child Labor: A Revival of the Pessimist View” in Research in Economic History and a book entitled Mexican Women in American Factories: Free Trade and Exploitation on the Border (2012) by University of Texas Press.  She is currently working on an article with Simone Wegge of CSI-CUNY entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.”  She can be reached at tuttle@mx.lakeforest.edu

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 (February 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

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
]

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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The Roots of American Industrialization, 1790-1860

David R. Meyer, Brown University

The Puzzle of Industrialization

In a society which is predominantly agricultural, how is it possible for industrialization to gain a foothold? One view is that the demand of farm households for manufactures spurs industrialization, but such an outcome is not guaranteed. What if farm households can meet their own food requirements, and they choose to supply some of their needs for manufactures by engaging in small-scale craft production in the home? They might supplement this production with limited purchases of goods from local craftworkers and purchases of luxuries from other countries. This local economy would be relatively self-sufficient, and there is no apparent impetus to alter it significantly through industrialization, that is, the growth of workshop and factory production for larger markets. Others would claim that limited gains might come from specialization, once demand passed some small threshold. Finally, it has been argued that if the farmers are impoverished, some of them would be available for manufacturing and this would provide an incentive to industrialize. However, this argument begs the question as to who would purchase the manufactures. One possibility is that non-farm rural dwellers, such as trade people, innkeepers, and professionals, as well as a small urban population, might provide an impetus to limited industrialization.

The problem with the “impoverished agriculture” theory

The industrialization of the eastern United States from 1790 to 1860 raises similar conundrums. For a long time, scholars thought that the agriculture was mostly poor quality. Thus, the farm labor force left agriculture for workshops, such as those which produced shoes, or for factories, such as the cotton textile mills of New England. These manufactures provided employment for women and children, who otherwise had limited productive possibilities because the farms were not economical. Yet, the market for manufactures remained mostly in the East prior to 1860. Consequently, it is unclear who would have purchased the products to support the growth of manufactures before 1820, as well as to undergird the large-scale industrialization of the East during the two decades following 1840. Even if the impoverished-agriculture explanation of the East’s industrialization is rejected, we are still left with the curiosity that as late as 1840, about eighty percent of the population lived in rural areas, though some of them were in nonfarm occupations.

In brief, the puzzle of eastern industrialization between 1790 and 1860 can be resolved – the East had a prosperous agriculture. Farmers supplied low-cost agricultural products to rural and urban dwellers, and this population demanded manufactures, which were supplied by vigorous local and subregional manufacturing sectors. Some entrepreneurs shifted into production for larger market areas, and this transformation occurred especially in sectors such as shoes, selected light manufactures produced in Connecticut (such as buttons, tinware, and wooden clocks), and cotton textiles. Transportation improvements exerted little impact on these agricultural and industrial developments, primarily because the lowly wagon served effectively as a transport medium and much of the East’s most prosperous areas were accessible to cheap waterway transportation. The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, and the satellites of each (together, each metropolis and its satellites is called a metropolitan industrial complex), became leading manufacturing centers, and other industrial centers emerged in prosperous agricultural areas distant from these complexes. The East industrialized first, and, subsequently, the Midwest began an agricultural and industrial growth process which was underway by the 1840s. Together, the East and the Midwest constituted the American Manufacturing Belt, which was formed by the 1870s, whereas the South failed to industrialize commensurately.

Synergy between Agriculture and Manufacturing

The solution to the puzzle of how industrialization can occur in a predominantly agricultural economy recognizes the possibility of synergy between agriculture and manufacturing. During the first three decades following 1790, prosperous agricultural areas emerged in the eastern United States. Initially, these areas were concentrated near the small metropolises of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and in river valleys such as the Connecticut Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in New York, the Delaware Valley bordering Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the Susquehanna Valley in eastern Pennsylvania. These agricultural areas had access to cheap, convenient transport which could be used to reach markets; the farms supplied the growing urban populations in the cities and some of the products were exported. Furthermore, the farmers supplied the nearby, growing non-farm populations in the villages and small towns who provided goods and services to farmers. These non-farm consumers included retailers, small mill owners, teamsters, craftspeople, and professionals (clergy, physicians, and lawyers).

Across every decade from 1800 to 1860, the number of farm laborers grew, thus testifying to the robustness of eastern agriculture (see Table 1). And, this increase occurred in the face of an expanding manufacturing sector, as increasing numbers of rural dwellers left the farms to work in the factories, especially after 1840. Even New England, the region which presumably was the epitome of declining agriculture, witnessed a rise in the number of farm laborers all the way up to 1840, and, as of 1860, the drop off from the peak was small. Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had vigorous small workshops and increasing numbers of small factories before 1840, followed by a surge in manufacturing after 1840, matched the trajectory of farm laborers in New England as a whole. The numbers in these two states peaked in 1840 and fell off only modestly over the next twenty years. The Middle Atlantic region witnessed an uninterrupted rise in the number of farm laborers over the sixty-year period. New York and Pennsylvania, the largest states, followed slightly different paths. In New York, the number of farm laborers peaked around 1840 and then stabilized near that level for the next two decades, whereas in Pennsylvania the number of farm laborers rose in an uninterrupted fashion.

Table 1
Number of Farm Laborers by Region and Selected States, 1800-1860

Year 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
New England 228,100 257,700 303,400 353,800 389,100 367,400 348,100
Massachusetts 73,200 72,500 73,400 78,500 87,900 80,800 77,700
Connecticut 50,400 49,300 51,500 55,900 57,000 51,400 51,800
Middle Atlantic 375,700 471,400 571,700 715,000 852,800 910,400 966,600
New York 111,800 170,100 256,000 356,300 456,000 437,100 449,100
Pennsylvania 112,600 141,000 164,900 195,200 239,000 296,300 329,000
East 831,900 986,800 1,178,500 1,422,600 1,631,000 1,645,200 1,662,800

Source: Thomas Weiss, “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860,”American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), table 1A.9, p. 51.

The farmers, retailers, professionals, and others in these prosperous agricultural areas accumulated capital which became available for other economic sectors, and manufacturing was one of the most important to receive this capital. Entrepreneurs who owned small workshops and factories obtained capital to turn out a wide range of goods such as boards, boxes, utensils, building hardware, furniture, and wagons, which were in demand in the agricultural areas. And, some of these workshops and factories enlarged their market areas to a subregion as they gained production efficiencies; but, this did not account for all industrial development. Selected manufactures such as shoes, tinware, buttons, and cotton textiles were widely demanded by urban and rural residents of prosperous agricultural areas and by residents of the large cities. These products were high value relative to their weight; thus, the cost to ship them long distances was low. Astute entrepreneurs devised production methods and marketing approaches to sell these goods in large market areas, including New England and the Middle Atlantic regions of the East.

Manufactures Which Were Produced for Large Market Areas

Shoes and Tinware

Small workshops turned out shoes. Massachusetts entrepreneurs devised an integrated shoe production complex based on a division of labor among shops, and they established a marketing arm of wholesalers, principally in Boston, who sold the shoes throughout New England, to the Middle Atlantic, and to the South (particularly, to slave plantations). Businesses in Connecticut drew on the extensive capital accumulated by the well-to-do rural and urban dwellers of that state and moved into tinware, plated ware, buttons, and wooden clocks. These products, like shoes, also were manufactured in small workshops, but a division of labor among shops was less important than the organization of production within shops. Firms producing each good tended to agglomerate in a small subregion of the state. These clusters arose because entrepreneurs shared information about production techniques and specialized skills which they developed, and this knowledge was communicated as workers moved among shops. Initially, a marketing system of peddlers emerged in the tinware sector, and they sold the goods, first throughout Connecticut, and then they extended their travels to the rest of New England and to the Middle Atlantic. Workshops which made other types of light, high-value goods soon took advantage of the peddler distribution system to enlarge their market areas. At first, these peddlers operated part-time during the year, but as the supply of goods increased and market demand grew, peddlers operated for longer periods of the year and they traveled farther.

Cotton Textiles

Cotton textile manufacturing was an industry built on low-wage, especially female, labor; presumably, this industry offered opportunities in areas where farmers were unsuccessful. Yet, similar to the other manufactures which enlarged their market areas to the entire East before 1820, cotton textile production emerged in prosperous agricultural areas. That is not surprising, because this industry required substantial capital, technical skills, and, initially, nearby markets. These requirements were met in rich farming areas, which also could draw on wealthy merchants in large cities who contributed capital and provided sale outlets beyond nearby markets as output grew. The production processes in cotton textile manufacturing, however, diverged from the approaches to making shoes and small metal and wooden products. From the start, production processes included textile machinery, which initially consisted of spinning machines to make yarn, and later (after 1815), weaving machines and other mechanical equipment were added. Highly skilled mechanics were required to build the machines and to maintain them. The greater capital requirements for cotton mills, compared to shoes and small goods’ manufactures in Connecticut, meant that merchant wholesalers and wealthy retailers, professionals, mill owners, and others, were important underwriters of the factories.

Starting in the 1790s, New England, and, especially, Rhode Island, housed the leaders in early cotton textile manufacturing. Providence merchants funded some of the first successful cotton spinning mills, and they drew on the talents of Samuel Slater, an immigrant British machinist. He trained many of the first important textile mechanics, and investors in various parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York hired them to build mills. Between 1815 and 1820, power-loom weaving began to be commercially feasible, and this effort was led by firms in Rhode Island and, especially, in Massachusetts. Boston merchants, starting with the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, devised a business plan which targeted large-scale, integrated cotton textile manufacturing, with a marketing/sales arm housed in a separate firm. They enlarged their effort significantly after 1820, and much of the impetus to the growth of the cotton textile industry came from the success entrepreneurs had in lowering the cost of production.

The Impact of Transportation Improvements

Following 1820, government and private sources invested substantial sums in canals, and after 1835, railroad investment increased rapidly. Canals required huge volumes of low-value commodities in order to pay operating expenses, cover interest on the bonds which were issued for construction, and retire the bonds at maturity. These conditions were only met in the richest agricultural and resource (lumbering and coal mining, for example) areas traversed by the Erie and Champlain Canals in New York and the coal canals in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The vast majority of the other canals failed to yield benefits for agriculture and industry, and most were costly debacles. Early railroads mainly carried passengers, especially within fifty to one hundred miles of the largest cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Industrial products were not carried in large volumes until after 1850; consequently, railroads built before that time had little impact on industrialization in the East.

Canals and railroads had minor impacts on agricultural and industrial development because the lowly wagon provided withering competition. Wagons offered flexible, direct connections between origins and destinations, without the need to transship goods, as was the case with canals and railroads; these modes required wagons at their end points. Within a distance of about fifty miles, the cost of wagon transport was competitive with alternative transport modes, so long as the commodities were high value relative to their weight. And, infrequent transport of these goods could occur over distances of as much as one hundred miles. This applied to many manufactures, and agricultural commodities could be raised to high value by processing prior to shipment. Thus, wheat was turned into flour, corn and other grains were fed to cattle and pigs and these were processed into beef and pork prior to shipment, and milk was converted into butter and cheese. Most of the richest agricultural and industrial areas of the East were less than one hundred miles from the largest cities or these areas were near low-cost waterway transport along rivers, bays, and the Atlantic Coast. Therefore, canals and railroads in these areas had difficulty competing for freight, and outside these areas the limited production generated little demand for long distant transport services.

Agricultural Prosperity Continues

After 1820, eastern farmers seized the increasing market opportunities in the prosperous rural areas as nonfarm processing expanded and village and small town populations demanded greater amounts of farm products. The large number of farmers who were concentrated around the rapidly growing metropolises (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and near urban agglomerations such as Albany-Troy, New York, developed increasing specialization in urban market goods such as fluid milk, fresh vegetables, fruit, butter, and hay (for horse transport). Farmers farther away responded to competition by shifting into products which could be transported long distances to market, including wheat into flour, cattle which walked to market, or pigs which were converted into pork. During the winter these farms sent butter, and cheese was a specialty which could be lucrative for long periods of the year when temperatures were cool.

These changes swept across the East, and, after 1840, farmers increasingly adjusted their production to compete with cheap wheat, cattle, and pork arriving over the Erie Canal from the Midwest. Wheat growing became less profitable, and specialized agriculture expanded, such as potatoes, barley, and hops in central New York and cigar tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. Farmers near the largest cities intensified their specialization in urban market products, and as the railroads expanded, fluid milk was shipped longer distances to these cities. Farmers in less accessible areas and on poor agricultural land which was infertile or too hilly, became less competitive. If these farmers and their children stayed, their incomes declined relative to others in the East, but if they moved to the Midwest or to the burgeoning industrial cities of the East, they had the chance of participating in the rising prosperity.

Metropolitan Industrial Complexes

The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, led the industrial expansion after 1820, because they were the greatest concentrated markets, they had the most capital, and their wholesalers provided access to subregional and regional markets outside the metropolises. By 1840, each of them was surrounded by industrial satellites – manufacturing centers in close proximity to, and economically integrated with, the metropolis. Together, these metropolises and their satellites formed metropolitan industrial complexes, which accounted for almost one-quarter of the nation’s manufacturing (see Table 2). For example, metropolises and satellites included Boston and Lowell, New York and Paterson (New Jersey), Philadelphia and Reading (Pennsylvania), and Baltimore and Wilmington (Delaware), which also was a satellite of Philadelphia. Among the four leading metropolises, New York and Philadelphia housed, by far, the largest share of the nation’s manufacturing workers, and their satellites had large numbers of industrial workers. Yet, Boston’s satellites contained the greatest concentration of industrial workers in the nation, with almost seven percent of the national total. The New York, Philadelphia, and Boston metropolitan industrial complexes each had approximately the same share of the nation’s manufacturing workers. These complexes housed a disproportionate share of the nation’s commerce-serving manufactures such as printing-publishing and paper and of local, regional, and national market manufactures such as glass, drugs and paints, textiles, musical instruments, furniture, hardware, and machinery.

Table 2
Manufacturing Employment in the Metropolitan Industrial Complexes
of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore
as a Percentage of National Manufacturing Employment in 1840

Metropolis Satellites Complex
New York 4.1% 3.4% 7.4%
Philadelphia 3.9 2.9 6.7
Boston 0.5 6.6 7.1
Baltimore 2.0 0.2 2.3
Four Complexes 10.5 13.1 23.5

Note: Metropolitan county is defined as the metropolis for each complex and “outside” comprises nearby counties; those included in each complex were the following. New York: metropolis (New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond); outside (Connecticut: Fairfield; New York: Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange; New Jersey: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset). Philadelphia: metropolis (Philadelphia); outside (Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery; New Jersey: Burlington, Gloucester, Mercer; Delaware: New Castle). Boston: metropolis (Suffolk); outside (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth). Baltimore: metropolis (Baltimore); outside (Anne Arundel, Harford).

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841).

Also, by 1840, prosperous agricultural areas farther from these complexes, such as the Connecticut Valley in New England, the Hudson Valley, the Erie Canal Corridor across New York state, and southeastern Pennsylvania, housed significant amounts of manufacturing in urban places. At the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the Albany-Troy agglomeration contained one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing outside the metropolitan complexes. And, industrial towns such as Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were strung along the Erie Canal Corridor. Many of the manufactures (such as furniture, wagons, and machinery) served subregional markets in the areas of prosperous agriculture, but some places also developed specialization in manufactures (textiles and hardware) for larger regional and interregional market areas (the East as a whole). The Connecticut Valley, for example, housed many firms which produced cotton textiles, hardware, and cutlery.

Manufactures for Eastern and National Markets

Shoes

In several industrial sectors whose firms had expanded before 1820 to regional, and even, multiregional markets, in the East, firms intensified their penetration of eastern markets and reached to markets in the rapidly growing Midwest between 1820 and 1860. In eastern Massachusetts, a production complex of shoe firms innovated methods of organizing output within and among firms, and they developed a wide array of specialized tools and components to increase productivity and to lower manufacturing costs. In addition, a formidable wholesaling, marketing, and distribution complex, headed by Boston wholesalers, pushed the ever-growing volume of shoes into sales channels which reached throughout the nation. Machinery did not come into use until the 1850s, and, by 1860, Massachusetts accounted for half of the value of the nation’s shoe production.

Cotton Textiles

In contrast, machinery constituted an important factor of production which drove down the price of cotton textile goods, substantially enlarging the quantity consumers demanded. Before 1820, most of the machinery innovations improved the spinning process for making yarn, and in the five years following 1815, innovations in mechanized weaving generated an initial substantial drop in the cost of production as the first integrated spinning-weaving mills emerged. During the next decade and a half the price of cotton goods collapsed by over fifty percent as large integrated spinning-weaving mills became the norm for the production of most cotton goods. Therefore, by the mid-1830s vast volumes of cotton goods were pouring out of textile mills, and a sophisticated set of specialized wholesaling firms, mostly concentrated in Boston, and secondarily, in New York and Philadelphia, channeled these items into the national market.

Prior to 1820, the cotton textile industry was organized into three cores. The Providence core dominated and the Boston core occupied second place; both of these were based mostly on mechanized spinning. A third core in the city of Philadelphia was based on hand spinning and weaving. Within about fifteen years after 1820, the Boston core soared to a commanding position in cotton textile production as a group of Boston merchants and their allies relentlessly replicated their business plan at various sites in New England, including at Lowell, Chicopee, and Taunton in Massachusetts, at Nashua, Manchester, and Dover in New Hampshire, and at Saco in Maine. The Providence core continued to grow, but its investors did not seem to fully grasp the strategic, multi-faceted business plan which the Boston merchants implemented. Similarly, investors in an emerging core within about fifty to seventy-five miles of New York City in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey likewise did not seem to fully understand the Boston merchants’ plan, and these New York City area firms never reached the scale of the firms of the Boston Core. The Philadelphia core enlarged to nearby areas southwest of the city and in Delaware, but these firms stayed small, and the Philadelphia firms created a small-scale, flexible production system which turned out specialized goods, not the mass-market commodity textiles of the other cores.

Capital Investment in Cotton Textiles

The distribution of capital investment in cotton textiles across the regions and states of the East between 1820 and 1860 capture the changing prominence of the cores of cotton textile production (see Table 3). The New England and the Middle Atlantic regions contained approximately similar shares (almost half each) of the nation’s capital investment. However, during the 1820s the cotton textile industry restructured to a form which was maintained for the next three decades. New England’s share of capital investment surged to about seventy percent, and it maintained that share until 1860, whereas the Middle Atlantic region’s share fell to around twenty percent by 1840 and remained near that until 1860. The rest of the nation, primarily the South, reached about ten percent of total capital investment around 1840 and continued at that level for the next two decades. Massachusetts became the leading cotton textile state by 1831 and Rhode Island, the early leader, gradually slipped to a level of about ten percent by the 1850s; New Hampshire and Pennsylvania housed approximately similar shares as Rhode Island by that time.

Table 3
Capital Invested in Cotton Textiles
by Region and State as a Percentage of the Nation
1820-1860

Region/state 1820 1831 1840 1850 1860
New England 49.6% 69.8% 68.4% 72.3% 70.3%
Maine 1.6 1.9 2.7 4.5 6.1
New Hampshire 5.6 13.1 10.8 14.7 12.8
Vermont 1.0 0.7 0.2 0.3 0.3
Massachusetts 14.3 31.7 34.1 38.2 34.2
Connecticut 11.6 7.0 6.2 5.7 6.7
Rhode Island 15.4 15.4 14.3 9.0 10.2
Middle Atlantic 46.2 29.5 22.7 17.3 19.0
New York 18.8 9.0 9.6 5.6 5.5
New Jersey 4.7 5.0 3.4 2.0 1.3
Pennsylvania 6.3 9.3 6.5 6.1 9.3
Delaware 4.0 0.9 0.6 0.6 0.6
Maryland 12.4 5.3 2.6 3.0 2.3
Rest of nation 4.3 0.7 9.0 10.4 10.7
Nation 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total capital (thousands) $10,783 $40,613 $51,102 $74,501 $98,585

Sources: David J. Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies Between Britain and America, 1790-1830s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), appendix D, table D.1, p. 276; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Report on the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, 1880 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1883).

Connecticut’s Industries

In Connecticut, industrialists built on their successful production and sales prior to 1820 and expanded into a wider array of products which they sold in the East and South, and, after 1840, they acquired more sales in the Midwest. This success was not based on a mythical “Yankee ingenuity,” which, typically, has been framed in terms of character. Instead, this ingenuity rested on fundamental assets: a highly educated population linked through wide-ranging social networks which communicated information about technology, labor opportunities, and markets; and the abundant supplies of capital in the state supported the entrepreneurs. The peddler distribution system provided efficient sales channels into the mid-1830s, but, after that, firms took advantage of more traditional wholesaling channels. In some sectors, such as the brass industry, firms followed the example of the large Boston-core textile firms, and the brass companies founded their own wholesale distribution agencies in Boston and New York City. The achievements of Connecticut’s firms were evident by 1850. As a share of the nation’s value of production, they accounted for virtually all of the clocks, pins, and suspenders, close to half of the buttons and rubber goods, and about one-third of the brass foundry products, Britannia and plated ware, and hardware.

Difficulty of Duplicating Eastern Methods in the Midwest

The East industrialized first, based on a prosperous agricultural and industrialization process, as some of its entrepreneurs shifted into the national market manufactures of shoes, cotton textiles, and diverse goods turned out in Connecticut. These industrialists made this shift prior to 1820, and they enhanced their dominance of these products during the subsequent two decades. Manufacturers in the Midwest did not have sufficient intraregional markets to begin producing these goods before 1840; therefore, they could not compete in these national market manufactures. Eastern firms had developed technologies and organizations of production and created sales channels which could not be readily duplicated, and these light, high-value goods were transported cheaply to the Midwest. When midwestern industrialists faced choices about which manufactures to enter, the eastern light, high-value goods were being sold in the Midwest at prices which were so low that it was too risky for midwestern firms to attempt to compete. Instead, these firms moved into a wide range of local and regional market manufactures which also existed in the East, but which cost too much to transport to the Midwest. These goods included lumber and food products (e.g., flour and whiskey), bricks, chemicals, machinery, and wagons.

The American Manufacturing Belt

The Midwest Joins the American Manufacturing Belt after 1860

Between 1840 and 1860, Midwestern manufacturers made strides in building an industrial infrastructure, and they were positioned to join with the East to constitute the American Manufacturing Belt, the great concentration of manufacturing which would sprawl from the East Coast to the edge of the Great Plains. This Belt became mostly set within a decade or so after 1860, because technologies and organizations of production and of sales channels had lowered costs across a wide array of manufactures, and improvements in transportation (such as an integrated railroad system) and communication (such as the telegraph) reduced distribution costs. Thus, increasing shares of industrial production were sold in interregional markets.

Lack of Industrialization in the South

Although the South had prosperous farms, it failed to build a deep and broad industrial infrastructure prior to 1860, because much of its economy rested on a slave agricultural system. In this economy, investments were heavily concentrated in slaves rather than in an urban and industrial infrastructure. Local and regional demand remained low across much of the South, because slaves were not able to freely express their consumption demands and population densities remained low, except in a few agricultural areas. Thus, the market thresholds for many manufactures were not met, and, if thresholds were met, the demand was insufficient to support more than a few factories. By the 1870s, when the South had recovered from the Civil War and its economy was reconstructed, eastern and midwestern industrialists had built strong positions in many manufactures. And, as new industries emerged, the northern manufacturers had the technological and organizational infrastructure and distribution channels to capture dominance in the new industries.

In a similar fashion, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the West were settled too late for their industrialists to be major producers of national market goods. Manufacturers in these regions focused on local and regional market manufactures. Some low wage industries (such as textiles) began to move to the South in significant numbers after 1900, and the emergence of industries based on high technology after 1950 led to new manufacturing concentrations which rested on different technologies. Nonetheless, the American Manufacturing Belt housed the majority of the nation’s industry until the middle of the twentieth century.

This essay is based on David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Additional Readings

Atack, Jeremy, and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil: Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Baker, Andrew H., and Holly V. Izard. “New England Farmers and the Marketplace, 1780-1865: A Case Study.” Agricultural History 65 (1991): 29-52.

Barker, Theo, and Dorian Gerhold. The Rise and Rise of Road Transport, 1700-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Brown, Richard D. Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Durrenberger, Joseph A. Turnpikes: A Study of the Toll Road Movement in the Middle Atlantic States and Maryland. Cos Cob, CT: John E. Edwards, 1968.

Field, Alexander J. “On the Unimportance of Machinery.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985): 378-401.

Fishlow, Albert. American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Fishlow, Albert. “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered.” American Economic Review 54 (1964): 352-64.

Goodrich, Carter, ed. Canals and American Economic Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Gross, Robert A. “Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord.” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 42-61.

Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Jeremy, David J. Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Jones, Chester L. The Economic History of the Anthracite-Tidewater Canals. University of Pennsylvania Series on Political Economy and Public Law, no. 22. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1908.

Karr, Ronald D. “The Transformation of Agriculture in Brookline, 1770-1885.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 15 (1987): 33-49.

Lindstrom, Diane. Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

McMurry, Sally. Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

McNall, Neil A. An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952.

Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Margo, Robert A. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Meyer, David R. “The Division of Labor and the Market Areas of Manufacturing Firms.” Sociological Forum 3 (1988): 433-53.

Meyer, David R. “Emergence of the American Manufacturing Belt: An Interpretation.” Journal of Historical Geography 9 (1983): 145-74.

Meyer, David R. “The Industrial Retardation of Southern Cities, 1860-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 366-86.

Meyer, David R. “Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 921-37.

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Roberts, Christopher. The Middlesex Canal, 1793-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

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Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization: Evidence from the American Northeast, 1820-1860.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 679-729. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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Citation: Meyer, David. “American Industrialization”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-roots-of-american-industrialization-1790-1860/

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/

Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Carolyn Tuttle, Lake Forest College

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Great Britain became the first country to industrialize. Because of this, it was also the first country where the nature of children’s work changed so dramatically that child labor became seen as a social problem and a political issue.

This article examines the historical debate about child labor in Britain, Britain’s political response to problems with child labor, quantitative evidence about child labor during the 1800s, and economic explanations of the practice of child labor.

The Historical Debate about Child Labor in Britain

Child Labor before Industrialization

Children of poor and working-class families had worked for centuries before industrialization – helping around the house or assisting in the family’s enterprise when they were able. The practice of putting children to work was first documented in the Medieval era when fathers had their children spin thread for them to weave on the loom. Children performed a variety of tasks that were auxiliary to their parents but critical to the family economy. The family’s household needs determined the family’s supply of labor and “the interdependence of work and residence, of household labor needs, subsidence requirements, and family relationships constituted the ‘family economy'” [Tilly and Scott (1978, 12)].

Definitions of Child Labor

The term “child labor” generally refers to children who work to produce a good or a service which can be sold for money in the marketplace regardless of whether or not they are paid for their work. A “child” is usually defined as a person who is dependent upon other individuals (parents, relatives, or government officials) for his or her livelihood. The exact ages of “childhood” differ by country and time period.

Preindustrial Jobs

Children who lived on farms worked with the animals or in the fields planting seeds, pulling weeds and picking the ripe crop. Ann Kussmaul’s (1981) research uncovered a high percentage of youths working as servants in husbandry in the sixteenth century. Boys looked after the draught animals, cattle and sheep while girls milked the cows and cared for the chickens. Children who worked in homes were either apprentices, chimney sweeps, domestic servants, or assistants in the family business. As apprentices, children lived and worked with their master who established a workshop in his home or attached to the back of his cottage. The children received training in the trade instead of wages. Once they became fairly skilled in the trade they became journeymen. By the time they reached the age of twenty-one, most could start their own business because they had become highly skilled masters. Both parents and children considered this a fair arrangement unless the master was abusive. The infamous chimney sweeps, however, had apprenticeships considered especially harmful and exploitative. Boys as young as four would work for a master sweep who would send them up the narrow chimneys of British homes to scrape the soot off the sides. The first labor law passed in Britain to protect children from poor working conditions, the Act of 1788, attempted to improve the plight of these “climbing boys.” Around age twelve many girls left home to become domestic servants in the homes of artisans, traders, shopkeepers and manufacturers. They received a low wage, and room and board in exchange for doing household chores (cleaning, cooking, caring for children and shopping).

Children who were employed as assistants in domestic production (or what is also called the cottage industry) were in the best situation because they worked at home for their parents. Children who were helpers in the family business received training in a trade and their work directly increased the productivity of the family and hence the family’s income. Girls helped with dressmaking, hat making and button making while boys assisted with shoemaking, pottery making and horse shoeing. Although hours varied from trade to trade and family to family, children usually worked twelve hours per day with time out for meals and tea. These hours, moreover, were not regular over the year or consistent from day-to-day. The weather and family events affected the number of hours in a month children worked. This form of child labor was not viewed by society as cruel or abusive but was accepted as necessary for the survival of the family and development of the child.

Early Industrial Work

Once the first rural textile mills were built (1769) and child apprentices were hired as primary workers, the connotation of “child labor” began to change. Charles Dickens called these places of work the “dark satanic mills” and E. P. Thompson described them as “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners” (1966, 307). Although long hours had been the custom for agricultural and domestic workers for generations, the factory system was criticized for strict discipline, harsh punishment, unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and inflexible work hours. The factory depersonalized the employer-employee relationship and was attacked for stripping the worker’s freedom, dignity and creativity. These child apprentices were paupers taken from orphanages and workhouses and were housed, clothed and fed but received no wages for their long day of work in the mill. A conservative estimate is that around 1784 one-third of the total workers in country mills were apprentices and that their numbers reached 80 to 90% in some individual mills (Collier, 1964). Despite the First Factory Act of 1802 (which attempted to improve the conditions of parish apprentices), several mill owners were in the same situation as Sir Robert Peel and Samuel Greg who solved their labor shortage by employing parish apprentices.

After the invention and adoption of Watt’s steam engine, mills no longer had to locate near water and rely on apprenticed orphans – hundreds of factory towns and villages developed in Lancashire, Manchester, Yorkshire and Cheshire. The factory owners began to hire children from poor and working-class families to work in these factories preparing and spinning cotton, flax, wool and silk.

The Child Labor Debate

What happened to children within these factory walls became a matter of intense social and political debate that continues today. Pessimists such as Alfred (1857), Engels (1926), Marx (1909), and Webb and Webb (1898) argued that children worked under deplorable conditions and were being exploited by the industrialists. A picture was painted of the “dark satanic mill” where children as young as five and six years old worked for twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week without recess for meals in hot, stuffy, poorly lit, overcrowded factories to earn as little as four shillings per week. Reformers called for child labor laws and after considerable debate, Parliament took action and set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into children’s employment. Optimists, on the other hand, argued that the employment of children in these factories was beneficial to the child, family and country and that the conditions were no worse than they had been on farms, in cottages or up chimneys. Ure (1835) and Clapham (1926) argued that the work was easy for children and helped them make a necessary contribution to their family’s income. Many factory owners claimed that employing children was necessary for production to run smoothly and for their products to remain competitive. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recommended child labor as a means of preventing youthful idleness and vice. Ivy Pinchbeck (1930) pointed out, moreover, that working hours and conditions had been as bad in the older domestic industries as they were in the industrial factories.

Factory Acts

Although the debate over whether children were exploited during the British Industrial Revolution continues today [see Nardinelli (1988) and Tuttle (1998)], Parliament passed several child labor laws after hearing the evidence collected. The three laws which most impacted the employment of children in the textile industry were the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 (which set the minimum working age at 9 and maximum working hours at 12), the Regulation of Child Labor Law of 1833 (which established paid inspectors to enforce the laws) and the Ten Hours Bill of 1847 (which limited working hours to 10 for children and women).

The Extent of Child Labor

The significance of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was attached to both the changes in the nature of child labor and the extent to which children were employed in the factories. Cunningham (1990) argues that the idleness of children was more a problem during the Industrial Revolution than the exploitation resulting from employment. He examines the Report on the Poor Laws in 1834 and finds that in parish after parish there was very little employment for children. In contrast, Cruickshank (1981), Hammond and Hammond (1937), Nardinelli (1990), Redford (1926), Rule (1981), and Tuttle (1999) claim that a large number of children were employed in the textile factories. These two seemingly contradictory claims can be reconciled because the labor market for child labor was not a national market. Instead, child labor was a regional phenomenon where a high incidence of child labor existed in the manufacturing districts while a low incidence of children were employed in rural and farming districts.

Since the first reliable British Census that inquired about children’s work was in 1841, it is impossible to compare the number of children employed on the farms and in cottage industry with the number of children employed in the factories during the heart of the British industrial revolution. It is possible, however, to get a sense of how many children were employed by the industries considered the “leaders” of the Industrial Revolution – textiles and coal mining. Although there is still not a consensus on the degree to which industrial manufacturers depended on child labor, research by several economic historians have uncovered several facts.

Estimates of Child Labor in Textiles

Using data from an early British Parliamentary Report (1819[HL.24]CX), Freuenberger, Mather and Nardinelli concluded that “children formed a substantial part of the labor force” in the textile mills (1984, 1087). They calculated that while only 4.5% of the cotton workers were under 10, 54.5% were under the age of 19 – confirmation that the employment of children and youths was pervasive in cotton textile factories (1984, 1087). Tuttle’s research using a later British Parliamentary Report (1834(167)XIX) shows this trend continued. She calculated that children under 13 comprised roughly 10 to 20 % of the work forces in the cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills in 1833. The employment of youths between the age of 13 and 18 was higher than for younger children, comprising roughly 23 to 57% of the work forces in cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills. Cruickshank also confirms that the contribution of children to textile work forces was significant. She showed that the growth of the factory system meant that from one-sixth to one-fifth of the total work force in the textile towns in 1833 were children under 14. There were 4,000 children in the mills of Manchester; 1,600 in Stockport; 1,500 in Bolton and 1,300 in Hyde (1981, 51).

The employment of children in textile factories continued to be high until mid-nineteenth century. According to the British Census, in 1841 the three most common occupations of boys were Agricultural Labourer, Domestic Servant and Cotton Manufacture with 196,640; 90,464 and 44,833 boys under 20 employed, respectively. Similarly for girls the three most common occupations include Cotton Manufacture. In 1841, 346,079 girls were Domestic Servants; 62,131 were employed in Cotton Manufacture and 22,174 were Dress-makers. By 1851 the three most common occupations for boys under 15 were Agricultural Labourer (82,259), Messenger (43,922) and Cotton Manufacture (33,228) and for girls it was Domestic Servant (58,933), Cotton Manufacture (37,058) and Indoor Farm Servant (12,809) (1852-53[1691-I]LXXXVIII, pt.1). It is clear from these findings that children made up a large portion of the work force in textile mills during the nineteenth century. Using returns from the Factory Inspectors, S. J. Chapman’s (1904) calculations reveal that the percentage of child operatives under 13 had a downward trend for the first half of the century from 13.4% in 1835 to 4.7% in 1838 to 5.8% in 1847 and 4.6% by 1850 and then rose again to 6.5% in 1856, 8.8% in 1867, 10.4% in 1869 and 9.6% in 1870 (1904, 112).

Estimates of Child Labor in Mining

Children and youth also comprised a relatively large proportion of the work forces in coal and metal mines in Britain. In 1842, the proportion of the work forces that were children and youth in coal and metal mines ranged from 19 to 40%. A larger proportion of the work forces of coal mines used child labor underground while more children were found on the surface of metal mines “dressing the ores” (a process of separating the ore from the dirt and rock). By 1842 one-third of the underground work force of coal mines was under the age of 18 and one-fourth of the work force of metal mines were children and youth (1842[380]XV). In 1851 children and youth (under 20) comprised 30% of the total population of coal miners in Great Britain. After the Mining Act of 1842 was passed which prohibited girls and women from working in mines, fewer children worked in mines. The Reports on Sessions 1847-48 and 1849 Mining Districts I (1847-48[993]XXVI and 1849[1109]XXII) and The Reports on Sessions 1850 and 1857-58 Mining Districts II (1850[1248]XXIII and 1857-58[2424]XXXII) contain statements from mining commissioners that the number of young children employed underground had diminished.

In 1838, Jenkin (1927) estimates that roughly 5,000 children were employed in the metal mines of Cornwall and by 1842 the returns from The First Report show as many as 5,378 children and youth worked in the mines. In 1838 Lemon collected data from 124 tin, copper and lead mines in Cornwall and found that 85% employed children. In the 105 mines that employed child labor, children comprised from as little as 2% to as much as 50% of the work force with a mean of 20% (Lemon, 1838). According to Jenkin the employment of children in copper and tin mines in Cornwall began to decline by 1870 (1927, 309).

Explanations for Child Labor

The Supply of Child Labor

Given the role of child labor in the British Industrial Revolution, many economic historians have tried to explain why child labor became so prevalent. A competitive model of the labor market for children has been used to examine the factors that influenced the demand for children by employers and the supply of children from families. The majority of scholars argue that it was the plentiful supply of children that increased employment in industrial work places turning child labor into a social problem. The most common explanation for the increase in supply is poverty – the family sent their children to work because they desperately needed the income. Another common explanation is that work was a traditional and customary component of ordinary people’s lives. Parents had worked when they were young and required their children to do the same. The prevailing view of childhood for the working-class was that children were considered “little adults” and were expected to contribute to the family’s income or enterprise. Other less commonly argued sources of an increase in the supply of child labor were that parents either sent their children to work because they were greedy and wanted more income to spend on themselves or that children wanted out of the house because their parents were emotionally and physically abusive. Whatever the reason for the increase in supply, scholars agree that since mandatory schooling laws were not passed until 1876, even well-intentioned parents had few alternatives.

The Demand for Child Labor

Other compelling explanations argue that it was demand, not supply, that increased the use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. One explanation came from the industrialists and factory owners – children were a cheap source of labor that allowed them to stay competitive. Managers and overseers saw other advantages to hiring children and pointed out that children were ideal factory workers because they were obedient, submissive, likely to respond to punishment and unlikely to form unions. In addition, since the machines had reduced many procedures to simple one-step tasks, unskilled workers could replace skilled workers. Finally, a few scholars argue that the nimble fingers, small stature and suppleness of children were especially suited to the new machinery and work situations. They argue children had a comparative advantage with the machines that were small and built low to the ground as well as in the narrow underground tunnels of coal and metal mines. The Industrial Revolution, in this case, increased the demand for child labor by creating work situations where they could be very productive.

Influence of Child Labor Laws

Whether it was an increase in demand or an increase in supply, the argument that child labor laws were not considered much of a deterrent to employers or families is fairly convincing. Since fines were not large and enforcement was not strict, the implicit tax placed on the employer or family was quite low in comparison to the wages or profits the children generated [Nardinelli (1980)]. On the other hand, some scholars believe that the laws reduced the number of younger children working and reduced labor hours in general [Chapman (1904) and Plener (1873)].

Despite the laws there were still many children and youth employed in textiles and mining by mid-century. Booth calculated there were still 58,900 boys and 82,600 girls under 15 employed in textiles and dyeing in 1881. In mining the number did not show a steady decline during this period, but by 1881 there were 30,400 boys under 15 still employed and 500 girls under 15. See below.

Table 1: Child Employment, 1851-1881

Industry & Age Cohort 1851 1861 1871 1881
Mining
Males under 15
37,300 45,100 43,100 30,400
Females under 15 1,400 500 900 500
Males 15-20 50,100 65,300 74,900 87,300
Females over 15 5,400 4,900 5,300 5,700
Total under 15 as
% of work force
13% 12% 10% 6%
Textiles and Dyeing
Males under 15
93,800 80,700 78,500 58,900
Females under 15 147,700 115,700 119,800 82,600
Males 15-20 92,600 92,600 90,500 93,200
Females over 15 780,900 739,300 729,700 699,900
Total under 15 as
% of work force
15% 19% 14% 11%

Source: Booth (1886, 353-399).

Explanations for the Decline in Child Labor

There are many opinions regarding the reason(s) for the diminished role of child labor in these industries. Social historians believe it was the rise of the domestic ideology of the father as breadwinner and the mother as housewife, that was imbedded in the upper and middle classes and spread to the working-class. Economic historians argue it was the rise in the standard of living that accompanied the Industrial Revolution that allowed parents to keep their children home. Although mandatory schooling laws did not play a role because they were so late, other scholars argue that families started showing an interest in education and began sending their children to school voluntarily. Finally, others claim that it was the advances in technology and the new heavier and more complicated machinery, which required the strength of skilled adult males, that lead to the decline in child labor in Great Britain. Although child labor has become a fading memory for Britons, it still remains a social problem and political issue for developing countries today.

References

Alfred (Samuel Kydd). The History of the Factory Movement. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1857.

Booth, C. “On the Occupations of the People of the United Kingdom, 1801-81.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (J.S.S.) XLIX (1886): 314-436.

Chapman, S. J. The Lancashire Cotton Industry. Manchester: Manchester University Publications, 1904.

Clapham, Sir John. An Economic History of Modern Britain. Vol. I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.

Collier, Francis. The Family Economy of the Working Classes in the Cotton Industry, 1784-1833. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964.

Cruickshank, Marjorie. Children and Industry. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981.

Cunningham, Hugh. “The Employment and Unemployment of Children in England, c. 1680-1851.” Past and Present 126 (1990): 115-150.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Moscow. London: E. J. Hobsbaum, 1969[1926].

Freudenberger, Herman, Francis J. Mather, and Clark Nardinelli. “A New Look at the Early Factory Labour Force.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1085-90.

Hammond, J. L. and Barbara Hammond. The Town Labourer, 1760-1832. New York: A Doubleday Anchor Book, 1937.

House of Commons Papers (British Parliamentary Papers):
1833(450)XX Factories, employment of children. R. Com. 1st rep.
1833(519)XXI Factories, employment of children. R. Com. 2nd rep.
1834(44)XXVII Administration and Operation of Poor Laws, App. A, pt.1.
1834(44)XXXVI Administration and Operation of Poor Laws. App. B.2, pts. III,IV,V.
1834 (167)XX Factories, employment of children. Supplementary Report.
1842[380]XV Children’s employment (mines). R. Com. 1st rep.
1847-48[993]XXVI Mines and Collieries, Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1849[1109]XXII Mines and Collieries, Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1850[1248]XXIII Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1857-58[2424]XXXII Mines and Minerals. Commissioner’s rep.

House of Lords Papers:
1819(24)CX

Jenkin, A. K. Hamilton. The Cornish Miner: An Account of His Life Above and Underground From Early Times. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1927.

Kussmaul, Ann. A General View of the Rural Economy of England, 1538-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Lemon, Sir Charles. “The Statistics of the Copper Mines of Cornwall.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society I (1838): 65-84.

Marx. Karl. Capital. vol. I. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1909.

Nardinelli, Clark. Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Nardinelli, Clark. “Were Children Exploited During the Industrial Revolution?” Research in Economic History 2 (1988): 243-276.

Nardinelli, Clark. “Child Labor and the Factory Acts.” Journal of Economic History. 40, no. 4 (1980): 739-755.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1800. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1930.

Plener, Ernst Elder Von. English Factory Legislation. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873.

Redford, Arthur. Labour Migration in England, 1800-1850. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1926.

Rule, John. The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth Century English Industry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

Tilly, L. A. and Scott, J. W. Women, Work and Family. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978.

Tuttle, Carolyn. “A Revival of the Pessimist View: Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution.” Research in Economic History 18 (1998): 53-82.

Tuttle, Carolyn. Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution. Oxford: Westview Press, 1999.

Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures. London, 1835.

Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice. Problems of Modern Industry. London: Longmanns, Green, 1898.

Citation: Tuttle, Carolyn. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL
http://eh.net/encyclopedia/child-labor-during-the-british-industrial-revolution/

Economic Evolution and Revolution in Historical Time

Author(s):Rhode, Paul W.
Rosenbloom, Joshua L.
Weiman, David F.
Reviewer(s):Moehling, Carolyn M.

Published by EH.Net (January 2012)

Paul W. Rhode, Joshua L. Rosenbloom, and David F. Weiman, editors, Economic Evolution and Revolution in Historical Time. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. xx + 461 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-7185-6.

Carolyn M. Moehling, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.

A recent review in this series described festschrifts as ?an honored tradition? but ?also a somewhat antiquated and awkward form of scholarly communication.?? That awkwardness has been increasing in recent years.? More and more young scholars are being told that book chapters will receive little, if any, weight in tenure reviews, and many citation indices ? which are fast-becoming the ?summary statistics? of scholarly productivity ? ignore such contributions.? Given these trends, it is becoming more and more difficult to produce a collective volume that is relevant for current scholarship.? However, in the volume under review, Paul Rhode, Joshua Rosenbloom and David Weiman have proved that this can be done.? They do start with a tremendous advantage in that the scholar they honor, Gavin Wright, is one of the true greats in our profession.? Wright?s research is remarkable for both its scope and its diversity of method, and the editors have put together a volume that shares these qualities.? Several of the chapters are review essays which take a particular area of Wright?s research and place it in the context of the broader economic and historical literature.? These essays are more than just genuflections on the work of a beloved scholar and teacher; they discuss the challenges to Wright?s conclusions posed by other scholars and propose directions for future research.? Other chapters report the results of new or on-going research projects, many of which were inspired by Wright?s work.? For the most part, these essays make substantive and provocative contributions to the literature.? The editors achieve this feat by soliciting papers from well-established scholars who are no longer tormented by the ticking of the tenure clock.? The end result is a hefty volume of 17 chapters and over 400 pages.

Given space constraints, this review cannot adequately discuss the merits of each of the essays included in the volume.? The goal, instead, is to provide an overall sense of the volume by highlighting some of the more notable contributions.? Strong entries in the review essay category are the chapters by Karen Clay, Robert Fleck, and Joshua Rosenbloom and William Sundstrom.? Clay reviews Wright?s work on the role of natural resources on the development of the U.S. economy.? In a seminal paper published in the American Economic Review in 1990, Wright challenged conventional wisdom by claiming that the success of American manufacturing before 1940 was due to its intensive use of natural resources.? He went further to argue that this natural resource abundance was due less to the size of America’s geological endowment than to the ability to exploit that endowment.? Clay discusses the factors that led to this successful exploitation: federal and state geological surveys, the development of American mining and engineering colleges, and incentives for private agents to search for and extract natural resources.? Clay draws upon her own research with Wright on the Gold Rush to argue that these incentives existed even when the government could not effectively guarantee property rights.? Mining communities, building on cultural conceptions of fairness, created private-order institutions to secure such rights.? Clay then turns to the $64,000 question: why didn’t the U.S. suffer from the “resource curse?”? Clay believes that it was the strength of American political institutions and the high transportation costs of the period that made natural resources facilitate rather than hinder growth.? She then proposes a framework for future research to test this hypothesis.

Fleck situates Wright’s research on the New Deal and the transformation of the Southern economy in the broader political economy literature.? He provides a nice overview of the empirical studies of the politics of New Deal spending and re-interprets the findings to emphasize their more general implications for the interplay between policy and institutions.? Fleck goes on to connect this work to the very recent research on the role of institutions and economic development.? He focuses, in particular, on theoretical models of the extension of voting rights and how these models draw upon and complement Wright’s much earlier work on the South.

Rosenbloom and Sundstrom take on an even more ambitious agenda: using Wright’s concept of institutional regimes to provide a history of American labor markets from the colonial period to the present.? In this framework, political and economic institutions evolve to be complementary and mutually reinforcing, hence making them stable over long periods of time.? Only a shock or crisis precipitates change and then change can happen rapidly, as it did in Southern labor markets in response to the Civil War and then again in the mid-twentieth century.? The overarching theme of Rosenbloom and Sundstrom’s narrative is that changes in labor market outcomes cannot be interpreted simply in terms of shifts of supply and demand.? Instead, they must be examined in the context of the prevailing labor market institutions and how those institutions change and evolve over time.

Frank Levy and Peter Temin follow up on the theme of institutional regimes in their study of trends in income inequality in the second half of the twentieth century.? They argue that the declining position of the average worker reflects more than just the effects of globalization and skill-biased technological change.? They place the blame instead on the political and economic changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the erosion of organized labor’s bargaining power.? The institutional regime changed in a way that disadvantaged the average worker.

Leonard Carlson’s chapter also focuses on how outcomes are shaped by institutions.? Carlson contrasts the experiences of the aboriginal peoples of North America and Australia.? As he notes, there are many parallels in the settlement and development of these two areas.? Yet, they dealt very differently with their native populations.? In Australia, settlers developed a new legal concept, “terra nullius,” which asserted that the land belonged to no one prior to the arrival of the English in 1788.? In North America, native peoples were viewed as having “aboriginal rights” to the lands they occupied.? The result was that in North America, settlers had to negotiate land sales or treaties with natives in order to claim the land whereas in Australia, they did not.? Carlson presents a compelling case that the differences in these initial institutions can help to explain the very different experiences of these two native populations all the way up to the present.

Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode return to the question of the productivity of slave agriculture.? Building on their previously published work, they argue that the expansion of cotton production into the New South and the increased labor productivity in cotton that generated, relied heavily on the continuing biological innovations in cotton varieties.? A nice feature of this essay is that Olmstead and Rhode provide a re-evaluation of the economics of slavery literature based on their new findings.?

Richard Sutch contributes a provocative essay linking the minimum wage to increases in education.? He argues that the minimum wage binds in the youth labor market.? Decreasing labor market opportunities for young workers could create what Sutch calls an educational cascade whereby teenagers stay in school longer both because of peer effects and the declining opportunity of schooling.? Using data from the Current Population Surveys and the decennial censuses, Sutch shows that birth cohorts which were in high school during periods in which the minimum wage was being increased, have higher than expected average years of schooling.? He proposes, therefore, that raising the minimum wage may be a way to lower high school dropout rates.

Stacey Jones offers an intriguing alternative explanation for the dramatic changes in women’s occupational choices starting in the 1960s: the declining demand for teachers.? The demographic changes in the 1960s led to a drop in the number of school children at the same time that the number of college-educated women was growing by leaps and bounds.? Educated women needed to find occupations outside of teaching, and as more and more of them did, they changed societal expectations about what was appropriate work for women.? Jones’ argument nicely complements the many recent studies that examine the effects of contraceptive technology on women’s career and educational choices.

The remaining chapters are remarkable for the variety of scope, data, and method.? George Grantham explores the history of science in Europe between 1650 and 1850.? Warren Whatley and Rob Gillezeau develop a theoretical model to consider how the effective demand for slaves in the New World affected the development of African economies.? Ta-Chen Wang compares the textile industries in Boston and Philadelphia in the early 1800s to examine how differences in state banking systems affected industrial development.? Jeremy Atack, Michael Haines, and Robert Margo present preliminary results from their large-scale research project on the impact of railroads on economic development.? Scott Redenius and David Weiman seek to explain the seasonality in financial markets in the South after the Civil War and then to examine its impact on the National Banking System.? Susan Wolcott studies rural credit markets in colonial India.? Susan Carter links the rise of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Finally, this volume contains a bonus chapter.? Wright himself provides an essay reflecting on the tradition of economic history research at Stanford.? This essay provides a rare glimpse at how a scholar and teacher evaluates his own body of work and those of his students and colleagues.

Carolyn M. Moehling is an Associate Professor of Economics at Rutgers University.? She is the author of ?The Political Economy of Saving Mothers and Babies: The Politics of State Participation in the Sheppard-Towner Program? (with Melissa A. Thomasson), Journal of Economic History (forthcoming).

Copyright (c) 2012 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 (January 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Education and Human Resource Development
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Birth of Modern Europe: Culture and Economy, 1400-1800: Essays in Honor of Jan de Vries

Author(s):Cruz, Laura
Mokyr, Joel
Reviewer(s):Hohenberg, Paul M.

Published by EH.NET (December 2011)

Laura Cruz and Joel Mokyr, editors, The Birth of Modern Europe: Culture and Economy, 1400-1800: Essays in Honor of Jan de Vries. Leiden: Brill, 2010. xiv + 259 pp.. ?99/$141 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-18934-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul M. Hohenberg. Department of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (emeritus).

Festschrifts are an honored tradition, a celebration of the work and influence of a distinguished scholar usually respected as well as admired by many colleagues and former students.? They are also a somewhat antiquated and awkward form of scholarly communication, sometimes with what the French would call a ?bottom of the drawer? feeling.? Busy scholars eagerly agree to the idea of joining in such a project, but then have to face the deadline imposed by the editor(s).? So, contributions of varying quality and relevance to each other are frequent, perhaps typical.

These reflections occur to the reader of the present volume, in honor of Jan de Vries, perhaps the scholar who best embodies the hope that economic history can survive the divergent forces that have driven the constituent disciplines so far apart in recent decades.? If he has a rival in this effort, it is surely one of the editors, Joel Mokyr, who opens the volume with an engaging and glowing survey of de Vries? scholarship.? The other editor, Laura Cruz, follows with a summary chapter that works hard to tie the rest of the contributions to one another and to de Vries? themes.? As a relatively recent and theoretically ambitious work, The Industrious Revolution gets the most attention.

That is particularly true regarding the chapters by Anne McCants and Maxine Berg.? They detail the significance of two categories of manufactured consumer goods that gained wide acceptance in early modern Europe, at least in its progressive northwest: textiles and porcelain.? Drawing (again) on her unique trove of estate inventories — unique because they include decedents generally too poor for such a reckoning to be made — McCants shows that even modest households in Amsterdam possessed a wide variety of both domestically produced and imported fabrics.? Berg, on the other hand, is concerned with the production end in China, and its development for the European export trade.? The porcelain industry was concentrated in a single city, Jingdezhen, and its markets included Japan and the ?South Seas? as well as Europe.? While Berg has something to say about import substitution in Japan, which also became an exporter, she does not here deal with the diffusion of porcelain manufacture to Europe in the eighteenth century.

Two other contributions tackle the relevance of the Industrious Revolution model, but deal mostly with the nineteenth century, thus with a time when the Industrial Revolution was (also?) in progress.? George Grantham and Franque Grimard consider France in mid-nineteenth century, using a census that has been unjustly discounted (in their view) despite the fact that it appears to mesh well with the almost simultaneous agricultural census of 1852 (though not with later population censuses).? The 1851 census went to great lengths to determine occupations for dependents, notably wives of working men, and so promises to be useful in testing the de Vries model, which purports to show greater labor force participation by women induced by the heightened availability of consumer goods in the market.? As is so often the case with French data, clear conclusions are difficult to draw.? In the rural communes investigated, a substantial proportion of women were counted as working, often in the family farm or other enterprise, but that participation seems more a result of need than of opportunity.? On the other hand, this is a relatively late period, notably for rural proto-industrial production which was already declining in many areas in the face of factory competition.

The American case that Gavin Wright examines is also complicated, though for different reasons.? The dominant driving force in eliciting labor input (hours and effort) was apparently the drive to own land and be independent rather than the lure of new consumer goods.? Thus, American workers worked very hard and long for good wages, but operated in a culture of great mobility, geographical as well as job-switching.? Moreover, the place of women in the labor force was also distinctive, in the sense that American (married) women went from producing goods for the household to consumer-household homemaking without very much participation in the market either in a putting-out system or outside the home.? Wright also brings into the story that hardy perennial of discussion, the bias in American technological change and choices, first examined by H. J. Habakkuk over half a century ago.? It is fair to say that the discussion here, informed as it is, will not qualify as definitive in either sense identified by Mokyr (p. 1) as the first or the last word on its subject.

I will pass more quickly over the remaining contributions.? Wim Klooster looks at the role of English tobacco processors and clay pipe makers in the Netherlands, noting that, contrary to what one might think, Dutch ships often brought New World tobacco to Rotterdam for English nationals to process, though the natural order eventually reasserted itself.? Maarten Prak follows the rise and fall of the architect in Holland, tracing out an accelerator model in which public buildings (and great residences) served to employ architects rather than mere builders, but could not sustain the profession after the Golden Age once the stock was fully built.?? Peter Temin and Hans-Joachim Voth trace the fortunes of Hoare?s Bank, as long lived as the Bank of England, and attribute its longevity to financial conservatism and demographic prudence, in this case enough heirs to avoid losing control.? Laura Cruz looks at networks of booksellers in the Seven United Provinces and slightly beyond, recalling Jan de Vries? work on early modern European urbanization.? She notes that Amsterdam figures prominently in these networks, but as one node among several rather than as the highest-order central place for a hierarchical set of connections.? Finally, Drew Keeling adds to his studies of repeat migration westward across the North Atlantic in the late nineteenth century.? He finds it more prevalent than many have thought, which leads to the question of how often an individual may repeat a migration before it becomes merely travel.

In summary then, these are worthy pieces in a worthy cause.? However, unless one?s library can be induced to stock the book, not many scholars are likely to read them, since they cover quite a range of subjects and the book, though slim, costs about $140.

Paul Hohenberg was professor of economics at RPI.? He co-authored The Making of Urban Europe, 1000-1994 (Harvard, 1995) with Lynn Hollen Lees.

Copyright (c) 2011 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 (December 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Household, Family and Consumer History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Europe
North America
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

Author(s):Appleby, Joyce
Reviewer(s):Hohenberg, Paul M.

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Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism.? New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. xii + 494 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-393-06894-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul M. Hohenberg, Department of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Someone who sets out to write a book on a very large subject, in the present case the economic development of the West and the world since 1600 or so, faces daunting challenges.? Without a predetermined point of view to serve as a selection device, superficiality is unavoidable.? Yet trying to force the cussed diversity of the past into too rigid a format almost guarantees a strained and unbalanced narrative.

Joyce Appleby?s project must surmount additional hurdles.? She is a distinguished historian and a fine writer, but much of the subject she has undertaken here lies outside her previous areas of scholarship.? Moreover, compared to most treatments of the same theme by economic historians, she feels the need to expand in several directions.? To begin with, she rightly extends the treatment to cover much of the world in order to keep up with the expansion of Western action and influence, and the spread of modern economic growth.? Much attention throughout focuses on the impact of Western development on those, within the Atlantic realm and beyond it, who paid much of the price — from slaves, women, factory workers, and people displaced by economic change, to whole populations and cultures shoved aside or buried under by the ?relentless revolution.??? Conceptually too, the view is broader than is typical, since Appleby insists on the cultural determinants of economic change.? Finally, she boldly raises the banner of Capitalism, notwithstanding that many economic historians have found the term slippery and troublesome to use as a central theme.? ?Nailing Jell-o to a wall? comes to mind.? Is the essence of capitalism free markets; secure property rights; individual enterprise; innovation; capital accumulation; commodifying labor; openness to change; exchange value as the sole measure of worth?? Of course, one could go on.

Given all this, one must grant that the book is something of a tour de force.? The author?s prodigious labors and skill in reading and writing make it more readable and rich in detail than one would expect from a work of such scope and of reasonable length.? Nonetheless, I confess that I found myself reminded, perhaps unfairly, of what Samuel Johnson said of dancing dogs and lady preachers, namely that even if it is not done well one is surprised to find it done at all. In this case, it is done quite well.? Why, then, is my gut reaction not more positive?

Politics and technology fill many pages, yet Appleby insists that capitalism is above all a matter of culture.? (I might almost say ?mentalit?? although the Annales school remains outside the author?s ken.) For this reason, she chooses Max Weber over both Adam Smith and Karl Marx as the prophet of Capitalism.? She situates the decisive mental turn that produced capitalism in the political upheavals that swept England between 1640 and the Glorious Revolution.? Having previously written on English economic thought in this period, she argues that England emerged from the time of troubles with at least some share of power in the hands of people who viewed economic activity as legitimate and not as demeaning or morally suspect.? Furthermore, economic calculation and forward-thinking action had become relatively pervasive on the part of producers and even of consumers.? Institutions favorable to economic development grew out of the changed attitudes, while progress in agriculture and the expansion of commerce played important supporting roles as necessary conditions for sustained expansion.

With the industrial revolution underway, the new spirit of inquiry having hatched scientific discoveries as well as the familiar ?wave of gadgets,? the rest was a matter of diffusion and imitation and of leapfrogging in later waves of technological change.? Most attention in the next phase centers on the U.S. and secondarily on Germany.? In the later nineteenth century, the subject of imperialism gets a good airing.? As with slave-worked plantation agriculture earlier, Appleby tries hard to bring the Western land grab in Africa and elsewhere under the umbrella of capitalism, but to this reader less than convincingly.? In fact, nineteenth century imperialism, like the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, owes more to militant nationalism, in my view, than to capitalism.? The chapter title, ?rulers as capitalists,? is clever but does not add greatly to the force of the argument.? This is not to deny that the colonial powers strove to turn a profit from their ventures, but that falls short of making profit the dominant motive for the last great expansion overseas.

Appleby manages to devote fully a hundred pages to the period since the end of fast postwar growth, say from 1973 on.? All the expected bases are touched, from the emerging economies of Asia to the explosion in information technology and the recent (current?) financial crisis.? While many crisp set pieces here (as elsewhere) enliven the account, Appleby has little new to add, and I would have wished that the space had been devoted to more detailed and nuanced treatment of the earlier material, some of which flew by like the near landscape from a high-speed European train.? A botched reference to J. de Vries? industrious revolution, a single dismissive reference to D. Landes and none to F. Braudel, and almost nothing on pre-factory industry seems to me to leave out too much.?? There is also, in my view, too great an emphasis on nation states as units of analysis, and too little on the role of cities and regions.

Perhaps I am underestimating the appeal this book might have for, say, a history undergraduate or a general reader looking for a survey and preferring a literate narrative to an account filled with tables and graphs (there are none).? But for the economic historian, despite pithy accounts of particular episodes, the stress on the overly familiar and the inability to engage closely with the hard questions causes the book to fall a bit short.?

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Paul Hohenberg, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is past president of the Economic History Association.? The book he co-wrote with Lynn Hollen Lees, The Making of Urban Europe, 1000-1994 (Harvard University Press, 1995), recently appeared in a Chinese edition.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII