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A Land of Milk and Butter: How Elites Created the Modern Danish Dairy Industry

Author(s):Lampe, Markus
Sharp, Paul
Reviewer(s):Webster, Anthony

Published by EH.Net (May 2020)

Markus Lampe and Paul Sharp, A Land of Milk and Butter: How Elites Created the Modern Danish Dairy Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. x + 273 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-54950-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anthony Webster, Department of Humanities, Northumbria University.


This collaboratively authored work by Markus Lampe (Vienna University of Economics and Business) and Paul Sharp (University of Southern Denmark) builds upon an impressive body of work already undertaken by the authors on the role of dairying in the modern economic history of Denmark. The volume offers a comprehensive review of Denmark’s rise as an agricultural economy from the eighteenth century, stressing that the country’s success — especially as a dairy producer — was not the product of the “co-operative revolution” of the late nineteenth century, but rather of a long and gradual process in which the country’s landed, intellectual and political elites implemented land reforms, new technologies, educational and trading policies, which enabled Denmark to emerge as a major exporter of butter after 1850. They show that the nature of land reform enabled the emergence of a “middle ranking” class of farmers, who were able to gradually absorb and implement innovations first pioneered by wealthy estate owners, and eventually turn them spectacularly to their own advantage, in part through their adoption of the co-operative model. The result was a unique story of national economic development in which agriculture was not merely a “launch pad” for industry development, which would soon outstrip it in terms of resources, employment, political importance and contribution to GDP, but rather a continuously major contributor in its own right. What resulted was a quite uniquely balanced model of economic development based on agriculture as well as modern industrial growth. Of central importance to their argument is the importance of both technological development (such as the separator of the late 1870s) and a vibrant press and educational system, which facilitated the “top down” dissemination of the latest ideas. They argue that the success of co-operative farming owed more to these technological breakthroughs than any inherent superiority of the co-operative institutional model, and they see co-operation as the product of long-term agricultural growth and success, rather than its cause. In fact, they do tend to the view that co-operatives may have been an irrelevance to the success story — that the success of Danish agricultural development would have been achieved regardless of the co-operative movement in the dairy industry.

A great strength of the book is its intense and thorough use of econometric analysis, which, combined with exhaustive scrutiny of primary sources from individual estates and the agricultural press, offers what is undoubtedly a convincing emphasis on the vital importance of pre-1850 developments in the long-term development of the Danish economy. The argument that Denmark underwent a quite exceptional process of balanced economic development is also very persuasive, as is the conclusion that this pattern would be hard if not impossible to replicate elsewhere, given the unique conditions which prevailed in Denmark.

The book is less sure footed in its analysis of the significance of the co-operative movement. The argument that without the preceding “top-down” development of agriculture, the social, knowledge and technological basis for co-operative development would not have existed is undoubtedly true. But this is hardly an original point. Few modern historians of co-operatives would claim that these organizations emerge from a historical vacuum; they are always conditioned by the history and context in which they emerge — this is why no two nations display the same configuration of co-operative development. Moreover, the stress on econometric analysis, generally such a strength in this book, becomes a weakness in assessing the significance of Danish co-operative development. For as every co-operative historian knows, co-operatives are as much about developing new social and political cultures, which stress sharing and greater social solidarity, as they are about generating wealth, crucial though that may be. Peter Gurney’s ground-breaking work on the development of culture, social relations, and politics in the British consumer co-operative movement between 1870 and 1930 reveals much about how the movement shaped social behavior and political attitudes, irrespective of business developments. Such an analysis is absent here, which though not a weakness, becomes so when the authors try to draw conclusions about the significance of Danish co-operation based purely on economic performance. Even in terms of the latter, more consideration is needed of the extent to which the co-operative model in agriculture facilitated the co-operative members securing a greater share of the wealth generated by the industry. Similarly, the tendency to dismiss Irish agricultural co-operatives as something of a failure overlooks recent work by historians such as Patrick Doyle, which stresses the role of co-operatives in shaping a new sense of Irish national identity. Again, this begs the question of how Danish co-operatives perhaps contributed to modern Danish attributes of social solidarity. There is also limited awareness of Danish co-operative commercial relations with overseas co-operative movements. The considerable importance from the 1880s of trade with the Co-operative Wholesale Societies of England and Scotland is one such notable omission, especially in the chapter on trade with the UK.

That said this is an excellent contribution to the literatures on Denmark and economic development. It is thoroughly researched, professionally written and clear in its contribution to knowledge. While some of its conclusions on the significance of the Danish co-operative creameries are arguably evidence of over-reach, and the limitations of a heavy stress on econometric analysis, this is nevertheless a very important book which will undoubtedly inform future research on economic development, Danish history and the unique co-operative movement in that country.


Anthony Webster is the co-author (with John Wilson and Rachael Vorberg-Rugh) of Building Co-operation: A Business History of the Co-operative Group, 1863 to 2013 (Oxford University Press October 2013) and author of Co-operation and Globalisation: The British Co-operative Wholesales, the Co-operative Group and the World since 1863 (Routledge, 2019).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

An Economic History of Denmark

Ingrid Henriksen, University of Copenhagen

Denmark is located in Northern Europe between the North Sea and the Baltic. Today Denmark consists of the Jutland Peninsula bordering Germany and the Danish Isles and covers 43,069 square kilometers (16,629 square miles). 1 The present nation is the result of several cessions of territory throughout history. The last of the former Danish territories in southern Sweden were lost to Sweden in 1658, following one of the numerous wars between the two nations, which especially marred the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Following defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was separated from Denmark in 1814. After the last major war, the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Danish territory was further reduced by a third when Schleswig and Holstein were ceded to Germany. After a regional referendum in 1920 only North-Schleswig returned to Denmark. Finally, Iceland, withdrew from the union with Denmark in 1944. The following will deal with the geographical unit of today’s Denmark.

Prerequisites of Growth

Throughout history a number of advantageous factors have shaped the Danish economy. From this perspective it may not be surprising to find today’s Denmark among the richest societies in the world. According to the OECD, it ranked seventh in 2004, with income of $29.231 per capita (PPP). Although we can identify a number of turning points and breaks, for the time period over which we have quantitative evidence this long-run position has changed little. Thus Maddison (2001) in his estimate of GDP per capita around 1600 places Denmark as number six. One interpretation could be that favorable circumstances, rather than ingenious institutions or policies, have determined Danish economic development. Nevertheless, this article also deals with time periods in which the Danish economy was either diverging from or converging towards the leading economies.

Table 1:
Average Annual GDP Growth (at factor costs)
Total Per capita
1870-1880 1.9% 0.9%
1880-1890 2.5% 1.5%
1890-1900 2.9% 1.8%
1900-1913 3.2% 2.0%
1913-1929 3.0% 1.6%
1929-1938 2.2% 1.4%
1938-1950 2.4% 1.4%
1950-1960 3.4% 2.6%
1960-1973 4.6% 3.8%
1973-1982 1.5% 1.3%
1982-1993 1.6% 1.5%
1993-2004 2.2% 2.0%

Sources: Johansen (1985) and Statistics Denmark ‘Statistikbanken’ online.

Denmark’s geographical location in close proximity of the most dynamic nations of sixteenth-century Europe, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, no doubt exerted a positive influence on the Danish economy and Danish institutions. The North German area influenced Denmark both through long-term economic links and through the Lutheran Protestant Reformation which the Danes embraced in 1536.

The Danish economy traditionally specialized in agriculture like most other small and medium-sized European countries. It is, however, rather unique to find a rich European country in the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century which retained such a strong agrarian bias. Only in the late 1950s did the workforce of manufacturing industry overtake that of agriculture. Thus an economic history of Denmark must take its point of departure in agricultural development for quite a long stretch of time.

Looking at resource endowments, Denmark enjoyed a relatively high agricultural land-to-labor ratio compared to other European countries, with the exception of the UK. This was significant for several reasons since it, in this case, was accompanied by a comparatively wealthy peasantry.

Denmark had no mineral resources to speak of until the exploitation of oil and gas in the North Sea began in 1972 and 1984, respectively. From 1991 on Denmark has been a net exporter of energy although on a very modest scale compared to neighboring Norway and Britain. The small deposits are currently projected to be depleted by the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Figure 1. Percent of GDP in selected=

Source: Johansen (1985) and Statistics Denmark ’Nationalregnskaber’

Good logistic can be regarded as a resource in pre-industrial economies. The Danish coast line of 7,314 km and the fact that no point is more than 50 km from the sea were advantages in an age in which transport by sea was more economical than land transport.

Decline and Transformation, 1500-1750

The year of the Lutheran Reformation (1536) conventionally marks the end of the Middle Ages in Danish historiography. Only around 1500 did population growth begin to pick up after the devastating effect of the Black Death. Growth thereafter was modest and at times probably stagnant with large fluctuations in mortality following major wars, particularly during the seventeenth century, and years of bad harvests. About 80-85 percent of the population lived from subsistence agriculture in small rural communities and this did not change. Exports are estimated to have been about 5 percent of GDP between 1550 and 1650. The main export products were oxen and grain. The period after 1650 was characterized by a long lasting slump with a marked decline in exports to the neighboring countries, the Netherlands in particular.

The institutional development after the Black Death showed a return to more archaic forms. Unlike other parts of northwestern Europe, the peasantry on the Danish Isles afterwards became a victim of a process of re-feudalization during the last decades of the fifteenth century. A likely explanation is the low population density that encouraged large landowners to hold on to their labor by all means. Freehold tenure among peasants effectively disappeared during the seventeenth century. Institutions like bonded labor that forced peasants to stay on the estate where they were born, and labor services on the demesne as part of the land rent bring to mind similar arrangements in Europe east of the Elbe River. One exception to the East European model was crucial, however. The demesne land, that is the land worked directly under the estate, never made up more than nine percent of total land by the mid eighteenth century. Although some estate owners saw an interest in encroaching on peasant land, the state protected the latter as production units and, more importantly, as a tax base. Bonded labor was codified in the all-encompassing Danish Law of Christian V in 1683. It was further intensified by being extended, though under another label, to all Denmark during 1733-88, as a means for the state to tide the large landlords over an agrarian crisis. One explanation for the long life of such an authoritarian institution could be that the tenants were relatively well off, with 25-50 acres of land on average. Another reason could be that reality differed from the formal rigor of the institutions.

Following the Protestant Reformation in 1536, the Crown took over all church land, thereby making it the owner of 50 percent of all land. The costs of warfare during most of the sixteenth century could still be covered by the revenue of these substantial possessions. Around 1600 the income from taxation and customs, mostly Sound Toll collected from ships that passed the narrow strait between Denmark and today’s Sweden, on the one hand and Crown land revenues on the other were equally large. About 50 years later, after a major fiscal crisis had led to the sale of about half of all Crown lands, the revenue from royal demesnes declined relatively to about one third, and after 1660 the full transition from domain state to tax state was completed.

The bulk of the former Crown land had been sold to nobles and a few common owners of estates. Consequently, although the Danish constitution of 1665 was the most stringent version of absolutism found anywhere in Europe at the time, the Crown depended heavily on estate owners to perform a number of important local tasks. Thus, conscription of troops for warfare, collection of land taxes and maintenance of law and order enhanced the landlords’ power over their tenants.

Reform and International Market Integration, 1750-1870

The driving force of Danish economic growth, which took off during the late eighteenth century was population growth at home and abroad – which triggered technological and institutional innovation. Whereas the Danish population during the previous hundred years grew by about 0.4 percent per annum, growth climbed to about 0.6 percent, accelerating after 1775 and especially from the second decade of the nineteenth century (Johansen 2002). Like elsewhere in Northern Europe, accelerating growth can be ascribed to a decline in mortality, mainly child mortality. Probably this development was initiated by fewer spells of epidemic diseases due to fewer wars and to greater inherited immunity against contagious diseases. Vaccination against smallpox and formal education of midwives from the early nineteenth century might have played a role (Banggård 2004). Land reforms that entailed some scattering of the farm population may also have had a positive influence. Prices rose from the late eighteenth century in response to the increase in populations in Northern Europe, but also following a number of international conflicts. This again caused a boom in Danish transit shipping and in grain exports.

Population growth rendered the old institutional set up obsolete. Landlords no longer needed to bind labor to their estate, as a new class of landless laborers or cottagers with little land emerged. The work of these day-laborers was to replace the labor services of tenant farmers on the demesnes. The old system of labor services obviously presented an incentive problem all the more since it was often carried by the live-in servants of the tenant farmers. Thus, the labor days on the demesnes represented a loss to both landlords and tenants (Henriksen 2003). Part of the land rent was originally paid in grain. Some of it had been converted to money which meant that real rents declined during the inflation. The solution to these problems was massive land sales both from the remaining crown lands and from private landlords to their tenants. As a result two-thirds of all Danish farmers became owner-occupiers compared to only ten percent in the mid-eighteenth century. This development was halted during the next two and a half decades but resumed as the business cycle picked up during the 1840s and 1850s. It was to become of vital importance to the modernization of Danish agriculture towards the end of the nineteenth century that 75 percent of all agricultural land was farmed by owners of middle-sized farms of about 50 acres. Population growth may also have put a pressure on common lands in the villages. At any rate enclosure begun in the 1760s, accelerated in the 1790s supported by legislation and was almost complete in the third decade of the nineteenth century.

The initiative for the sweeping land reforms from the 1780s is thought to have come from below – that is from the landlords and in some instances also from the peasantry. The absolute monarch and his counselors were, however, strongly supportive of these measures. The desire for peasant land as a tax base weighed heavily and the reforms were believed to enhance the efficiency of peasant farming. Besides, the central government was by now more powerful than in the preceding centuries and less dependent on landlords for local administrative tasks.

Production per capita rose modestly before the 1830s and more pronouncedly thereafter when a better allocation of labor and land followed the reforms and when some new crops like clover and potatoes were introduced at a larger scale. Most importantly, the Danes no longer lived at the margin of hunger. No longer do we find a correlation between demographic variables, deaths and births, and bad harvest years (Johansen 2002).

A liberalization of import tariffs in 1797 marked the end of a short spell of late mercantilism. Further liberalizations during the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century established the Danish liberal tradition in international trade that was only to be broken by the protectionism of the 1930s.

Following the loss of the secured Norwegian market for grain in 1814, Danish exports began to target the British market. The great rush forward came as the British Corn Law was repealed in 1846. The export share of the production value in agriculture rose from roughly 10 to around 30 percent between 1800 and 1870.

In 1849 absolute monarchy was peacefully replaced by a free constitution. The long-term benefits of fundamental principles such as the inviolability of private property rights, the freedom of contracting and the freedom of association were probably essential to future growth though hard to quantify.

Modernization and Convergence, 1870-1914

During this period Danish economic growth outperformed that of most other European countries. A convergence in real wages towards the richest countries, Britain and the U.S., as shown by O’Rourke and Williamsson (1999), can only in part be explained by open economy forces. Denmark became a net importer of foreign capital from the 1890s and foreign debt was well above 40 percent of GDP on the eve of WWI. Overseas emigration reduced the potential workforce but as mortality declined population growth stayed around one percent per annum. The increase in foreign trade was substantial, as in many other economies during the heyday of the gold standard. Thus the export share of Danish agriculture surged to a 60 percent.

The background for the latter development has featured prominently in many international comparative analyses. Part of the explanation for the success, as in other Protestant parts of Northern Europe, was a high rate of literacy that allowed a fast spread of new ideas and new technology.

The driving force of growth was that of a small open economy, which responded effectively to a change in international product prices, in this instance caused by the invasion of cheap grain to Western Europe from North America and Eastern Europe. Like Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, Denmark did not impose a tariff on grain, in spite of the strong agrarian dominance in society and politics.

Proposals to impose tariffs on grain, and later on cattle and butter, were turned down by Danish farmers. The majority seems to have realized the advantages accruing from the free imports of cheap animal feed during the ongoing process of transition from vegetable to animal production, at a time when the prices of animal products did not decline as much as grain prices. The dominant middle-sized farm was inefficient for wheat but had its comparative advantage in intensive animal farming with the given technology. O’Rourke (1997) found that the grain invasion only lowered Danish rents by 4-5 percent, while real wages rose (according to expectation) but more than in any other agrarian economy and more than in industrialized Britain.

The move from grain exports to exports of animal products, mainly butter and bacon, was to a great extent facilitated by the spread of agricultural cooperatives. This organization allowed the middle-sized and small farms that dominated Danish agriculture to benefit from the economy of scale in processing and marketing. The newly invented steam-driven continuous cream separator skimmed more cream from a kilo of milk than conventional methods and had the further advantage of allowing transported milk brought together from a number of suppliers to be skimmed. From the 1880s the majority of these creameries in Denmark were established as cooperatives and about 20 years later, in 1903, the owners of 81 percent of all milk cows supplied to a cooperative (Henriksen 1999). The Danish dairy industry captured over a third of the rapidly expanding British butter-import market, establishing a reputation for consistent quality that was reflected in high prices. Furthermore, the cooperatives played an active role in persuading the dairy farmers to expand production from summer to year-round dairying. The costs of intensive feeding during the wintertime were more than made up for by a winter price premium (Henriksen and O’Rourke 2005). Year-round dairying resulted in a higher rate of utilization of agrarian capital – that is of farm animals and of the modern cooperative creameries. Not least did this intensive production mean a higher utilization of hitherto underemployed labor. From the late 1890’s, in particular, labor productivity in agriculture rose at an unanticipated speed at par with productivity increase in the urban trades.

Industrialization in Denmark took its modest beginning in the 1870s with a temporary acceleration in the late 1890s. It may be a prime example of an industrialization process governed by domestic demand for industrial goods. Industry’s export never exceeded 10 percent of value added before 1914, compared to agriculture’s export share of 60 percent. The export drive of agriculture towards the end of the nineteenth century was a major force in developing other sectors of the economy not least transport, trade and finance.

Weathering War and Depression, 1914-1950

Denmark, as a neutral nation, escaped the devastating effects of World War I and was even allowed to carry on exports to both sides in the conflict. The ensuing trade surplus resulted in a trebling of the money supply. As the monetary authorities failed to contain the inflationary effects of this development, the value of the Danish currency slumped to about 60 percent of its pre-war value in 1920. The effects of monetary policy failure were aggravated by a decision to return to the gold standard at the 1913 level. When monetary policy was finally tightened in 1924, it resulted in fierce speculation in an appreciation of the Krone. During 1925-26 the currency returned quickly to its pre-war parity. As this was not counterbalanced by an equal decline in prices, the result was a sharp real appreciation and a subsequent deterioration in Denmark’s competitive position (Klovland 1997).

Figure 2. Indices of the Krone Real Exchange Rate and Terms Of Trade (1980=100; Real rates based on Wholesale Price Index

Source: Abildgren (2005)

Note: Trade with Germany is included in the calculation of the real effective exchange rate for the whole period, including 1921-23.

When, in September 1931, Britain decided to leave the gold standard again, Denmark, together with Sweden and Norway, followed only a week later. This move was beneficial as the large real depreciation lead to a long-lasting improvement in Denmark’s competitiveness in the 1930s. It was, no doubt, the single most important policy decision during the depression years. Keynesian demand management, even if it had been fully understood, was barred by a small public sector, only about 13 percent of GDP. As it was, fiscal orthodoxy ruled and policy was slightly procyclical as taxes were raised to cover the deficit created by crisis and unemployment (Topp 1995).

Structural development during the 1920s, surprisingly for a rich nation at this stage, was in favor of agriculture. The total labor force in Danish agriculture grew by 5 percent from 1920 to 1930. The number of employees in agriculture was stagnating whereas the number of self-employed farmers increased by a larger number. The development in relative incomes cannot account for this trend but part of the explanation must be found in a flawed Danish land policy, which actively supported a further parceling out of land into small holdings and restricted the consolidation into larger more viable farms. It took until the early 1960s before this policy began to be unwound.

When the world depression hit Denmark with a minor time lag, agriculture still employed one-third of the total workforce while its contribution to total GDP was a bit less than one-fifth. Perhaps more importantly, agricultural goods still made up 80 percent of total exports.

Denmark’s terms of trade, as a consequence, declined by 24 percent from 1930 to 1932. In 1933 and 1934 bilateral trade agreements were forced upon Denmark by Britain and Germany. In 1932 Denmark had adopted exchange control, a harsh measure even for its time, to stem the net flow of foreign exchange out of the country. By rationing imports exchange control also offered some protection of domestic industry. At the end of the decade manufacture’s GDP had surpassed that of agriculture. In spite of the protectionist policy, unemployment soared to 13-15 percent of the workforce.

The policy mistakes during World War I and its immediate aftermath served as a lesson for policymakers during World War II. The German occupation force (April 9, 1940 until May 5, 1945) drew the funds for its sustenance and for exports to Germany on the Danish central bank whereby the money supply more than doubled. In response the Danish authorities in 1943 launched a policy of absorbing money through open market operations and, for the first time in history, through a surplus on the state budget.

Economic reconstruction after World War II was swift, as again Denmark had been spared the worst consequences of a major war. In 1946 GDP recovered its highest pre-war level. In spite of this, Denmark received relatively generous support through the Marshall Plan of 1948-52, when measured in dollars per capita.

From Riches to Crisis, 1950-1973: Liberalizations and International Integration Once Again

The growth performance during 1950-1957 was markedly lower than the Western European average. The main reason was the high share of agricultural goods in Danish exports, 63 percent in 1950. International trade in agricultural products to a large extent remained regulated. Large deteriorations in the terms of trade caused by the British devaluation 1949, when Denmark followed suit, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and the Suez-crisis of 1956 made matters worse. The ensuing deficits on the balance of payment led the government to contractionary policy measures which restrained growth.

The liberalization of the flow of goods and capital in Western Europe within the framework of the OEEC (the Organization for European Economic Cooperation) during the 1950s probably dealt a blow to some of the Danish manufacturing firms, especially in the textile industry, that had been sheltered through exchange control and wartime. Nevertheless, the export share of industrial production doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent before 1957, at the same time as employment in industry surpassed agricultural employment.

On the question of European economic integration Denmark linked up with its largest trading partner, Britain. After the establishment of the European Common Market in 1958 and when the attempts to create a large European free trade area failed, Denmark entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) created under British leadership in 1960. When Britain was finally able to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, Denmark followed, after a referendum on the issue. Long before admission to the EEC, the advantages to Danish agriculture from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had been emphasized. The higher prices within the EEC were capitalized into higher land prices at the same time that investments were increased based on the expected gains from membership. As a result the most indebted farmers who had borrowed at fixed interests rates were hit hard by two developments from the early 1980s. The EEC started to reduce the producers’ benefits of the CAP because of overproduction and, after 1982, the Danish economy adjusted to a lower level of inflation, and therefore, nominal interest rates. According to Andersen (2001) Danish farmers were left with the highest interest burden of all European Union (EU) farmers in the 1990’s.

Denmark’s relations with the EU, while enthusiastic at the beginning, have since been characterized by a certain amount of reserve. A national referendum in 1992 turned down the treaty on the European Union, the Maastricht Treaty. The Danes, then, opted out of four areas, common citizenship, a common currency, common foreign and defense politics and a common policy on police and legal matters. Once more, in 2000, adoption of the common currency, the Euro, was turned down by the Danish electorate. In the debate leading up to the referendum the possible economic advantages of the Euro in the form of lower transaction costs were considered to be modest, compared to the existent regime of fixed exchange rates vis-à-vis the Euro. All the major political parties, nevertheless, are pro-European, with only the extreme Right and the extreme Left being against. It seems that there is a discrepancy between the general public and the politicians on this particular issue.

As far as domestic economic policy is concerned, the heritage from the 1940s was a new commitment to high employment modified by a balance of payment constraint. The Danish policy differed from that of some other parts of Europe in that the remains of the planned economy from the war and reconstruction period in the form of rationing and price control were dismantled around 1950 and that no nationalizations took place.

Instead of direct regulation, economic policy relied on demand management with fiscal policy as its main instrument. Monetary policy remained a bone of contention between politicians and economists. Coordination of policies was the buzzword but within that framework monetary policy was allotted a passive role. The major political parties for a long time were wary of letting the market rate of interest clear the loan market. Instead, some quantitative measures were carried out with the purpose of dampening the demand for loans.

From Agricultural Society to Service Society: The Growth of the Welfare State

Structural problems in foreign trade extended into the high growth period of 1958-73, as Danish agricultural exports were met with constraints both from the then EEC-member countries and most EFTA countries, as well. During the same decade, the 1960s, as the importance of agriculture was declining the share of employment in the public sector grew rapidly until 1983. Building and construction also took a growing share of the workforce until 1970. These developments left manufacturing industry with a secondary position. Consequently, as pointed out by Pedersen (1995) the sheltered sectors in the economy crowded out the sectors that were exposed to international competition, that is mostly industry and agriculture, by putting a pressure on labor and other costs during the years of strong expansion.

Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the Danish economy during the Golden Age was the steep increase in welfare-related costs from the mid 1960s and not least the corresponding increases in the number of public employees. Although the seeds of the modern Scandinavian welfare state were sown at a much earlier date, the 1960s was the time when public expenditure as a share of GDP exceeded that of most other countries.

As in other modern welfare states, important elements in the growth of the public sector during the 1960s were the expansion in public health care and education, both free for all citizens. The background for much of the increase in the number of public employees from the late 1960s was the rise in labor participation by married women from the late 1960s until about 1990, partly at least as a consequence. In response, the public day care facilities for young children and old people were expanded. Whereas in 1965 7 percent of 0-6 year olds were in a day nursery or kindergarten, this share rose to 77 per cent in 2000. This again spawned more employment opportunities for women in the public sector. Today the labor participation for women, around 75 percent of 16-66 year olds, is among the highest in the world.

Originally social welfare programs targeted low income earners who were encouraged to take out insurance against sickness (1892), unemployment (1907) and disability (1922). The public subsidized these schemes and initiated a program for the poor among old people (1891). The high unemployment period in the 1930s inspired some temporary relief and some administrative reform, but little fundamental change.

Welfare policy in the first four decades following World War II is commonly believed to have been strongly influenced by the Social Democrat party which held around 30 percent of the votes in general elections and was the party in power for long periods of time. One of the distinctive features of the Danish welfare state has been its focus on the needs of the individual person rather than on the family context. Another important characteristic is the universal nature of a number of benefits starting with a basic old age pension for all in 1956. The compensation rates in a number of schedules are high in international comparison, particularly for low income earners. Public transfers gained a larger share in total public outlays both because standards were raised – that is benefits became higher – and because the number of recipients increased dramatically following the high unemployment regime from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s. To pay for the high transfers and the large public sector – around 30 percent of the work force – the tax load is also high in international perspective. The share public sector and social expenditure has risen to above 50 percent of GDP, only second to the share in Sweden.

Figure 3. Unemployment, Denmark (percent of total labor force)

Source: Statistics Denmark ‘50 års-oversigten’ and ADAM’s databank

The Danish labor market model has recently attracted favorable international attention (OECD 2005). It has been declared successful in fighting unemployment – especially compared to the policies of countries like Germany and France. The so-called Flexicurity model rests on three pillars. The first is low employment protection, the second is relatively high compensation rates for the unemployed and the third is the requirement for active participation by the unemployed. Low employment protection has a long tradition in Denmark and there is no change in this factor when comparing the twenty years of high unemployment – 8-12 per cent of the labor force – from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, to the past ten years when unemployment has declined to a mere 4.5 percent in 2006. The rules governing compensation to the unemployed were tightened from 1994, limiting the number of years the unemployed could receive benefits from 7 to 4. Most noticeably labor market policy in 1994 turned from ‘passive’ measures – besides unemployment benefits, an early retirement scheme and a temporary paid leave scheme – toward ‘active’ measures that were devoted to getting people back to work by providing training and jobs. It is commonly supposed that the strengthening of economic incentives helped to lower unemployment. However, as Andersen and Svarer (2006) point out, while unemployment has declined substantially a large and growing share of Danes of employable age receives transfers other than unemployment benefit – that is benefits related to sickness or social problems of various kinds, early retirement benefits, etc. This makes it hazardous to compare the Danish labor market model with that of many other countries.

Exchange Rates and Macroeconomic Policy

Denmark has traditionally adhered to a fixed exchange rate regime. The belief is that for a small and open economy, a floating exchange rate could lead to very volatile exchange rates which would harm foreign trade. After having abandoned the gold standard in 1931, the Danish currency (the Krone) was, for a while, pegged to the British pound, only to join the IMF system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates, the so-called Bretton Woods system after World War II. The close link with the British economy still manifested itself when the Danish currency was devaluated along with the pound in 1949 and, half way, in 1967. The devaluation also reflected that after 1960, Denmark’s international competitiveness had gradually been eroded by rising real wages, corresponding to a 30 percent real appreciation of the currency (Pedersen 1996).

When the Bretton Woods system broke down in the early 1970s, Denmark joined the European exchange rate cooperation, the “Snake” arrangement, set up in 1972, an arrangement that was to be continued in the form of the Exchange Rate Mechanism within the European Monetary System from 1979. The Deutschmark was effectively the nominal anchor in European currency cooperation until the launch of the Euro in 1999, a fact that put Danish competitiveness under severe pressure because of markedly higher inflation in Denmark compared to Germany. In the end the Danish government gave way before the pressure and undertook four discrete devaluations from 1979 to 1982. Since compensatory increases in wages were held back, the balance of trade improved perceptibly.

This improvement could, however, not make up for the soaring costs of old loans at a time when the international real rates of interests were high. The Danish devaluation strategy exacerbated this problem. The anticipation of further devaluations was mirrored in a steep increase in the long-term rate of interest. It peaked at 22 percent in nominal terms in 1982, with an interest spread to Germany of 10 percent. Combined with the effects of the second oil crisis on the Danish terms of trade, unemployment rose to 10 percent of the labor force. Given the relatively high compensation ratios for the unemployed, the public deficit increased rapidly and public debt grew to about 70 percent of GDP.

Figure 4. Current Account and Foreign Debt (Denmark)

Source: Statistics Denmark Statistical Yearbooks and ADAM’s Databank

In September 1982 the Social Democrat minority government resigned without a general election and was relieved by a Conservative-Liberal minority government. The new government launched a program to improve the competitiveness of the private sector and to rebalance public finances. An important element was a disinflationary economic policy based on fixed exchange rates pegging the Krone to the participants of the EMS and, from 1999, to the Euro. Furthermore, automatic wage indexation that had occurred, with short interruptions since 1920 (with a short lag and high coverage), was abolished. Fiscal policy was tightened, thus bringing an end to the real increases in public expenditure that had lasted since the 1960’s.

The stabilization policy was successful in bringing down inflation and long interest rates. Pedersen (1995) finds that this process, nevertheless, was slower than might have been expected. In view of former Danish exchange rate policy it took some time for the market to believe in the credible commitment to fixed exchange rates. From the late 1990s the interest spread to Germany/ Euroland has been negligible, however.

The initial success of the stabilization policy brought a boom to the Danish economy that, once again, caused overheating in the form of high wage increases (in 1987) and a deterioration of the current account. The solution to this was a number of reforms in 1986-87 aiming at encouraging private savings that had by then fallen to an historical low. Most notable was the reform that reduced tax deductibility of private interest on debts. These measures resulted in a hard landing to the economy caused by the collapse of the housing market.

The period of low growth was further prolonged by the international recession in 1992. In 1993 yet another shift of regime occurred in Danish economic policy. A new Social Democrat government decided to ‘kick start’ the economy by means of a moderate fiscal expansion whereas, in 1994, the same government tightened labor market policies substantially, as we have seen. Mainly as a consequence of these measures the Danish economy from 1994 entered a period of moderate growth with unemployment steadily falling to the level of the 1970s. A new feature that still puzzles Danish economists is that the decline in unemployment over these years has not yet resulted in any increase in wage inflation.

Denmark at the beginning of the twenty-first century in many ways fits the description of a Small Successful European Economy according to Mokyr (2006). Unlike in most of the other small economies, however, Danish exports are broad based and have no “niche” in the world market. Like some other small European countries, Ireland, Finland and Sweden, the short term economic fluctuations as described above have not followed the European business cycle very closely for the past thirty years (Andersen 2001). Domestic demand and domestic economic policy has, after all, played a crucial role even in a very small and very open economy.


Abildgren, Kim. “Real Effective Exchange Rates and Purchasing-Power-parity Convergence: Empirical Evidence for Denmark, 1875-2002.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 58-70.

Andersen, Torben M. et al. The Danish Economy: An international Perspective. Copenhagen: DJØF Publishing, 2001.

Andersen, Torben M. and Michael Svarer. “Flexicurity: den danska arbetsmarknadsmodellen.” Ekonomisk debatt 34, no. 1 (2006): 17-29.

Banggaard, Grethe. Befolkningsfremmende foranstaltninger og faldende børnedødelighed. Danmark, ca. 1750-1850. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2004

Hansen, Sv. Aage. Økonomisk vækst i Danmark: Volume I: 1720-1914 and Volume II: 1914-1983. København: Akademisk Forlag, 1984.

Henriksen, Ingrid. “Avoiding Lock-in: Cooperative Creameries in Denmark, 1882-1903.” European Review of Economic History 3, no. 1 (1999): 57-78

Henriksen, Ingrid. “Freehold Tenure in Late Eighteenth-Century Denmark.” Advances in Agricultural Economic History 2 (2003): 21-40.

Henriksen, Ingrid and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Incentives, Technology and the Shift to Year-round Dairying in Late Nineteenth-century Denmark.” Economic History Review 58, no. 3 (2005):.520-54.

Johansen, Hans Chr. Danish Population History, 1600-1939. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2002.

Johansen, Hans Chr. Dansk historisk statistik, 1814-1980. København: Gyldendal, 1985.

Klovland, Jan T. “Monetary Policy and Business Cycles in the Interwar Years: The Scandinavian Experience.” European Review of Economic History 2, no. 3 (1998): 309-44.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: OECD, 2001

Mokyr, Joel. “Successful Small Open Economies and the Importance of Good Institutions.” In The Road to Prosperity. An Economic History of Finland, edited by Jari Ojala, Jari Eloranta and Jukka Jalava, 8-14. Helsinki: SKS, 2006.

Pedersen, Peder J. “Postwar Growth of the Danish Economy.” In Economic Growth in Europe since 1945, edited by Nicholas Crafts and Gianni Toniolo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

OECD, Employment Outlook, 2005.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. “The European Grain Invasion, 1870-1913.” Journal of Economic History 57, no. 4 (1997): 775-99.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999

Topp, Niels-Henrik. “Influence of the Public Sector on Activity in Denmark, 1929-39.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 43, no. 3 (1995): 339-56.


1 Denmark also includes the Faeroe Islands, with home rule since 1948, and Greenland, with home rule since 1979, both in the North Atlantic. These territories are left out of this account.

Citation: Henriksen, Ingrid. “An Economic History of Denmark”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 6, 2006. URL

World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization

Author(s):Sabel, Charles F.
Zeitlin, Jonathan
Reviewer(s):Jaffe, James A.

Charles F. Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin, eds., World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. x + 510 pp., $80.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-49555-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James A. Jaffe, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The essays gathered in this collection build upon the ideas presented more than a decade ago in Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin’s influential article “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production” (Past & Present, No. 108, August 1985, pp. 133-76). Indeed the arguments laid out then bear so significantly upon this collection that some recapitulation is in order. Based in large part on Sabel and Michael Piore’s earlier work, that 1985 essay emphasized the persistence of small firms in “advanced” industrial societies as well as the economic success of “flexible” firms using multi-purpose machines and skilled labor to make specialized products for niche markets. Moreover, Sabel and Zeitlin expanded upon those observations and launched a broader attack on some of the more fundamental tenets of the economic historiography of industrialization. Foremost among their objectives was to reconsider the received wisdom elaborated by such prominent authors as David Landes and Alfred Chandler who, it was argued, privileged the role played by mass production in the development of the modern industrial economies. The explanatory power of the mass production model of industrialization, Sabel and Zeitlin wrote at the time, was weakened by a number of historical inconsistencies, including the obvious persistence of small firms using batch-production techniques. They also questioned the dominant assumption that self-interest and economic rationality ultimately determined economic decision-making and industrial development rather than political institutions or cultural predispositions. Indeed the mass production factory-based model, Sabel and Zeitlin concluded, was “merely a restatement of what happened, not the summary expression of an inevitable logic of interest and efficiency.”

In contrast to what they perceived to be an overly-deterministic model, Sabel and Zeitlin repeatedly emphasized a “many-worlds history of industrialization” that shifted attention toward a more protean approach to technological development, an approach based principally upon the recognition that a “craft alternative” continued to thrive in “industrial districts.” These districts developed a self-reinforcing dynamic. In them, small firms used highly skilled labor and adopted new technology; they were as likely to cooperate as they were to compete; and they successfully produced a wide range of products for a variety of differentiated markets. Moreover, these districts constructed an alternative community of sentiments in which children brought up to a trade acquired a set of tacit rules governing their conduct. These rules promoted forms of “fair” competition at the same time that they attached moral sanctions to destructive economic behavior. Therefore, these districts tended to be characterized by hitherto unrecognized forms of collaboration both between employers and employees and among the small firms themselves.

Such a wide-ranging thesis did not go unchallenged, of course. The flexible specialization model in general drew criticism from those who argued that it did not adequately characterize the nature of mass production, that it misrepresented the effects of small-scale specialization on labor, and that it replaced one set of teleological assumptions with another.

Generally, the essays presented in this collection do not attempt to directly respond to these criticisms. Instead they seek to amplify and elaborate the historical and institutional contexts within which the “craft alternative” was tried and tested. Moreover, the articles are discursively located within Sabel and Zeitlin’s alternative reading of the history of western economic development that was also briefly suggested in their original article. At that time, Sabel and Zeitlin had offered a “reconceptualization” of the industrialization process that emphasized the fact that the history of mechanization was not necessarily the history of throughput. They proposed instead a tripartite historical schema and it is roughly this periodization that informs this collection. Thus the first essays in this collection focus on why and how some regional ancient regime industries adapted and survived through the means of flexible specialization to changing markets and competition; a middle group of essays, roughly covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, illustrates the struggles that took place in several sectors between models of mass production and those of flexible specialization; and a final group emphasizes the contemporary success of several flexibly-specialized industrial sectors.

The essays on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century manufacturing constitute some of the most compelling case studies in the book as well as nearly one-half of its bulk. Taken together they investigate not only the adaptability of several trades to both changing markets and technology, but perhaps more significantly emphasize the social, political, and institutional foundations for their relative success. The exceptionally interesting essays by Alain Cottereau and Beatrice Veyrassat adopt comparative approaches that highlight the sources of the flexible specialization’s competitive advantage over mass production techniques. Under conditions of what Cottereau has called “collective manufacture,” (p. 82) institutional practices and social relations developed that both shared risks and tamed competition among both domestic workers and manufacturers. One such institution, whose essential importance remains largely understudied, was the mutually-respected price-list (“tarif” in France and “Preisverzeichnisse” in Germany), but there were others including the important regulatory functions performed by the Conseil de Prud’hommes in France or more local organizations such as the Societe d’emulation patriotique in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. These institutions, it is argued, reflect a corporate or collective response to competitive pressures that ensured the viability of craft production and facilitated a flexible approach to production through negotiation rather than conflict. Moreover, their survival apparently contradicts the so-called “British model of industrialization” not only in terms of the advent and introduction of mechanization, but also in terms of its assumed structural supports of private property, free trade, and “cynical individualism” (p. 107). These arguments, it should be added, are extended in different ways in the contributions of Carlo Poni on Lyons silk merchants and Rudolf Boch on the Solingen cutlery trades. When taken together, these essays may serve not only to draw attention to the distance that separated the ideological thrust of the British model, or more accurately the Lancashire cotton-spinning model, from contemporary practice but also to stimulate further research into that model’s own historical viability.

The second set of essays, on the conflict between mass production and flexibly-specialized systems, elaborates the ways in which individual sectors responded to both the threat and temptation of de-skilling, the adoption of single-purpose machinery, and the cultivation of mass markets. The contributions here, including those by Alain Dewerpe on the Italian engineering firm Ansaldo, Zeitlin on British engineering, and Peer Hull Kristensen and Sabel on Danish dairy cooperatives, are highlighted by Philip Scranton’s sparkling essay on American textile manufacturing. Rather than succumb to the idea that there is an “immanent logic to historical change,” (p. 342) Scranton emphasizes the “situational particularities” (ibid.) that characterized different sectors of the trade and which led some branches to adopt mass production and others batch production techniques. Not only does Scranton outline the comparative risks and advantages to both bulk and batch production, he also attempts to establish the fact that different branches of the industry exhibited relatively coherent “clusterings of decisions” (p. 313) on a wide variety of issues including finance, marketing, management, and labor relations. Such attempts to delineate a spectrum of industrial possibilities are similarly characteristic of Zeitlin’s contribution, which argues that British engineering firms “selectively adapted” to mass production techniques giving rise to hybrid forms, and Dewerpe’s interesting case study of the ways in which the same firm adopted both craft and mass production methods under different market and political conditions.

The final group of essays emphasizes three regional success stories of flexible specialization: Vittorio Capecchi on the Bologna packaging industry, Jean Saglio on the transition from comb-making to the plastics industry in Oyonnax, France, and Hakon With Andersen on Norwegian shipping, brokerage, and insurance. They share as well an emphasis on the importance of social and institutional linkages that served to share information, encourage collaboration, and reduce risks. In the case of Bologna, Capecchi argues that the Bolognese packaging industry developed first as an “industrial subsystem” (p. 393) of engineering through the creation of a multitude of new firms from one “mother” firm, relying on both indigenous skills and local university talent. For Norway, Andersen discusses the creation of links between many small “frontline” shipping and shipbuilding firms and “supporting” groups, such as brokers and insurers. Through the creation of a complex of marketing and sales organizations, certification and classification organizations, shipbuilders’ associations, collaborative research projects, and the like, small Norwegian shipping firms from the north-west were able to compete with large-scale integrated firms by sharing information. Finally, Saglio’s essay is most notable for its innovative attempt to understand the situational rationality of local actors as they comprehend the ways in which their trade and local society functions as well as their own place in the scheme of things.

These essays, therefore, are a welcome contribution to the historical debate that began with the publication of Sabel and Zeitlin’s article in 1985. They attempt to extend our knowledge in several critical areas as well as offer a nuanced approach to the way in which the industrialization process needs to be understood. Naturally, in a project of this scope some discordant elements creep in. For example, there seems to be a relatively weak consensus on the precise nature of mass production, many authors preferring to adopt alternative terms such as “serial production,” “routinization,” or “standardized production.” Similarly, the fundamental dynamism of the “industrial district” is replaced at times with alternative classificatory schemes such as the “industrial subsystem” or the “collective manufacture.” Finally, the editors themselves, in a relatively brief introduction, appear to be pushing the argument in newer directions, towards the understanding of economic history both as a postmodern narrative project and as a rule-making process. Such arguments may not immediately resonate among economic historians, and indeed deserve to be pushed further, but they may very well help to refashion the questions they ask.

James A. Jaffe Department of History University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

James Jaffe is author of The Struggle for Market Power: Industrial Relations in the British Coal Industry (Cambridge, 1991) and the forthcoming Asymmetries: Work and Labor Relations during the Industrial Revolution.


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Dutch Economy in the Golden Age (16th – 17th Centuries)

Donald J. Harreld, Brigham Young University

In just over one hundred years, the provinces of the Northern Netherlands went from relative obscurity as the poor cousins of the industrious and heavily urbanized Southern Netherlands provinces of Flanders and Brabant to the pinnacle of European commercial success. Taking advantage of a favorable agricultural base, the Dutch achieved success in the fishing industry and the Baltic and North Sea carrying trade during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before establishing a far-flung maritime empire in the seventeenth century.

The Economy of the Netherlands up to the Sixteenth Century

In many respects the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic inherited the economic successes of the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands. For centuries, Flanders and to a lesser extent Brabant had been at the forefront of the medieval European economy. An indigenous cloth industry was present throughout all areas of Europe in the early medieval period, but Flanders was the first to develop the industry with great intensity. A tradition of cloth manufacture in the Low Countries existed from antiquity when the Celts and then the Franks continued an active textile industry learned from the Romans.

As demand grew early textile production moved from its rural origins to the cities and had become, by the twelfth century, an essentially urban industry. Native wool could not keep up with demand, and the Flemings imported English wool in great quantities. The resulting high quality product was much in demand all over Europe, from Novgorod to the Mediterranean. Brabant also rose to an important position in textile industry, but only about a century after Flanders. By the thirteenth century the number of people engaged in some aspect of the textile industry in the Southern Netherlands had become more than the total engaged in all other crafts. It is possible that this emphasis on cloth manufacture was the reason that the Flemish towns ignored the emerging maritime shipping industry which was eventually dominated by others, first the German Hanseatic League, and later Holland and Zeeland.

By the end of the fifteenth century Antwerp in Brabant had become the commercial capital of the Low Countries as foreign merchants went to the city in great numbers in search of the high-value products offered at the city’s fairs. But the traditional cloths manufactured in Flanders had lost their allure for most European markets, particularly as the English began exporting high quality cloths rather than the raw materials the Flemish textile industry depended on. Many textile producers turned to the lighter weight and cheaper “new draperies.” Despite protectionist measures instituted in the mid-fifteenth century, English cloth found an outlet in Antwerp ‘s burgeoning markets. By the early years of the sixteenth century the Portuguese began using Antwerp as an outlet for their Asian pepper and spice imports, and the Germans continued to bring their metal products (copper and silver) there. For almost a hundred years Antwerp remained the commercial capital of northern Europe, until the religious and political events of the 1560s and 1570s intervened and the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule toppled the commercial dominance of Antwerp and the southern provinces. Within just a few years of the Fall of Antwerp (1585), scores of merchants and mostly Calvinist craftsmen fled the south for the relative security of the Northern Netherlands.

The exodus from the south certainly added to the already growing population of the north. However, much like Flanders and Brabant, the northern provinces of Holland and Zeeland were already populous and heavily urbanized. The population of these maritime provinces had been steadily growing throughout the sixteenth century, perhaps tripling between the first years of the sixteenth century to about 1650. The inland provinces grew much more slowly during the same period. Not until the eighteenth century, when the Netherlands as a whole faced declining fortunes would the inland provinces begin to match the growth of the coastal core of the country.

Dutch Agriculture

During the fifteenth century, and most of the sixteenth century, the Northern Netherlands provinces were predominantly rural compared to the urbanized southern provinces. Agriculture and fishing formed the basis for the Dutch economy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of the characteristics of Dutch agriculture during this period was its emphasis on intensive animal husbandry. Dutch cattle were exceptionally well cared for and dairy produce formed a significant segment of the agricultural sector. During the seventeenth century, as the Dutch urban population saw dramatic growth many farmers also turned to market gardening to supply the cities with vegetables.

Some of the impetus for animal production came from the trade in slaughter cattle from Denmark and Northern Germany. Holland was an ideal area for cattle feeding and fattening before eventual slaughter and export to the cities of the Southern provinces. The trade in slaughter cattle expanded from about 1500 to 1660, but protectionist measures on the part of Dutch authorities who wanted to encourage the fattening of home-bred cattle ensured a contraction of the international cattle trade between 1660 and 1750.

Although agriculture made up the largest segment of the Dutch economy, cereal production in the Netherlands could not keep up with demand particularly by the seventeenth century as migration from the southern provinces contributed to population increases. The provinces of the Low Countries traditionally had depended on imported grain from the south (France and the Walloon provinces) and when crop failures interrupted the flow of grain from the south, the Dutch began to import grain from the Baltic. Baltic grain imports experienced sustained growth from about the middle of the sixteenth century to roughly 1650 when depression and stagnation characterized the grain trade into the eighteenth century.

Indeed, the Baltic grain trade (see below), a major source of employment for the Dutch, not only in maritime transport but in handling and storage as well, was characterized as the “mother trade.” In her recent book on the Baltic grain trade, Mijla van Tielhof defined “mother trade” as the oldest and most substantial trade with respect to ships, sailors and commodities for the Northern provinces. Over the long term, the Baltic grain trade gave rise to shipping and trade on other routes as well as to manufacturing industries.

Dutch Fishing

Along with agriculture, the Dutch fishing industry formed part of the economic base of the northern Netherlands. Like the Baltic grain trade, it also contributed to the rise of Dutch the shipping industry.

The backbone of the fishing industry was the North Sea herring fishery, which was quite advanced and included a form of “factory” ship called the herring bus. The herring bus was developed in the fifteenth century in order to allow the herring catch to be processed with salt at sea. This permitted the herring ship to remain at sea longer and increased the range of the herring fishery. Herring was an important export product for the Netherlands particularly to inland areas, but also to the Baltic offsetting Baltic grain imports.

The herring fishery reached its zenith in the first half of the seventeenth century. Estimates put the size of the herring fleet at roughly 500 busses and the catch at about 20,000 to 25,000 lasts (roughly 33,000 metric tons) on average each year in the first decades of the seventeenth century. The herring catch as well as the number of busses began to decline in the second half of the seventeenth century, collapsing by about the mid-eighteenth century when the catch amounted to only about 6000 lasts. This decline was likely due to competition resulting from a reinvigoration of the Baltic fishing industry that succeeded in driving prices down, as well as competition within the North Sea by the Scottish fishing industry.

The Dutch Textile Industry

The heartland for textile manufacturing had been Flanders and Brabant until the onset of the Dutch Revolt around 1568. Years of warfare continued to devastate the already beaten down Flemish cloth industry. Even the cloth producing towns of the Northern Netherlands that had been focusing on producing the “new draperies” saw their output decline as a result of wartime interruptions. But textiles remained the most important industry for the Dutch Economy.

Despite the blow it suffered during the Dutch revolt, Leiden’s textile industry, for instance, rebounded in the early seventeenth century – thanks to the influx of textile workers from the Southern Netherlands who emigrated there in the face of religious persecution. But by the 1630s Leiden had abandoned the heavy traditional wool cloths in favor of a lighter traditional woolen (laken) as well as a variety of other textiles such as says, fustians, and camlets. Total textile production increased from 50,000 or 60,000 pieces per year in the first few years of the seventeenth century to as much as 130,000 pieces per year during the 1660s. Leiden’s wool cloth industry probably reached peak production by 1670. The city’s textile industry was successful because it found export markets for its inexpensive cloths in the Mediterranean, much to the detriment of Italian cloth producers.

Next to Lyons, Leiden may have been Europe’s largest industrial city at end of seventeenth century. Production was carried out through the “putting out” system, whereby weavers with their own looms and often with other dependent weavers working for them, obtained imported raw materials from merchants who paid the weavers by the piece for their work (the merchant retained ownership of the raw materials throughout the process). By the end of the seventeenth century foreign competition threatened the Dutch textile industry. Production in many of the new draperies (says, for example) decreased considerably throughout the eighteenth century; profits suffered as prices declined in all but the most expensive textiles. This left the production of traditional woolens to drive what was left of Leiden’s textile industry in the eighteenth century.

Although Leiden certainly led the Netherlands in the production of wool cloth, it was not the only textile producing city in the United Provinces. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft and Haarlem, among others, had vibrant textile industries. Haarlem, for example, was home to an important linen industry during the first half of the seventeenth century. Like Leiden’s cloth industry, Haarlem’s linen industry benefited from experienced linen weavers who migrated from the Southern Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt. Haarlem’s hold on linen production, however, was due more to its success in linen bleaching and finishing. Not only was locally produced linen finished in Haarlem, but linen merchants from other areas of Europe sent their products to Haarlem for bleaching and finishing. As linen production moved to more rural areas as producers sought to decrease costs in the second half of the seventeenth century, Haarlem’s industry went into decline.

Other Dutch Industries

Industries also developed as a result of overseas colonial trade, in particular Amsterdam’s sugar refining industry. During the sixteenth century, Antwerp had been Europe’s most important sugar refining city, a title it inherited from Venice once the Atlantic sugar islands began to surpass Mediterranean sugar production. Once Antwerp fell to Spanish troops during the Revolt, however, Amsterdam replaced it as Europe’s dominant sugar refiner. The number of sugar refineries in Amsterdam increased from about 3 around 1605 to about 50 by 1662, thanks in no small part to Portuguese investment. Dutch merchants purchased huge amounts of sugar from both the French and the English islands in the West Indies, along with a great deal of tobacco. Tobacco processing became an important Amsterdam industry in the seventeenth century employing large numbers of workers and leading to attempts to develop domestic tobacco cultivation.

With the exception of some of the “colonial” industries (sugar, for instance), Dutch industry experienced a period of stagnation after the 1660s and eventual decline beginning around the turn of the eighteenth century. It would seem that as far as industrial production is concerned, the Dutch Golden Age lasted from the 1580s until about 1670. This period was followed by roughly one hundred years of declining industrial production. De Vries and van der Woude concluded that Dutch industry experienced explosive growth after 1580s because of the migration of skilled labor and merchant capital from the southern Netherlands at roughly the time Antwerp fell to the Spanish and because of the relative advantage continued warfare in the south gave to the Northern Provinces. After the 1660s most Dutch industries experienced either steady or steep decline as many Dutch industries moved from the cities into the countryside, while some (particularly the colonial industries) remained successful well into the eighteenth century.

Dutch Shipping and Overseas Commerce

Dutch shipping began to emerge as a significant sector during the fifteenth century. Probably stemming from the inaction on the part of merchants from the Southern Netherlands to participate in seaborne transport, the towns of Zeeland and Holland began to serve the shipping needs of the commercial towns of Flanders and Brabant (particularly Antwerp ). The Dutch, who were already active in the North Sea as a result of the herring fishery, began to compete with the German Hanseatic League for Baltic markets by exporting their herring catches, salt, wine, and cloth in exchange for Baltic grain.

The Grain Trade

Baltic grain played an essential role for the rapidly expanding markets in western and southern Europe. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the urban populations had increased in the Low Countries fueling the market for imported grain. Grain and other Baltic products such as tar, hemp, flax, and wood were not only destined for the Low Countries, but also England and for Spain and Portugal via Amsterdam, the port that had succeeded in surpassing Lübeck and other Hanseatic towns as the primary transshipment point for Baltic goods. The grain trade sparked the development of a variety of industries. In addition to the shipbuilding industry, which was an obvious outgrowth of overseas trade relationships, the Dutch manufactured floor tiles, roof tiles, and bricks for export to the Baltic; the grain ships carried them as ballast on return voyages to the Baltic.

The importance of the Baltic markets to Amsterdam, and to Dutch commerce in general can be illustrated by recalling that when the Danish closed the Sound to Dutch ships in 1542, the Dutch faced financial ruin. But by the mid-sixteenth century, the Dutch had developed such a strong presence in the Baltic that they were able to exact transit rights from Denmark (Peace of Speyer, 1544) allowing them freer access to the Baltic via Danish waters. Despite the upheaval caused by the Dutch and the commercial crisis that hit Antwerp in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the Baltic grain trade remained robust until the last years of the seventeenth century. That the Dutch referred to the Baltic trade as their “mother trade” is not surprising given the importance Baltic markets continued to hold for Dutch commerce throughout the Golden Age. Unfortunately for Dutch commerce, Europe ‘s population began to decline somewhat at the close of the seventeenth century and remained depressed for several decades. Increased grain production in Western Europe and the availability of non-Baltic substitutes (American and Italian rice, for example) further decreased demand for Baltic grain resulting in a downturn in Amsterdam ‘s grain market.

Expansion into African, American and Asian Markets – “World Primacy”

Building on the early successes of their Baltic trade, Dutch shippers expanded their sphere of influence east into Russia and south into the Mediterranean and the Levantine markets. By the turn of the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants had their eyes on the American and Asian markets that were dominated by Iberian merchants. The ability of Dutch shippers to effectively compete with entrenched merchants, like the Hanseatic League in the Baltic, or the Portuguese in Asia stemmed from their cost cutting strategies (what de Vries and van der Woude call “cost advantages and institutional efficiencies,” p. 374). Not encumbered by the costs and protective restrictions of most merchant groups of the sixteenth century, the Dutch trimmed their costs enough to undercut the competition, and eventually establish what Jonathan Israel has called “world primacy.”

Before Dutch shippers could even attempt to break in to the Asian markets they needed to first expand their presence in the Atlantic. This was left mostly to the émigré merchants from Antwerp, who had relocated to Zeeland following the Revolt. These merchants set up the so-called Guinea trade with West Africa, and initiated Dutch involvement in the Western Hemisphere. Dutch merchants involved in the Guinea trade ignored the slave trade that was firmly in the hands of the Portuguese in favor of the rich trade in gold, ivory, and sugar from São Tomé. Trade with West Africa grew slowly, but competition was stiff. By 1599, the various Guinea companies had agreed to the formation of a cartel to regulate trade. Continued competition from a slew of new companies, however, insured that the cartel would be only partially effective until the organization of the Dutch West India Company in 1621 that also held monopoly rights in the West Africa trade.

The Dutch at first focused their trade with the Americas on the Caribbean. By the mid-1590s only a few Dutch ships each year were making the voyage across the Atlantic. When the Spanish instituted an embargo against the Dutch in 1598, shortages in products traditionally obtained in Iberia (like salt) became common. Dutch shippers seized the chance to find new sources for products that had been supplied by the Spanish and soon fleets of Dutch ships sailed to the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese had a much larger presence in the Americas than the Dutch could mount, despite the large number vessels they sent to the area. Dutch strategy was to avoid Iberian strongholds while penetrating markets where the products they desired could be found. For the most part, this strategy meant focusing on Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil. Indeed, by the turn of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had established forts on the coasts of Guyana and Brazil.

While competition between rival companies from the towns of Zeeland marked Dutch trade with the Americas in the first years of the seventeenth century, by the time the West India Company finally received its charter in 1621 troubles with Spain once again threatened to disrupt trade. Funding for the new joint-stock company came slowly, and oddly enough came mostly from inland towns like Leiden rather than coastal towns. The West India Company was hit with setbacks in the Americas from the very start. The Portuguese began to drive the Dutch out of Brazil in 1624 and by 1625 the Dutch were loosing their position in the Caribbean as well. Dutch shippers in the Americas soon found raiding (directed at the Spanish and Portuguese) to be their most profitable activity until the Company was able to establish forts in Brazil again in the 1630s and begin sugar cultivation. Sugar remained the most lucrative activity for the Dutch in Brazil, and once the revolt of Portuguese Catholic planters against the Dutch plantation owners broke out the late 1640s, the fortunes of the Dutch declined steadily.

The Dutch faced the prospect of stiff Portuguese competition in Asia as well. But, breaking into the lucrative Asian markets was not just a simple matter of undercutting less efficient Portuguese shippers. The Portuguese closely guarded the route around Africa. Not until roughly one hundred years after the first Portuguese voyage to Asia were the Dutch in a position to mount their own expedition. Thanks to the travelogue of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, which was published in 1596, the Dutch gained the information they needed to make the voyage. Linschoten had been in the service of the Bishop of Goa, and kept excellent records of the voyage and his observations in Asia.

The United East India Company (VOC)

The first few Dutch voyages to Asia were not particularly successful. These early enterprises managed to make only enough to cover the costs of the voyage, but by 1600 dozens of Dutch merchant ships made the trip. This intense competition among various Dutch merchants had a destabilizing effect on prices driving the government to insist on consolidation in order to avoid commercial ruin. The United East India Company (usually referred to by its Dutch initials, VOC) received a charter from the States General in 1602 conferring upon it monopoly trading rights in Asia. This joint stock company attracted roughly 6.5 million florins in initial capitalization from over 1,800 investors, most of whom were merchants. Management of the company was vested in 17 directors (Heren XVII) chosen from among the largest shareholders.

In practice, the VOC became virtually a “country” unto itself outside of Europe, particularly after about 1620 when the company’s governor-general in Asia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, founded Batavia (the company factory) on Java. While Coen and later governors-general set about expanding the territorial and political reach of the VOC in Asia, the Heren XVII were most concerned about profits, which they repeatedly reinvested in the company much to the chagrin of investors. In Asia, the strategy of the VOC was to insert itself into the intra-Asian trade (much like the Portuguese had done in the sixteenth century) in order to amass enough capital to pay for the spices shipped back to the Netherlands. This often meant displacing the Portuguese by waging war in Asia, while trying to maintain peaceful relations within Europe.

Over the long term, the VOC was very profitable during the seventeenth century despite the company’s reluctance to pay cash dividends in first few decades (the company paid dividends in kind until about 1644). As the English and French began to institute mercantilist strategies (for instance, the Navigation Acts of 1551 and 1660 in England, and import restrictions and high tariffs in the case of France ) Dutch dominance in foreign trade came under attack. Rather than experience a decline like domestic industry did at the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch Asia trade continued to ship goods at steady volumes well into the eighteenth century. Dutch dominance, however, was met with stiff competition by rival India companies as the Asia trade grew. As the eighteenth century wore on, the VOC’s share of the Asia trade declined significantly compared to its rivals, the most important of which was the English East India Company.

Dutch Finance

The last sector that we need to highlight is finance, perhaps the most important sector for the development of the early modern Dutch economy. The most visible manifestation of Dutch capitalism was the exchange bank founded in Amsterdam in 1609; only two years after the city council approved the construction of a bourse (additional exchange banks were founded in other Dutch commercial cities). The activities of the bank were limited to exchange and deposit banking. A lending bank, founded in Amsterdam in 1614, rounded out the financial services in the commercial capital of the Netherlands.

The ability to manage the wealth generated by trade and industry (accumulated capital) in new ways was one of the hallmarks of the economy during the Golden Age. As early as the fourteenth century, Italian merchants had been experimenting with ways to decrease the use of cash in long-distance trade. The resulting instrument was the bill of exchange developed as a way to for a seller to extend credit to a buyer. The bill of exchange required the debtor to pay the debt at a specified place and time. But the creditor rarely held on to the bill of exchange until maturity preferring to sell it or otherwise use it to pay off debts. These bills of exchange were not routinely used in commerce in the Low Countries until the sixteenth century when Antwerp was still the dominant commercial city in the region. In Antwerp the bill of exchange could be assigned to another, and eventually became a negotiable instrument with the practice of discounting the bill.

The idea of the flexibility of bills of exchange moved to the Northern Netherlands with the large numbers of Antwerp merchants who brought with them their commercial practices. In an effort to standardize the practices surrounding bills of exchange, the Amsterdam government restricted payment of bills of exchange to the new exchange bank. The bank was wildly popular with merchants; deposits increasing from just less than one million guilders in 1611 to over sixteen million by 1700. Amsterdam ‘s exchange bank flourished because of its ability to handle deposits and transfers, and to settle international debts.

By the second half of the seventeenth century many wealthy merchant families had turned away from foreign trade and began engaging in speculative activities on a much larger scale. They traded in commodity values (futures), shares in joint-stock companies, and dabbled in insurance and currency exchanges to name only a few of the most important ventures.


Building on its fifteenth- and sixteenth-century successes in agricultural productivity, and in North Sea and Baltic shipping, the Northern Netherlands inherited the economic legacy of the southern provinces as the Revolt tore the Low Countries apart. The Dutch Golden Age lasted from roughly 1580, when the Dutch proved themselves successful in their fight with the Spanish, to about 1670, when the Republic’s economy experienced a down-turn. Economic growth was very fast during until about 1620 when it slowed, but continued to grow steadily until the end of the Golden Age. The last decades of the seventeenth century were marked by declining production and loss of market dominance overseas.


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Citation: Harreld, Donald. “Dutch Economy in the “Golden Age” (16th-17th Centuries)”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 12, 2004. URL