A Tale of Two Wages: Spinners and the Industrial Revolution

Spinning the Industrial Revolution

by  Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Benjamin Schneider (Cornell)

The prevailing explanation for why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Britain is Robert Allen’s (2009) ‘high-wage economy’ view, which claims that the high cost of labour relative to capital and fuel incentivized innovation and the adoption of new techniques. This paper presents new empirical evidence on hand spinning before the Industrial Revolution and demonstrates that there was no such ‘high-wage economy’ in spinning, a leading sector of industrialization. We quantify the working lives of frequently ignored female and child spinners who were crucial to the British textile industry in the Early Modern period with evidence of productivity and wages from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. Our results show that spinning was a widespread, low-wage, low-productivity employment, in line with the Humphries (2013) view of the motivations for the factory system.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nuf:esohwp:_145

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016‒07‒23

Review by Thales Zamberlan Pereira

In Spinning the Industrial Revolution, Humphries and Schneider last words are: “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.” This is a direct statement against Robert Allen’s high wage economy (HWE) explanation for the Industrial Revolution. The low wage authors (LWA) argue that the wages Allen uses were only available to a “rare group of spinners” and, therefore, were not a representative sample, which should include lower wages from women and children. There was a direct link between productivity and remuneration, and only a limited number of spinners could produce several pounds of fiber in a week and/or had the ability to make finer counts of yarns.


Water Frame, about 1775

Humphries and Schneider present an important discussion about different sources for spinner’s wages and how we should measure their earnings, but what does their evidence mean for Allen’s HWE? I leave to Allen himself to respond: “Humphries never analyses the British labour supply from an international perspective.”[i] Even considering the lower wages from women and children in spinning, the important question is if real wages in Britain were higher than other parts of the world. The authors avoid this discussion, making the alternative argument that “there should have been an increase/jump” in spinners’ wages before the innovations period (around 1760s). But since Allen’s explanation for the Industrial Revolution has a “global perspective”, what matters is if wages in Britain (or in the northwest regions) were higher than in comparable regions in Europe (we can also add Asia here). Humphries and Weisdorf ‘s paper (“Unreal Wages”), along with many other recent research (Broadberry et al. latest book), shows that real wages were slowly increasing for centuries, so why there is a need for a spike? In addition, since inventions in spinning were largely associated with cotton, one important limitation of the paper is that most of the primary sources used for spinning productivity are not for cotton (See Table 4). As pointed out by John Styles, there is even no proper data for Lancashire, the main cotton region.

The LWA also make the argument that inventors (such as Arkwright) never expressed concern about high wages in spinning. But if spinners did not have wages higher than the British average, even if Britain had the highest wages in the world, one would not expect this demand. In the age before spinning machinery, when the “earnings in weaving were constrained” by low productivity, how much the average wages should be used to measure the connection between high costs and innovation? There are two aspects here that deserve some attention: higher wages for those workers with higher productivity, and a “wage premium” for those who produced finer yarns. Humphries and Schneider argue that, since spinners were paid piece rates, there was a demand for more “experienced spinners” to produce finer counts of yarn. As the long debate between Nick Harley and Javier Cuenca Esteban has showed, finer cotton textiles were the first wave of products that came out of the new inventions. The low productivity of a spinner to produce a 20-count yarn (a high count at the time), presented in the paper, suggests that to use averages wages to test its impact on innovation may be misleading in the case of textiles. The average spinner could not produce a yarn with the quality (and quantity) required to test the HWE hypothesis. This, I think, is part of the argument that John Styles makes when he writes about the “general tendency in much of the literature to think about spinning as if were a single activity – unskilled women’s work.”


Humphries and Schneider conclude that “overcoming the low productivity and inconsistent quality in spinning and taking advantage of low wages for spinners
and female and child workers more generally may have been the spur for tinkerers
and inventors in the late eighteenth-century textile industry.” While the first part of this sentence is an important one, it would be interesting to see more evidence on the latter part. The reason for this is that recent projects to reconstruct the famous spinning machines showed that they were “uncomfortable” to use and needed “a fair degree of strength to operate.”[ii] Since some of the locations for the author’s spinning records contain a large proportion of children, it would be useful to know if they really could operate the spinning machines.

The debate between the LWE and the HWE hypotheses prompted a series of very interesting replies during the last few weeks (see Judy Stephenson, Vincent Geloso, John Styles, Psedoerasmus). There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but maybe the next step for this debate to move forward is to have better real wages for France. New French real wages would present the “global perspective” that Humphries and Schneider’s paper lack. My take on this debate is that we should be conservative about what new pieces of evidence really mean for our broader interpretations of historical events. Otherwise we will just be jumping to the next omitted variable as the “real explanation.” The fact that the average wage for spinners was lower than the one presented by Allen does not imply that British high-wage economy was a statistical artifact. We need better data for other countries before claiming that “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.”

[i] Robert C. Allen, “The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: A Restatement,” The Economic History Review 68, no. 1 (February 1, 2015): 14, doi:10.1111/ehr.12079.

[ii] R. L. Hills, “Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton. Why Three Inventors?,” Textile History 10, no. 1 (October 1, 1979): 114–26, doi:10.1179/004049679793691321.



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