Wages at the Wheel: Were Spinners Part of the High Wage Economy?

Oct 2019 | 174

Authors: Jane Humphries, Benjamin Schneider


In our earlier paper we used archival and printed primary sources to construct the first long-run series of wages for hand spinning in early modern Britain. Our evidence challenged Robert Allen’s claim that spinners were part of the ‘High Wage Economy’, which he sees as motivating invention, innovation, and mechanisation in the spinning section of the textile industry. Here we respond to Allen’s criticism of our argument, sources and methods, and his presentation of alternative evidence. Allen contends that we have understated both the earnings and associated productivity of hand spinners by focussing on part-time and low-quality workers. His rejoinder is found to rest on an ahistorical account of spinners’ work and similarly weak evidence on wages as did his initial claims. We also present an expanded version of the spinners’ wages dataset, which confirms our original findings: spinners’ wages were low even compared with other women workers and did not follow a trajectory which could explain the invention and spread of the spinning jenny.

JEL Codes: J24, J31, J42, J46, N13, N33, N63, O14, O31

Keywords: hand spinning, women's wages, Industrial Revolution, textiles, Great Divergence, induced innovation, High Wage Economy


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