Working for a Living? Women and Children’s Labour Inputs in England, 1260-1850

Aug 2019 | 172

Authors: Sara Horrell, Jane Humphries, Jacob Weisdorf


We use new estimates of men, women, and children’s wages in combination with cost-of-living indices to explore family living standards across six centuries of English history. A family perspective enables us to quantify the labour inputs required from women and children in circumstances when men’s earnings alone were insufficient to secure a decent standard of living, and so to register the historical relevance of the male breadwinner model. We employ a life-cycle approach where pre-marital savings help married couples manage increasing numbers of dependent children as well as other periods of economic pressure. We find that the male breadwinner model was generally insufficient for a ‘respectable’ standard of living; women and sometimes children were required to contribute and, even then, couples still faced poverty during old age. However, with the exception of the pre-Black Death period and the first half of the 17th-century, child labour was not essential and in the early modern era and old-age poverty was in retreat. We reconcile our findings with evidence of a surge in child-labour in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with reference to early modern economic growth, and its association with industriousness and consumerism, twin developments which served to stimulate the Industrial Revolution.

JEL Codes: J22, N13, O10

Keywords: Living Standards; Prices, Wages


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