Spinning the Industrial Revolution

30 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2019

See all articles by Jane Humphries

Jane Humphries

University of Oxford - Department of Modern History

Benjamin Schneider

University of Oxford

Date Written: February 2019


The prevailing explanation for why the industrial revolution occurred first in Britain during the last quarter of the eighteenth century is Allen's ‘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 article presents new empirical evidence on hand spinning before the industrial revolution and demonstrates that there was no such ‘high wage economy’ in spinning, which was 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 with evidence of productivity and wages from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. Spinning emerges as a widespread, low‐productivity, low‐wage employment, in which wages did not rise substantially in advance of the introduction of the jenny and water frame. The motivation for mechanization must be sought elsewhere.

Suggested Citation

Humphries, Jane and Schneider, Benjamin, Spinning the Industrial Revolution (February 2019). The Economic History Review, Vol. 72, Issue 1, pp. 126-155, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3317731 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ehr.12693

Jane Humphries (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Department of Modern History ( email )

Mansfield Road
Oxford OX1 3PG, Oxfordshire OX1 3PG
United Kingdom

Benjamin Schneider

University of Oxford

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

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