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Koyama on Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution

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GMU economic historian Mark Koyama emailed me some comments on my Industrial Revolution post.  Reprinted with his permission.  Note that Billington's figures imply a work year between 3900 and 4500, even assuming, contrary to Billington's lurid picture, that workers got two weeks of annual vacation.  Koyama:

My memory was not 100% accurate as the best estimate for male working hours in London in England in 1830 (when working hours were at their absolute longest) is actually 3356 rather than 3000.  This estimate is from Voth's use of court data in order to reconstruct how individuals used their time (2001).  By 1870 other estimates put it at 2755. Working hours  in excess of 3000 hours per year are seen as extraordinarily long in comparison to more recent episodes of industrialization so 4000 in the US still seems unrealistic (though it is not that much greater than the highest upper bound some historians have estimated).   Of course, the point is that workers seemed to prefer working long hours in factories and using their wages to buy newly available consumption goods (cotton underwear which could be washed easily must have drastically increased consumer surplus relative to scratchy woolen underwear) rather than working in agriculture (where wages were lower and hours probably also long at least during some periods of the year).

In the UK and by extension the US,  if a household had an able bodied adult male able to work then normally they would not be desperately poor (Robert Allen's wage series show that real wages in English and the US were perhaps 2 or 3 times southern European wages  and people were able to survive there).  One reason why perceptions of poverty increased in England during the early 19th century (in addition to the point that it was just more concentrated and hence visible) was to due with the social dislocation associated with urbanization (much higher rates of illegitimacy, more single earner households etc.).  Families without male earners were indeed desperately poor and reliant on very young children working and these households became more common during Industrialization.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Eric Falkenstein writes:

Those days before the division of labor were truly idyllic...

Max writes:

Could somebody elaborate why families without a male provider were increasing during the industrial revolution? Why did they become more common? Is this just an assertion or a fact?

Mark Koyama writes:

Max - obviously this is quick blog post and not an article. There is a huge scholarly literature you can explore if you want. Nevertheless here is a figure which illustrates what I am talking about


[broken html fixed--Econlib Ed.]

dave smith writes:

This illustrates the difference between the methods of history v economics. A historian will read “The Jungle” while an economist will try to get and analyze data.

Maximum Liberty writes:

So, if you work 11 hours per day, 50 weeks a year, six days per week, that's 3300 hours per year (ignoring the extra day per year). From personal experience (i.e. anecdotally), I can say that many small business owners in America work more than that, and many professionals do, especially when they are at the lower rungs of the career ladder. So, 3356 hours per year is not barbaric per se.


Tim Worstall writes:

Apologies for leaping up and down again on one of my favourite pet points.

But we're going to get nowhere at all discussing working hours unless we also include unpaid hours of home production.

Yes, I can well imagine 3,300 hours or so in the 1830s in industry as paid working hours. But what we need to compare that too is not the paid working hours of their peasant forefathers, nor the paid woking hours we do now.

We want to know the total working hours, paid and unpaid, of all three groups over time.

We, today, obviously do far fewer of both kinds of working hours, paid and unpaid. But the contention is often that the industrial proletariat did more total hours than their peasant forefathers. And I am deeply unconvinced that this is true. Those estimates from Juliet Schor of 1700 hours annually, with 70 days holiday, they appear (at least so far as I can track her work) to be only paid employment hours (ie, work on the Lord's demesne in lieu of rent).

They do not include the unpaid hours spent on the villein's own land.

That total working hours have declined from 1830 to now I consider proven. But that total working hours rose from say, 1500 to 1830 I regard as entirely not proven as yet.

Shane L writes:

Am I wrong in thinking that urban life would have been nasty for the poor also because of the bad sanitation and disease? I presume rural people at least had the great outdoors into which they could spread their waste. In cities with several families living in a single room of squashed tenements and little sanitation the filth and disease must have been appalling.

The sheer ugliness of it, too: grim, smoke-darkened brick structures jammed with people and waste, compared with the bright open spaces of the farm.

(I'm from a rural area myself and much prefer it to the city - can you tell? :) )

I wonder if cities and industry were attractive because they offered a chance to escape poverty that was rare with agricultural work, even if that chance came with serious risk? I can imagine young men, especially, willing to risk their lives to disease or industrial accident on the chance that they might make it big.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Reminds me of Charles Dickens' novels, including "Hard Times" and Mr. Gradgrind, the industrialist that ...

"But, to see it, he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to wreck. The barriers were too many and too high for such a leap. With his unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face, he hardened her again; and the moment shot away into the plumbless depths of the past, to mingle with all the lost opportunities that are
drowned there."

Tom West writes:

I think this is a problem of priors, not necessarily a dispute over facts.

At heart, I think Bryan's argument comes down to "if both parties freely entered into contract with full understanding, then it's by definition ethical".

That statement is simply not true in the minds of a significant fraction (if not majority) of humanity.

Bruce Heinzman writes:

Working hours in factories or the farm would not exceed the daylight hours. I hardly think very expensive candles or whale oil lamps were used.

Mark Koyama writes:

Tim - isn't the issue that agricultural work in a traditional economy imposed very variable hours of work. So peasants would work very long hours during harvest time and have lots of enforced "leisure" during the winter months.

It seems to be the case that working hours for urban workers did increase at least between 1750 and 1830 and very plausibly from 1500 to 1750.

Shane - Entirely right. The cities were basically swamps of disease and estimated life expectancy at birth in cities like Liverpool could be estimated life expectancy in a rural county.

Tom - Evidently there an issue of ethics at the bottom of this. My point however was to broadly to support Bryan's view of the facts while pointing out areas where the scholarly literature on the British Industrial Revolution is more pessimistic about the living standards of the first generation or two who went through industrialization.

Bill Dennis writes:

Once, I added up all the wages of the extended family in "the Jungle." The sum came to more than $1,000 in 1905, as I remember it, poor for sure, but not desparetly so.

unlearningecon writes:


Also consider unpaid work under capitalism. Many workers tended gardens to supplement their wages (see ch5 here, for example).

notsneaky writes:

Also consider unpaid work under capitalism. Many workers tended gardens to supplement their wages

And...? Also consider unpaid work under communism. Many workers tried to tend their private gardens to supplement whatever income they received from the state. At which point, unless they could hide it well, they were declared "kulaks" (later on, in the post-Stalinist period, "speculators"), were accused of "hoarding" (later on, in the post-Stalinist period of "profiteering") and if they weren't shot outright (later on, in the post-Stalinist period, merely imprisoned and tortured), the state funded them a nice vacation to visit the polar bears in Siberia. What's your point?

My comment is off topic but only because you're bringing in off topic nonsense into it as well.

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