Annotated selected bibliography for historical interpretations of the industrial revolution in britain



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Valenze, Deborah, The First Industrial Woman, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. ix, 251.

Valenze’s central question in this well written and engaging study of women and work during Britain’s industrial revolution is: how did women’s work become so devalued in industrial society? Her answer is that it was chiefly ideology, rather than technology or economic necessity, which associated women’s work with domesticity. This is primarily a work of cultural history. There are few statistics in the book; it is, however, rooted in a wealth of interesting literary sources. Valenze states that her book “has aimed to dislodge the ‘Whig history’ of industrialization—an unbroken narrative of progress—from its dictatorial role.” She argues that during the crucial early stages of the industrial revolution, important precedents were set about “who would work, how well they performed, and how they were to be remunerated.” She argues that both women and men were seen as industrious during the early 18th century but that new attitudes to the poor from the 1760s, as well as growing unemployment and the increased cost of poor relief, began to erode this attitude. While early 18th century society was paternalistic, looser attitudes toward property and poverty within a traditional agricultural and artisan society allowed women greater employment opportunities and status in society. The modernization of agriculture introduced new values of specialization and more clearly defined property rights, which increasingly consigned women to seasonal and unskilled. This was especially so in cereal producing regions and in the dairy industry, which women had once dominated.

Spinning, which had once been primarily the work of women and had boosted their status as economically productive, was largely taken over by men with the industrialization of the textile industry. Even those, mostly unmarried women, who found work in the growing textile industry were derided by the Victorians as the “factory girl” and characterized as spending their money frivolously and were suspected of having loose morals. Women were excluded from the labor unions that began to develop in the 1830s. During the 1840s legislation was enacted forbidding women to work in certain industries iand thus institutionalized their inequality. Valenze also chronicles the decline of cottage industries in which women had previously played major roles and the rise of what would later be called sweated labor, which was supplementary to factory production.

One of the major contributions of this study is that it integrates the study of ideology with a discussion of the actual work performed by women during the period. As women were increasingly relegated to handwork, marginal and seasonal modes of production, political economists and middle class attitudes increasingly found women to be naturally less productive than men. According to Valenze, traditional wage differentials between male and female labor became more generalized in the industrial economy. Her chapter on the role of the new political economy, especially the ideas of Malthus, is an interesting discussion of the development of harsher attitudes toward the poor and its increasing association with what she calls the “feminization of the female worker.” At the same time the development of a middle class ideology of domesticity created a domestic identity for women that focused on the family and the raising of children. While these ideals were largely irrelevant to the reality of working-class women’s lives, they helped associate women who worked for wages with poverty. Valenze goes on to show that middle class philanthropy encouraged the need to reform working-class women but found the best solution for their problems as employment in the rapid growth of domestic service, the largest employer of women in Victorian Britain. Valenze concludes: “the spell cast by domestic service over the fate of working-class women would not be broken until society addressed the larger question of their rightful place within the life of the first industrial nation.” This is a beautifully written book based upon a wide variety of sources and is an excellent introduction to the important topic of the place of women workers in England’s industrial revolution and its long-term consequences for gender roles in modern industrial society.


Vries, J. de, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 327. 12 figs.

De Vries, one of the most prominent economic historians of early modern Europe, introduced the concept of an ‘industrious revolution’ as a fundamental cause of the industrial revolution in a much noticed journal article in 1994. This book expands and generalizes the concept and broadens its applicability to our understanding of modern economic growth from the early 17th century to the present. The concept, and even the phrase, has been well received and widely discussed by historians. He argues that “the industrious revolution…unfolded gradually after 1650 linked an intensification of market labor by the household to new consumer aspirations—what contemporaries called an ‘awakening of the appetites of the mind.’ Many of these new aspirations reflected individual appetites, and, over time, the multiple voices within the household put pressure on its integrity, but under the conditions of the times the execution of new patterns of consumer demand required household strategies.” For de Vries, one of the key foundations of economic growth in North-Western Europe was its peculiar (in world-wide terms) marriage pattern of relatively late marriages and households consisting of independent nuclear families. These households responded both to market conditions and consumer aspirations. During the early modern period, households combined purchased goods with household labor to produce commodities for final consumption using available technologies. De Vries argues that consumption itself is dynamic. It reflects both the changing desires of the households and the changing opportunities available in the marketplace and often involves the pursuit of clusters of commodities which constitute “lifestyles.” He argues that from the mid-17th century both consumer demand and the supply of labor grew by the reallocation of the productive resources of households, resulting in a rise of household production sold to others and of consumption purchased from others. This economic growth produced market integration, such as agricultural specialization, proto-industrial production, increased wage labor, more commercial participation in a growing market economy, but especially a greater supply of labor. During the period leading up to the industrial revolution, de Vries argued, “household members worked harder and longer in order to consume more and consume different and new products.” An important part of the argument is that it was especially women and children who played a greater role in market production and consumption.

De Vries does not claim that the “industrious revolution” is the ultimate cause of the first industrial revolution, but he suggests that the concept, which he acknowledges was first used by Akira Hayami to describe Japan’s labor intensive path to industrialization, seeks to provide a fuller account of the context in which the new technologies and organizational changes that characterize the industrial revolution should be seen. According to Vries, “the industrious revolution that began in the late seventeenth century…formed the context in which the Industrial Revolution unfolded rather than being itself a creation of that sequence of events.” The essential argument in de Vries’ framework is that the industrious revolution was not a response to economic factors, such as changes in prices and incomes, or the scientific revolution but an autonomous rise in the “goods aspirations” of households, which produced an enlarged supply of labor. De Vries admits that “the record of real wages…does not on the face of it, offer much scope for innovative consumer behavior or an expansive material culture.” However, he notes that that the North-Western European marriage patterns of independent nuclear family households encouraged not just an increase in male head of household labor but also the increased participation of women and children in market labor. De Vries’ argument that the industrious revolution should be seen as a major factor in explaining the first industrial revolution has produced a good deal of discussion and will no doubt be tested empirically, assuming the data is available. See, for example, the important work of Jan Luiten van Zanden (below).
Wrightson, Keith, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. ii, 372.

This is a very readable and beautifully written survey of British social and economic history between c. 1450 and 1750. Although the book relies upon a good deal of quantitative data, especially the research of demographic historians, the volume emphasizes the lives of people from all social groups and how they were effected by the gradual development of a market economy in Britain. Wrightson is quite skeptical of the use of neo-classical economic theory as useful tools for explaining early modern European economic history. His opening chapter provides a useful discussion of the historiography of British economic history, which reminds us of the pioneering interpretations of the Scottish Enlightenment’s economic writers and of the late nineteenth century work of the English historical economists as well as more recent work in economic history. Wrightson’s approach to economic history does not use social science jargon or complex theoretical models. Instead, he offers us an appealing model for a revitalized humanistic and readable social and economic history. He also eschews the old overarching explanations of social history, which placed early modern Britain’s social history within a Marx inspired framework of a transition from feudalism to capitalism. In harmony with the many specialized and local studies of the last generation of social historians, who recognized that the old order and its values persisted for a long time, Wrightson tells the story of a slow and complex evolution of society over three centuries, which prepared the way, but did not guarantee that Britain would subsequently experience the first industrial revolution. He argues that an integrated national economy was created during this long period in which market forces “became not just a means of exchanging goods, but a mechanism for sustaining and maintaining an entire society.” This society was closely linked to the emerging world-economy and saw the extension and ‘ideological sanctification’ of private property rights, a vast expansion in the market for labor power as a “commodity to be bought and sold,” and a redistribution of power in the hands of those who were able to profit from the increase of productive power. All this involved modest but long-term increases in output and per capita income and consumption, especially for the ‘middling sort,’ but also a diminished wellbeing for those left behind by economic growth.

Instead of most economic histories of the period, which proceed by treating each of the chief economic sectors--such as agriculture, trade, industry, labor—separately, Wrightson organized his book chronologically around major changes in social organization and the economy. He divides up his story into three main periods. In the first part, Households in a landscape, c. 1450-1550, he explains the structure of society and economic life of a largely traditional society. He emphasizes the limited role of the market during this period for the vast majority of people. Most spent their lives within a local neighborhood. For them “Countries” meant not a nation but a local county. Only the elite operated in a larger context. Nonetheless, even in this traditional society, he stresses the interdependencies of people in their communities. In part two, which concentrates on the sixteenth century, he explains the major changes brought by economic and social change. The principal agents of change, according to Wrightson, were the growth of population and the rise of prices during the period. These forces resulted in greater competition within society and brought important changes in property ownership, domestic and international commerce, taxation for waging war, and urbanization. In Part three, Living with the market, c. 1660-1750, he chronicles the growing role of the market in society and discusses the changing lives of the landed interest--nobleman, gentlemen, and yeoman; the ‘middle sort of people, whose lives revolved around capital credit, trade, commerce, and new patterns of consumption; and the laboring people. In his treatment of the latter, he discusses both those who became more independent during the period and those who became more dependent. Throughout the book, he emphasizes the complexity of society and rejects simple categorizations. This can especially be seen in his excellent chapters on the ‘middling sort,’ and in his treatment of the common people. He constantly reminds us of the different social and economic lives experienced by, for example, a Scottish crofter, a London tradesman, or an East Anglian weaver. Unlike many other surveys that claim to discuss all of Britain and then focus almost entirely on England, Wrightson provides an extensive treatment of Scotland’s social and economic history. The book includes an excellent list of suggestions for further reading, arranged by topic and with many brief but useful annotations. One shortcoming of the book that it does not include footnotes to his many interesting quotations from a wide variety of interesting sources.

Wrigley, E. A. Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Pp. 146.

Wrigley is the most important British historical demographer. This book began as interpretive lectures at Cambridge University and was developed further into an excellent introduction to the chief causes of the industrial revolution in Britain. His explanation of the origin of the industrial revolution is on the supply rather than the demand side. In his demographic research (see below), he emphasized the role of population growth in the origin of the industrial revolution but here he stresses the role of natural resources, especially coal. His explanation splits the origin of the industrial revolution into two periods. The first, which Wrigley sees as a long period of preparation from Elizabethan times to the early 19th century, saw the development of an “advanced organic economy,” in which power was primarily based upon human, animal and water resources. While there was long-term economic growth in the organic phase, based on specialization and the division of labor as explained by Adam Smith, it was restrained by limits on land and organic resources. The second, and more spectacular, phase, which began during the second quarter of the 19th century, was based upon the ample and conveniently situated supplies of coal in England and Scotland. Its exploitation saw the development of increasingly more efficient steam engines, the making of iron using coal, and the application of steam engines to provide power for railways, ships and factories, According to Wrigley, while the copper, iron, and tin industries were developed earlier using charcoal for fuel, the increased cost of wood grown on a limited supply of land set limits on the increased production of metals essential for economic growth. Wrigley argues that organic resources were also less efficient in producing energy than the mineral resource of coal. In an interesting discussion of the Dutch economy, which experienced long-term economic growth in the 17th century and developed an impressive manufacturing capacity, he asked why it was unable to breakthrough to an industrial revolution until much later than Britain. His answer is its reliance upon peat and wind for power. One might ask why the Dutch did not import coal from the coal-fields in England’s Northeast across the North Sea, or why the English could not have imported charcoal from the abundant forests in North America. Wrigley also notes that it was during the early 19th century that discoveries in inorganic chemistry allowed the development of new and productive manufacturing processes in a variety of industries using industrial chemistry.

Wrigley’s analysis has essentially divided the industrial revolution into two distinctive phases: long “advanced organic economy” and the rapid development of a mineral based economy during the 19th century. This division of the industrial revolution into two stages, and thus its extension over a long period of time, fits in with much of modern scholarship. His demographic research (see below) was fundamental to the idea of the development of an advanced organic economy during the early modern period. This short book serves to remind us of the importance of mineral resources in Britain’s industrial revolution. Moreover, the convenient location of Britain’s coal resources made it easier than its rivals to build a modern industrial economy. A good example of this is Lancanshire’s world-leading textile industry, which was built on top of the county’s coal-field. Wrigley’s argument implies that technological innovation was once again central to the industrial revolution in Britain but he does not develop this connection explicitly in this book. In a broader 2010 study, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, Wrigley further developed his ideas about the importance of Britain’s mineral resources to the development of an industrial revolution for which the way had been prepared by a long period of slow but cumulative economic progress within an organic economy,


Wrigley, E. A. and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction, London: Edward Arnold, 1981. Pp. xv, 779.

This study, along with a subsequent companion volume, English Population History from Family Reconstruction, 1580-1837 (1997), produced by the authors and other collaborators at Cambridge University, produced a revolution in English demographic history. These studies are based upon samples from the millions of entries in surviving English parish registers of births, marriages, deaths and burials. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, the data was aggregated and analyzed to discover trends in the size of the population, trends in the rates of population growth and decline, and such important demographic variables as the age of marriage, age-specific mortality and fertility rates, gross reproduction and others. Before the publication of the this volume, the common assumption had been that preindustrial England balanced its population by way of nearly universal and early marriage with high mortality through periodic Malthusian crisis, in which a growing population encountered diminishing economic returns due to limited natural resources, especially land. Instead, their empirical evidence shows that an “accommodation between population and resources was secured not by sudden, sharp mortality spasms, but by wide quiet fluctuations in fertility.” These broad changes in fertility were a consequence of changes in the age of marriage and of the proportion of the population that married. Thus, in Malthusian terms, a preventive check on excessive population growth in relation to the resources available was predominant. The work of Wrigley, Schofield and his collaborators underpins the argument for long-term economic growth in early modern England, which provided a hospitable context for the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Critics have warned that the argument might be circular. If population growth determined the rise of real wages, and then the growth of real wages determined nuptiality, which in turn determined fertility and population growth. Some have complained that Wrigley and Schofield’s demography used a Malthusian model of male wages as the key determinant of the age of marriage, while others see structural changes in the economy as crucial in altering family incomes and acting as the primary influence upon changes in the marriage age. More recently, the very impressive research of Wrigley and his colleagues has led to the articulation of alternative models that focus on the demand side and the changing consumer aspirations of households. Despite some criticism, these substantial volumes contain the statistics, tables, methodological discussions and the conclusions derived from these. Their work is essential to a an understanding of English demographic history for the period.

A good introduction and summary of Wrigley’s work can be found in a much less technical volume, a collection of his essays published as Poverty, Progress and Population (2004). Here he discusses the wider issue of the relationship of England’s demographic pattern to the origin of the industrial revolution. For Wrigley, England’s agricultural productivity and the fastest rate of population growth in Europe during the 18th century also allowed the growth of urbanization and the increased specialization of labor. As he explains: “It is mistaken to suppose that it was the industrial revolution which set England apart for a time from the continent of Europe. Almost the reverse was the case. Once the industrial revolution had started to transform English society and economy, the days of its distinctiveness were numbered and its economic dominance was doomed…But for about two centuries before this transition took place, England had been growing steadily apart from the continent, acquiring in the process increased political and economic power.” England’s demographic pattern was thus essential to its economic growth during the early modern period but other factors, including its coal resources, were essential to its industrial revolution.

Zanden, Jan Luiten van, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009. P. xiii, 341. 12 tls. 40 figs. 1 map.

For many years economic historians have been debating what has been called the ‘Great Divergence,’ or when and how Western European economic growth increased relative to that of advanced economic regions in China and Japan. Their focus was originally on the period of the industrial revolution in Europe. More recently, evidence has mounted that the divergence of economic growth between Europe and Asia occurred during the early modern period, well before the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. This important study, based upon many quantitative indices of economic growth from to 10th to the 19th centuries, van Zanden, who has been a major contributor to this debate, has shifted the focus on the beginning of European economic growth to the medieval period. He argues that the first industrial revolution should be seen as a “long runway” of preparation before the industrial revolution could “take off” during the late 18th century. Van Zanden argues that for most of Europe the medieval period was more dynamic than the period from 1500 to 1800. The growth of the European economy from 900 to 1300 took place on a pan-European scale and consisted of strong population growth and an increase in per capita real income. From c. 1500 to 1800 growth was restricted to the North Sea region—and especially in Flanders in the 16th century, the Netherlands during its Golden Age in the late 16th to mid 17th centuries, and Britain after the early 17th century. By contrast, per capita income in the rest of Western Europe stagnated and even declined between 1500 and 1800. The emergence of different growth paths in Western Europe has been labeled as the ‘Little Divergence.”

Van Zanden not only set out to document the European divergences but to explain why it happened. An earlier generation of economic growth theorists tended to explain long-term economic growth in terms of the accumulation of capital and technological innovation (economists call this ‘exogenous’ growth, or having its origins externally). More recently, new economic growth theories have been developed, which focus on why, where and when human capital formation (investing in the skills of humans) and the accumulation of knowledge began to increase before the industrial revolution (these are called endogenous theories, or growth from within). One of the most important ways to explain early endogenous growth has been through the study of demographic patterns. It makes the assumption that parents had a choice of how many children they had and about how much capital they would invest in developing the skills of their children. Van Zanden argues that an important divergence in demographic patterns occurred in the North Sea region. This divergence has been linked to the European Marriage pattern, first developed after the arrival in the late 14th century of the plague, or Black Death, in Western Europe. This demographic pattern consisted of relatively late marriages, the setting up of separate households by the newly married, relatively less subordination for women within an overall patriarchal family, and a greater participation of women in the labor force. This approach links economic growth to the behavior of households in what de Vries (see above) called an ‘industrious revolution’ during the early modern period. The problem for historians is how to find evidence for this during the medieval period when both demographic and price statistics are not available.



Van Zanden seeks to solve this problem by providing new sets of statistical data that show the development of European investment in human capital. In cooperation with a team of historians, he documents the development of a European ‘knowledge economy’ with statistics that show the growth of manuscript and book publishing during the medieval period from the Carolingian period to the Renaissance, well before the invention of the printing press. These indices of education and literacy begin to show a divergence between the North Sea region and the rest of Europe from c. 1400. The fact that wage levels in the North Sea region were also significantly higher in this region than in the rest of Europe from the 15th century provides further evidence of greater investment in human capital during this period in the this region. Van Zanden goes on to develop indices of relatively greater citizen participation in government in the North Sea area than in the rest of Europe. This greater participation in government can be seen in the successful revolt of the Netherlands, the creation of the Dutch Republic, the English Revolution, and the establishment of a balance of power between the Crown and Parliament in England after 1688. According to van Zanden, it was in these two countries that political and economic institutions were developed that produced greater economic efficiency, which allowed them to win the greatest economic benefits from the creation of a world-wide trade network and reap the economic dividends from the immense resources of the Western Hemisphere.

Greater participation in government also allowed the Dutch Republic and Britain to collect more taxes from its citizens and to use this revenue to protect its terrirtory from absolutist states, such as Spain and France, and to wage war to expand its mercantilist economies. Combining these long-term developments with such other crucial factors, as Britain’s greater size, and its convenient coal resources allowed Britain to take the lead from the Dutch Republic and to achieve the first industrial revolution. Van Zanden also uses his statistical date to compare the North Sea region with advanced economic areas in Asia in order to provide a broad comparative explanation for the “Great Divergence.” His book is based upon his many articles in scholarly journals and the collaboration of other scholars. It constitutes an important statement in the debate about the long-term origin of the industrial revolution, which, van Zanden argues, was rooted in a ‘million mutinies’ of ordinary people. At the beginning of his book, van Zanden quotes Robert Lucas, an important economic growth theorist: “For income growth to occur in a society, a large fraction of people must experience changes in the possible lives they imagine for themselves and their children, and these new visions of a possible futures must have enough force to lead them to change the way they behave, the number of children they have, and the hopes they invest in these children: the way they allocate their time. In other words…economic development requires a million mutinies.” Van Zanden’s book includes over fifty statistical tables, graphs and figures and an extensive bibliography.
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