Losing the thread: a response to Robert Allen†

Jane Humphries, Benjamin Schneider
Published Online:
23 Jul 2020
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Abstract In an earlier article we used archival and printed primary sources to construct the first long‐run wage series for hand spinning in early modern Britain. This evidence challenged Robert Allen's claim that spinners were part of the ‘high wage economy’, which he sees as motivating invention, innovation, and mechanization in the spinning section of the textile industry. We respond to Allen's subsequent 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 focusing on part‐time and low‐quality workers. His rejoinder rests on an ahistorical account of spinners’ work and similarly weak evidence on wages as did his initial claims. Our augmented version of the spinners’ wages dataset confirms our original findings. Spinners’ wages were low even compared with other women workers, and neither wages nor the piece rates that determined unit labour costs followed a trajectory that could explain the invention and spread of the spinning jenny.

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