Did the Ottomans Import the Low Wages of the British in the 19th Century? An Examination of Ottoman Textile Factories (NR Online Session 4)

By Tamer Güven (Istanbul University)

This research is due to be presented in the fourth New Researcher Online Session: ‘Equality & Wages’.


The Istanbul Grand Bazaar in the 1890s. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Compared to the UK and Western Europe, there are a limited number of studies on wages and standards of living in the Ottoman empire. For the Ottoman empire the only source that can provide regular wage data for industry are the Ottoman state factories established in the 1840s to meet the needs of the state’s growing and centralized military and bureaucracy. Limitations in the sources of data are explained by the relative absence of industrial wage series in the monographies on Ottoman industrial institutions, and that manufacturing mainly comprised small manufacturers who did not keep records. This paucity in data may change as the Ottoman Archives become fully catalogued. The main aim of this study is to construct a wage series using the wage ledgers of those working in state factories. Consequently, I examined four prominent textile-related factories: Hereke Imperial Factory, Veliefendi Calico Factory, Bursa Silk Factory, and İzmit Cloth Factory. Only the Hereke Factory offers a 52-year wage series between 1848-1899. The data for the Veliefendi Factory started in 1848 but are disrupted in 1876 as the factory was transferred to military rule; the same applies to the İzmit Factory, which was established in 1844, but transferred to military rule in 1849.

I created two separate daily and monthly wage series to determine how many days workers worked per month and how this changed during the nineteenth century. Thus, not only the workers’ potential wages but also the workers’ observed monthly wages can be analysed. Some groups of workers were eliminated from the dataset for a variety of reasons. For example, civilian officials and masters working in factories were excluded because of their relatively high wages. Conversely, because of their relatively low wages, I also exclude carpet weavers —  mostly young girls and children.  I preferred to use median values for monthly wage series to include as many workers as possible in the analysis. As with much historical data, the wage series created in this study are incomplete. To overcome this I complement data for the Hereke Factory wage series with data from the  Veliefendi and Bursa Factories.

My results indicate that daily real wages increased by only by 0.03 per cent,  per annum,  between  1852 and 1899.  However, the real monthly wages of Hereke Factory workers rose by 0.11 per cent, per annum,  between 1848 and 1899, but by 0.24 per cent per annum using 1852 as a starting point.  Monthly wages increased faster than daily wages, but at the cost of more workdays for workers. Average workdays increased by 0.44 per cent, per annum over the span of the period. Although the Veliefendi Factory provides a narrower wage series from 1848 to 1876, it supports this pattern. Limited,  but prominent examinations of Ottoman wage history claim that construction, urban, and agricultural workers’ wages increased, albeit at different rates in the same period. How can we explain the increase in wages of other sectors when the wages of textile workers were stagnant?

Many observations on the Ottoman cities has shown that industrial production, particularly in the textile sector, shifted from urban to rural,  or from craft workshops to houses, to compete with cheap British yarn and fabric in the 19th century. According to my calculations, imports of Ottoman cotton yarn increased by a factor of 25 to 50 in the 19th century. This trend was most pronounced after the 1838 Anglo-Turkish Convention, when cheap English products were imported into the Ottoman Empire, and Ottoman producers sought cheaper labour.  Labour-saving machines both facilitated the export of  British yarns and fabrics to, and lowered wages in, the Ottoman empire.  Although the wage series for the Hereke factory,  and, to a more limited extent,  the Veliefendi factory provide evidence in support of this hypothesis, numerous studies on Ottoman industry in the 19th-century support the same argument, though without a wage series.

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