The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History Part B*

This piece is the result of a collaboration between the Economic History Review, the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History and the European Review of Economic History. More details and special thanks below. Part A is available at this link 

Bubonic plague cases are on the rise in the US. Yes, really. - Vox
Man and women with the bubonic plague with its characteristic buboes on their bodies — a medieval painting from 1411.
 Everett Historical/Shutterstock

As the world grapples with a pandemic, informed views based on facts and evidence have become all the more important. Economic history is a uniquely well-suited discipline to provide insights into the costs and consequences of rare events, such as pandemics, as it combines the tools of an economist with the long perspective and attention to context of historians. The editors of the main journals in economic history have thus gathered a selection of the recently-published articles on epidemics, disease and public health, generously made available by publishers to the public, free of access, so that we may continue to learn from the decisions of humans and policy makers confronting earlier episodes of widespread disease and pandemics.

Generations of economic historians have studied disease and its impact on societies across history. However, as the discipline has continued to evolve with improvements in both data and methods, researchers have uncovered new evidence about episodes from the distant past, such as the Black Death, as well as more recent global pandemics, such as the Spanish Influenza of 1918. In this second instalment of The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History, the editors present a review of two major themes that have featured in the analysis of disease. The first  includes articles that discuss the economic impacts of historical epidemics and the official responses they prompted.  The second  turns to the more optimistic story of the impact of public health regulation and interventions, and the benefits thereby generated.

 

S T R A V A G A N Z A: ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF PLAGUE IN EUROPE
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (1562 ca.)

Epidemics and the Economy

 The ways in which societies  and economies are affected by repeated epidemics is a question that historians have struggled to understand. Paolo Malanima provides a detailed analysis of how Renaissance Italy was shaped by the impact of plague: ‘Italy in the Renaissance: A Leading Economy in the European Context, 1350–1550’. Economic History Review 71, no. 1 (2018): 3-30. The consequences of plague for Italy are explored in even more detail by Guido Alfani who demonstrates that the peninsula struggled to recover after experiencing pervasive mortality during the seventeenth century: ‘Plague in Seventeenth-century Europe and the Decline of Italy: An Epidemiological Hypothesis’. European Review of Economic History 17, no. 4 (2013): 408-30.  Epidemics cause multiple changes to the economic environment which necessitates a multifaceted response by government.  Samuel Cohn examines the  oppressive nature of these  reactions in his luminous study of the way European governments sought to prevent workers benefiting from the increased demand for their labour following the Black Death: ‘After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe’. The Economic History Review, 60, no. 3 (2007): 457-85.  

 

The Black Death Actually Improved Public Health | Smart News ...
Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (1497 ca)

 

Public Health

Richard Easterlin’s  panoramic overview of mortality  shows that government policy was critical  in reducing levels of mortality from the early nineteenth century. Economic growth by itself did not lift life expectancy. This major  paper illuminates the essential contribution of public intervention to health in modern societies:  “How Beneficent Is the Market? A Look at the Modern History of Mortality.” European Review of Economic History 3, no. 3 (1999): 257-94. .  Does strict health regulation save lives?  Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode respond to this question in the affirmative by explaining how the US federal government succeeded in lowering the spread of tuberculosis by establishing controls on cattle in the early part of the twentieth century. Their analysis has considerable contemporary relevance:  only robust and universal controls saved lives: ‘The ‘Tuberculous Cattle Trust’: Disease Contagion in an Era of Regulatory Uncertainty’.  The Journal of Economic History 64, no. 4 (2004): 929–63.

Human society has achieved enormous gains in life expectancy over the last two centuries. Part of the explanation for this improvement  was improvements in key infrastructure.  However, as Daniel Gallardo‐Albarrán demonstrates, this was not simply a  question of ‘dig and save lives’, because  it was the combination  of types of structure  — water and sewers – that mattered: ‘Sanitary infrastructures and the decline of mortality in Germany, 1877–1913’, The Economic History Review (2020). One of the big goals of economic historians has been to measure the multiple benefits of public health interventions. Brian Beach,  Joseph Ferrie, Martin Saavedra, and Werner Troesken,  provide a  brilliant example of how novel statistical techniques  allow us to determine the gains from one such intervention – water purification. They demonstrate that the long-term impacts of reducing levels of disease by improving water quality were large when measured in education and income, and not just lives saved: ‘Typhoid Fever, Water Quality, and Human Capital Formation’.  The Journal of Economic History 76, no. 1 (2016): 41–75. What was it that allowed European societies to largely defeat tuberculosis (TB) in the second half of the twentieth century? In an ambitious  paper, Sue Bowden, João Tovar Jalles, Álvaro Santos Pereira, and Alex Sadler, show that a mix of factors explains the decline in TB: nutrition, living conditions, and the supply of healthcare: ‘Respiratory Tuberculosis and Standards of Living in Postwar Europe’.  European Review of Economic History 18, no. 1 (2014): 57-81.

What We Can Learn (and Should Unlearn) From Albert Camus's The ...
Thomas Rowlandson, The English Dance of Death (1815 ca)

This article was compiled by: 

 

If you wish to read further, other papers on this topic are available on the journal websites:

 

*  Special thanks to Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Cambridge University Press, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and Wiley for their advice and support.

Tawney Lecture 2019: Slavery and Anglo-American Capitalism Revisited

by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)

This research was presented as the Tawney Lecture at the EHS Annual Conference in 2019.

It will also appear in the Economic History Review later this year.

 

WrightCotton
Coloured lithograph of slaves picking cotton. Fort Sumter Museum Charleston. Available at Flickr.

My Tawney lecture reassessed the relationship between slavery and industrial capitalism in both Britain and the United States.  The thesis expounded by Eric Williams held that slavery and the slave trade were vital for the expansion of British industry and commerce during the 18th century but were no longer needed by the 19th.  My lecture confirmed both parts of the Williams thesis:  the 18th-century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, which required slave labor; but after 1815, British manufactured goods found diverse new international markets that did not need captive colonial buyers, naval protection, or slavery.  Long-distance trade became safer and cheaper, as freight rates fell, and international financial infrastructure developed.  Figure 1 (below) shows that the slave economies absorbed the majority of British cotton goods during the 18th century, but lost their centrality during the 19th, supplanted by a diverse array of global destinations.

Figure 1.

Wright1
Source: see article published in the Review.

 

I argued that this formulation applies with equal force to the upstart economy across the Atlantic.  The mainland North American colonies were intimately connected to the larger slave-based imperial economy.  The northern colonies, holding relatively few slaves themselves, were nonetheless beneficiaries of the trading regime,  protected against outsiders by British naval superiority.  Between 1768 and 1772, the British West Indies were the largest single market for commodity exports from New England and the Middle Atlantic, dominating sales of wood products, fish and meat, and accounting for significant shares of whale products, grains and grain products.  The prominence of slave-based commerce explains the arresting connections reported by C. S. Wilder, associating early American universities with slavery.  Thus, part one of the Williams thesis also holds for 18th-century colonial America.

Insurgent scholars known as New Historians of Capitalism argue that slavery, specifically slave-grown cotton, was critical for the rise of the U.S. economy in the 19th century.  In contrast, I argued that although industrial capitalism needed cheap cotton, cheap cotton did not need slavery.  Unlike sugar, cotton required no large investments of fixed capital and could be cultivated efficiently at any scale, in locations that would have been settled by free farmers in the absence of slavery.  Early mainland cotton growers deployed slave labour not because of its productivity or aptness for the new crop, but because they were already slave owners, searching for profitable alternatives to tobacco, indigo, and other declining crops.  Slavery was, in effect, a ‘pre-existing condition’ for the 19th-century American South.

To be sure, U.S. cotton did indeed rise ‘on the backs of slaves’, and no cliometric counterfactual can gainsay this brute fact of history.  But it is doubtful that this brutal system served the long-run interests of textile producers in Lancashire and New England, as many of them recognized at the time.  As argued here, the slave South underperformed as a world cotton supplier, for three distinct though related reasons:  in 1807 the region  closed the African slave trade, yet failed to recruit free migrants, making labour supply inelastic; slave owners neglected transportation infrastructure, leaving large sections of potential cotton land on the margins of commercial agriculture; and because of the fixed-cost character of slavery, even large plantations aimed at self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, limiting the region’s overall degree of market specialization.  The best evidence that slavery was not essential for cotton supply is demonstrated by what happened when slavery ended. After war and emancipation, merchants and railroads flooded into the southeast, enticing previously isolated farm areas into the cotton economy.  Production in plantation areas gradually recovered, but the biggest source of new cotton came from white farmers in the Piedmont.  When the dust settled in the 1880s, India, Egypt, and slave-using Brazil had retreated from world markets, and the price of cotton in Liverpool returned to its antebellum level. See Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Wright2
Source: see article published in the Review.

The New Historians of Capitalism also exaggerate the importance of the slave South for accelerated U.S. growth.  The Cotton Staple Growth hypothesis advanced by Douglass North was decisively refuted by economic historians a generation ago.  The South was not a major market for western foodstuffs and consumed only a small and declining share of northern manufactures.   International and interregional financial connections were undeniably important, but thriving capital markets in northeastern cities clearly predated the rise of cotton, and connections to slavery were remote at best. Investments in western canals and railroads were in fact larger, accentuating the expansion of commerce along East-West lines.

It would be excessive to claim that Anglo-American industrial and financial interests recognized the growing dysfunction of the slave South, and in response fostered or encouraged the antislavery campaigns that culminated in the Civil War.  A more appropriate conclusion is that because of profound changes in technologies and global economic structures, slavery — though still highly profitable to its practitioners — no longer seemed essential for the capitalist economies of the 19th-century world.

All quiet before the take-off? Pre-industrial regional inequality in Sweden (1571-1850)

by Anna Missiaia and Kersten Enflo (Lund University)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.

 

Missiaia Main.jpg
Södra Bancohuset (The Southern National Bank Building), Stockholm. Available here at Wikimedia Commons.

For a long time, scholars have thought about regional inequality merely as a by-product of modern economic growth: following a Kuznets-style interpretation, the front-running regions increase their income levels and regional inequality during industrialization; and it is only when the other regions catch-up that overall regional inequality decreases and completes the inverted-U shaped pattern. But early empirical research on this theme was largely focused on the  the 20th century, ignoring industrial take-off of many countries (Williamson, 1965).  More recent empirical studies have pushed the temporal boundary back to the mid-19th century, finding that inequality in regional GDP was already high at the outset of modern industrialization (see for instance Rosés et al., 2010 on Spain and Felice, 2018 on Italy).

The main constraint for taking the estimations well into the pre-industrial period is the availability of suitable regional sources. The exceptional quality of Swedish sources allowed us for the first time to estimate a dataset of regional GDP for a European economy going back to the 16th century (Enflo and Missiaia, 2018). The estimates used here for 1571 are largely based on a one-off tax proportional to the yearly production: the Swedish Crown imposed this tax on all Swedish citizens in order to pay a ransom for the strategic Älvsborg castle that had just been conquered by Denmark. For the period 1750-1850, the estimates rely on standard population censuses. By connecting the new series to the existing ones from 1860 onwards by Enflo et al. (2014), we obtain the longest regional GDP series for any given country.

We find that inequality increased dramatically between 1571 and 1750 and remained high until the mid-19th century. Thereafter, it declined during the modern industrialization of the country (Figure 1). Our results discard the traditional  view that regional divergence can only originate during an industrial take-off.

 

Figure 1. Coefficient of variation of GDP per capita across Swedish counties, 1571-2010.

Missiaia 1
Sources: 1571-1850: Enflo and. Missiaia, ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’; 1860-2010: Enflo et al, ‘Swedish regional GDP 1855-2000 and Rosés and Wolf, ‘The Economic Development of Europe’s Regions’.

 

Figure 2 shows the relative disparities in four benchmark years. If the country appeared relatively equal in 1571, between 1750 and 1850 both the mining districts in central and northern Sweden and the port cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg emerged.

 

Figure 2. The relative evolution of GDP per capita, 1571-1850 (Sweden=100).

Missiaia 2
Sources: 1571-1850: Enflo and. Missiaia, ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’; 2010: Rosés and Wolf, ‘The Economic Development of Europe’s Regions’.

The second part of the paper is devoted to the study of the drivers of pre-industrial regional inequality. Decomposing the Theil index for GDP per worker, we show that regional inequality was driven by structural change, meaning that regions diverged because they specialized in different sectors. A handful of regions specialized in either early manufacturing or in mining, both with a much higher productivity per worker compared to agriculture.

To explain this different trajectory, we use a theoretical framework introduced by Strulik and Weisdorf (2008) in the context of the British Industrial Revolution: in regions with a higher share of GDP in agriculture, technological advancements lead to productivity improvements but also to a proportional increase in population, impeding the growth in GDP per capita as in a classic Malthusian framework. Regions with a higher share of GDP in industry, on the other hand, experienced limited population growth due to the increasing relative price of children, leading to a higher level of GDP per capita. Regional inequality in this framework arises from a different role of the Malthusian mechanism in the two sectors.

Our work speaks to a growing literature on the origin of regional divergence and represents the first effort to perform this type of analysis before the 19th century.

 

To contact the authors:

anna.missiaia@ekh.lu.se

kerstin.enflo@ekh.lu.se

 

References

Enflo, K. and Missiaia, A., ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’, Historical Methods, 51(2018), 115-137.

Enflo, K., Henning, M. and Schön, L., ‘Swedish regional GDP 1855-2000 Estimations and general trends in the Swedish regional system’, Research in Economic History, 30(2014), pp. 47-89.

Felice, E., ‘The roots of a dual equilibrium: GDP, productivity, and structural change in the Italian regions in the long run (1871-2011)’, European Review of Economic History, (2018), forthcoming.

Rosés, J., Martínez-Galarraga, J. and Tirado, D., ‘The upswing of regional income inequality in Spain (1860–1930)’,  Explorations in Economic History, 47(2010), pp. 244-257.

Strulik, H., and J. Weisdorf. ‘Population, food, and knowledge: a simple unified growth theory.’ Journal of Economic Growth 13.3 (2008): 195.

Williamson, J., ‘Regional Inequality and the Process of National Development: A Description of the Patterns’, Economic Development and Cultural Change 13(1965), pp. 1-84.

 

Squeezing blood from a stone: eighteenth century debtors’ prisons worked

by Alex Wakelam (University of Cambridge)

 

Woodstreet Compter.jpg
Wood Street Compter, 1793. Image extracted from page 384 of volume 1 of Old and New London, Illustrated, by Walter Thornbury. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

While it is often assumed that debtors’ prisons were illogical and ineffective, my research demonstrates that they were extremely economically effective for creditors though they could ruin the lives of debtors.

The debtors’ prison is a frequent historical bogeyman, a Dickensian symptom of the illogical cruelty of the past that disappeared with enlightened capitalism. As imprisoning someone who could not afford to pay their debts, keeping them away from work and family, seems futile it is assumed creditors were doing so to satisfy petty revenge.

But they were a feature of most of English history from 1283, and though their power was curbed in 1869, there were still debtors imprisoned in the 1920s. The reason they persisted, as my research shows, is because, for creditors, they worked well.

The majority of imprisoned debtors in the eighteenth century were released relatively quickly having paid their creditors. This revelation is timely when events in America demonstrate how easily these prisons can return.

As today, most eighteenth century purchases were done on credit due to the delay in wages, limited supply of coinage, and cultural preferences for buying goods on credit. But credit was based on a range of factors including personal reputation, social rank and moral status. Informal oral contracts could frequently be made with little sense of an individual’s actual financial status, particularly if they were a gentleman or aristocrat. As contracts were not based on goods and court processes were slow, it was difficult to seize property to recover debts when creditors required money.

Creditors were able to imprison debtors without trial in this period until they paid what they owed or died. The registers of a London Debtors’ Prison, the Woodstreet Compter (1741-1815), reveal that creditors had good reasons to do so. Most of the 10,156 debtors contained in the registers left prison relatively quickly – 91% were released in under a year while almost a third were released in less than 100 days.

In addition, 84% were ‘discharged’ by their creditors, indicating that either the prisoner had paid their debts or a new contract had been agreed. Imprisonment forced debtors to find a way to pay or at least to renegotiate with creditors.

Prisoners were not the poor, but usually middle class people in small amounts of debt. One of the largest groups was made up of shopkeepers (about 20% of prisoners) though male and female prisoners came from across society with gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers and professors rubbing shoulders.

Most used their time to coordinate the selling of goods to raise money, or borrowed yet more from family and friends. Many others called in their own debts by having their debtors imprisoned as well.

As prisons were relatively open, some debtors worked off their debts. John Grano, a trumpeter who worked for Handel, imprisoned in the 1720s, taught music lessons from his cell. Others sold liquor or food to fellow prisoners or continued as best they could at their trade in the prison yard. Those with a literary mind, such as Daniel Defoe, wrote their way out.

Though credit works on different terms today, that coercive imprisonment is effective at securing repayment remains true. There have been a number of US states operating what amount to debtors’ prisons in recent years where the poor, fined by the state usually for traffic violations, are held until they pay what they owe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions even retracted an Obama era memo in December aimed at abolishing the practice. While eighteenth century prisons worked effectively for creditors, they could ruin the lives of debtors who were forced to sell anything they could to pay their dues and escape the unsanitary hole in which they were being kept without trial. Assuming that they did not work and therefore won’t return is shown by my research to be false.

 

Sources of market disintegration in eighteenth century China

by Markus Eberhardt (School of Economics, University of Nottingham)

 

Altar_Frontal_(China_(for_European_market)),_18th_century_(CH_18485147)
Altar Frontal (China (for European market)), 18th century. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

One of the seminal questions in world and Chinese economic history is why China, in contrast to Western Europe, failed to industrialise during the nineteenth century, leading to differential development paths commonly referred to as the Great Divergence.

Social and economic historians have tried to tackle this issue by identifying potential sufficient conditions for industrialisation. One candidate condition has been the degree of national or sub-national market integration within Asia and Western Europe on the eve of industrialisation. A long-held view maintained that Western Europe was characterised by integrated markets, which had taken root because of state-supported property rights institutions. China, in contrast, despite her unified political system, was said to have failed in creating a unified national market.

This hypothesis of differential levels of market integration has been seriously challenged more recently, most notably in the work of Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), who concluded that factor and product markets in late eighteenth century Western Europe were ‘probably further from perfect competition… than those in most of China.’

Shiue and Keller (2007) carried out a formal cross-continental comparison of rice markets in Southern China during 1742-95 with wheat markets in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing the first econometric evidence for Pomeranz’s conjecture of equivalent goods market integration in both regions.

Much of the subsequent research has adopted the conclusion that ‘in the late eighteenth century… long-distance [grain] trade in China operated more efficiently than in [continental] Europe’ (von Glahn, 2016).

In related work (Bernhofen et al, 2016) we use a number of alternative empirical methods (including the cointegration analysis employed by Shiue and Keller, 2007) along with higher frequency grain price data for China and Western Europe to provide consistent evidence for a substantial decline in Chinese market integration over time: by 1800, China’s grain markets were fragmented, including in the economically most advanced regions (Jiangnan).

Our empirical implementations account for general equilibrium effects widely acknowledged to have distorted earlier investigations of market integration using price data.

In our new study, to be to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, I and my co-authors (Daniel Bernhofen, Jianan Li and Stephen Morgan) bring together arguments for such an early decline in Qing grain market integration from the rich economic and social history literatures.

We use our estimates for market integration to test empirically one prominent factor: we investigate the role played by the unprecedented population growth and internal migration during the eighteenth century and its economic, social, political and environmental implications.

In studies of early modern Europe, population growth was found to go hand in hand with market expansion and increased integration. In China, population growth and its uneven regional distribution not merely limited the surplus grain available for trade, but exerted severe pressure on an inherently instable water control system pitting farming against flood prevention and the waterway transportation of goods, creating increasingly insurmountable challenges for water engineering.

In combination with rigid fiscal rules, population growth constrained the ability of the Qing state to govern this vast empire effectively. Local officials reacted to rising population pressure with ‘grain protectionism’, leading to temporary political borders, which further hampered the functioning of the market.

The narrative we develop is not that of a standard ‘Malthusian trap’, where an acceleration in pre-modern agricultural growth is followed by population growth that dilutes per capita resources and thus keeps the economy in a ‘low level equilibrium trap’. Instead, we describe an escalating ‘span of control’ problem, increasing the pressure on a small bureaucracy in the periphery as well as the core of the empire, caused by a rigid and underfunded state apparatus.

 

Figure: Population density growth and internal migration

Conf China Map

 

Notes

We plot the annualised population density growth rates (in percent) between 1776 and 1820 for 211 prefectures. Black solid lines indicate provincial borders. The dashed line marks the early eighteenth century ‘frontier’ between developed and developing areas of Qing China (Myers and Wang, 2002). Arrows indicate major internal migration flows (stylised representation) during the eighteenth century. The two Northern migration strands actually extend beyond Qing China proper into Xinjiang and Manchuria.

 

Sources

Population density data are taken from Cao (2000), information on eighteenth century migration flows from Eliott (2009: 147), Entenmann (1980: 41f), Ho (1959: 139ff), Lee and Feng (1999: 118), Mann-Jones and Kuhn (1978: 109f, 132), Myers and Wang (2002: Map 9), shapefiles from CHGIS version 6 (2016).

Censuses and the work women really did: case studies 1720-1920

by Amy Erickson (University of Cambridge)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.

 

780px-Flickr_-_davehighbury_-_Women_workers_Woolwich_Arsenal_1917_London_(30)
Women workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Museums and popular histories typically repeat the idea that women only entered the labour market in large numbers in the twentieth century. In fact, in the first British census that can be analysed for paid employment in 1851, more than 40% of all women reported regular paid employment. They contributed nearly one third of all hours in the paid economy. Participation rates were probably even higher before mechanisation.

The occupational structure of men in the past has recently been explored as a key to understanding economic development. But national data on women’s work are not available until the advent of censuses in the nineteenth century.

A set of studies to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference makes uses of censuses and alternative sources – focusing on eighteenth century Europe, nineteenth century textiles, the 1881 British census and twentieth century Canada – to demonstrate the formative role of women’s labour contribution to economic development.

Professor Carmen Sarasua (Autonomous University of Barcelona) points out that the most important feature of the European economy in this period was the rapid spread of manufacturing, organised on a domestic basis in the eighteenth century and in mechanised factories in the nineteenth century. Domestic industry did not always evolve into industrialisation in the same places, but long before the advent of factories, manufacturing relied on the labour of women and children.

Most analyses of occupational change as an indicator of economic development consider only male occupations, which show heavily agricultural societies, but when women’s occupations from tax registers are included, manufacturing is roughly equivalent to agriculture by the later eighteenth century. This means that manufacturing was important long before we currently think it was, and long before the application of new technology.

For centuries, textiles were the largest manufacturing industry in most European countries, and women dominated that labour force. Professor Manuela Martini (University of Lyon) focuses on Lyon, which was the most important silk-producing city in Europe in the nineteenth century.

She compares population censuses, which often omitted details of women’s occupations, with trade union and administrative sources on silk workers’ wages, to understand the occupational distinctions at the level of tasks performed by men and women, establishing a vocabulary with which to compare textile trades internationally.

Dr Xuesheng You (Cambridge University) presents the first detailed evidence from British censuses showing there were wide geographical variations in female labour force participation rates and in the sectoral distribution of female employment between agriculture, manufacturing and services. Factors such as age, marital status and number of children were relatively insignificant compared with the demands of the local economy. In other words, if work was available, women took it, regardless of their household situation.

Dr Keith Sugden (Cambridge University) and Professor Roger Sugden (University of British Columbia) find that in a fast-growing agricultural area of Western Canada, early twentieth century censuses recorded almost no married women’s employment, while for men and single women, they provided the occupation, wage, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.

But in an area dominated by small family farms many if not all married women would have been employed in market-oriented production on the farm even if they did not receive a wage. Sugden and Sugden propose ways to quantify the value of married women’s ‘hidden’ economic contribution.

So censuses may or may not record women’s work consistently. But other sources show high levels of labour force participation and demand-led employment, placing women’s labour at the centre of the growth of manufacturing and services that characterises economic development.

Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England

by Shelley Tickell (University of Hertfordshire)

Shoplifting in Eighteenth Century England is published by Boydell and Brewer Press. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 5th March 2019. See below for details.

 

TickellPicture

What would you choose to buy from a store if money was no object? This was a decision eighteenth-century shoplifters made in practice on a daily basis. We might assume them to be attracted to the novel range of silk and cotton textiles, foodstuffs, ornaments and silver toys that swelled the consumer market in this period. Demand for these home-manufactured and imported goods was instrumental in a trebling of the number of English shops in the first half of the century, escalating the scale of the crime. However, as my book Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England shows, this was not the case. Consumer desire was by no means shoplifters’ major imperative.

 

Shoplifting occurred nationwide, but it was disproportionately a problem in the capital. A study of a sample of the many thousand prosecutions at the Old Bailey reveals that linen drapers, shoemakers, hosiers and haberdashers were the retailers most at risk. Over 70% of goods stolen, particularly by women, were fabrics, clothing and trimmings. Though thefts were highly gendered, men also stole these items far more frequently than the food, jewellery and household goods which were largely their preserve. Yet items stolen were not predominantly the most fashionable. Traditional linens, wool stockings and leather shoes were stolen as often as silk handkerchiefs and cotton prints. A prolific shoplifter who confessed to her crime found it profitable over the course of a year to steal printed linen at four times the quantity of the more stylish cotton, lawns, muslins and silk handkerchiefs she also took.

The shoplifters prosecuted were overwhelmingly from plebeian backgrounds. Professional gangs did exist but for most the crime was a source of occasional subsistence. Shop thieves came from the most economically vulnerable sections of society, seeking to weather an urban economy of low-paid and insecure work; many were older women or children. As the stolen goods needed to be convertible to income they were very commonly sold. So thieves sought the items which were most negotiable, those in greatest demand and least conspicuous in the working neighbourhoods in which they lived. A parcel of handkerchiefs stolen unopened was found to be ‘too fine’ for a market seller to whom it was offered. While there was undoubtedly an eagerness for popular fashion, the call for neat and appropriate daily dress in working communities was as insistent. We find the frequency with which shoplifters stole different types of clothing is consistent with a market demand governed in great part by the customary turnover of clothing items in labouring families. Handkerchiefs, shoes and stockings which were replaced regularly, were stolen frequently, jackets and stays more rarely.

There were also some practical reasons why shoplifters avoided the high-fashion goods that elite shops sold. To enter the emporiums in which the rich shopped added a heightened degree of risk. Testimony confirms shopkeepers’ deep reluctance to suspect any customer who appeared genteel, but in elite areas such as London’s West End retailers had an established clientele and a new face was likely to draw attention. A few shoplifters did try their luck by making an effort to dress the part and their polite fashioning and acting skill, witnesses recall, was often masterly. But an accidental slip into plebeian manners was easily done. Three customers dressed in silk drew the suspicion of a Covent Garden shopwoman as, she explained, ‘they called me my dear in a very sociable way’.

In general, shoplifters restricted themselves to plundering smaller local shops that were convenient to reconnoitre and with fewer staff to mount surveillance. A mapping of incidents in London shows this bias towards poorer and less fashionable districts, particularly to the north and east of the capital. The research found that within these working neighbourhoods shoplifted goods played an instrumental role in the intricate social and economic relations that underpinned community survival. Local associates earned money selling or pawning goods for the thief, their reputation serving to give the transaction an added credibility. Neighbours were informally sold stolen items on favourable terms, often including an element of exchange and credit, which acted to secure their complicity and future loyalty. We also come across shoplifted goods that were pawned to fund the shoplifter’s ongoing business or even recommodified as stock for their small retail concerns. Need rather than consumption fever motivated these shoplifters. Shoplifting was a capital crime throughout the century but this seems to have been of very little moment when the dictate was economic survival. As a shoplifter bluntly testified of her friend in 1747, ‘The prisoner came to me to go with her to the prosecutor’s shop, she wanted money, and she should go to the gallows’.

 

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB500 online at https://boydellandbrewer.com/shoplifting-in-eighteenth-century-england-pb.htmlOffer ends 5th March 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk

 

To contact Shelly Tickell: s.g.tickell@herts.ac.uk