Spinning little stories: Why cotton in the Industrial Revolution was not what you think

Judy Stephenson reviews some of the developments in debates about causes of the Industrial Revolution from this year. 

When Nick Crafts reviewed competing ‘meta-narrative’ explanations of the Industrial Revolution by Joel Mokyr and Robert C. Allen in 2010 he noted that explanations of the cause of the IR were a bit like the Holy Grail (1). He was expressing the feeling of a generation of economists who believed that economics could ‘explain’ the modern world, and so must explain the IR. When Deirdre McCloskey’s critique (2) of every meta narrative ever generated about the Industrial Revolution declared that economics could do no such thing it was indicative of a shift generally away from that kind of thinking, or as John Kay said, there are no meta-narratives, only little stories. But in economic history, Allen’s meta narrative has largely prevailed. A recently published little story has questioned it.

 Allen ‘explained’ the Industrial Revolution by claiming that because Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the eighteenth century, the high cost of labour and the relative cheapness of coal and capital incentivised labour saving mechanisation, and this is why Britain industrialised before other countries. The theory has met with challenges already. In 2013 Humphries undermined the assumptions about household conditions, and since she has also produced new wage data with Jacob Weisdorf that is fundamentally at odds with the day wages Allen used. (3) (I have shown to these be too high, 4). Humphries and Ben Schneider have also shown that spinning was a very low wage activity (5). Whilst all this undermines Allen’s theory, a well told little story by John Styles in the latest edition of The East Asian Journal of British Studies, is notable because it challenges much of what we understand about the innovations at the core of the IR.

http://www.history.ac.uk/sites/history.ac.uk/files/eajbhvol5.pdf see p.161 onwards.

 Allen’s favourite and oft used case of the effect of British factor prices has always been that of the spinning jenny. In ‘The Industrial Revolution in Miniature’ (6) he sets out high British spinning and labouring wages, and low French wages to show that the jenny was only economical in England. Styles brings some other facts to the case. It’s enjoyable reading so I won’t attempt to reproduce it here but suffice to say he also shows in the first part of the paper that French wages were higher, British lower, and there were more jennies in France than thought.

 Whilst every economic historian knows that whoever says the IR says ‘cotton’, what many probably didn’t know is that ‘cotton’, in England, for most of the eighteenth century meant cotton weft spun on linen warp. The inability of English spinners to create cotton warp strong enough to go on larger frames needed for calicoes meant that English ‘cottons’ were a cotton linen mix, which, although popular and cheap, was not a match for the colour and fineness of proper cotton calico. The burgeoning American market wanted calicoes above all else, and to provide it, and tap into that valuable demand, properly spun cotton warp was the only answer. The spinning jenny did not provide such warp, and whilst the calico acts protected or sheltered the home market it was not until Arkwright’s water frame that English cotton could conquer the profitable American market.

In the story of the spinning jenny, high wages (nor cheap coal) had no part to play. It was Arkwright’ invention which fundamentally changed the production of cotton and which met the demand for fine new cotton fashions, and the incentives are far less clear in this story. Styles makes the important point that Arkwright’s macro-invention was the “outcome of a long history of applying capital-intensive, mechanical solutions to quality and supply problems in luxury textile manufacturing” (see particularly pp.186-7). This is not all bad news for Allen. Styles is clear that the wage for those who could produce good warp was very high, but Arkwright, nor others, could not produce enough of it at the volumes needed at any wage. As many readers will understand this little story has implications for our understanding of jennies as ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ inventions, and so for Mokyr too. Bear in mind that Wallis, Colson, and Chilosi and separately Keibek have both shown this year that industrialisation was as much 17th century phenomenon as 18th, so we may need some new models anyway (7). 

 Styles contribution highlights how a strong empirical basis for economic analysis is essential if meta narratives or ‘big theories’ are to explain economic developments of the past. Allen has always stressed the comparative level of wages in Britain, and there is work to be done on current sources here. (There is a developing Twitter conversation between myself, @pseudoeramus @VincentGeloso @MarkKoyama @benmschneider @ulyssecolonna regarding this subject and market size for instance). But in a year where the notion of economic rationality itself has been shaken to its foundations perhaps it’s not surprising that the Industrial Revolution is moving back towards being ‘unexplained’, although we should await reviews of Mokyr’s latest contribution, (which seems to chime with McCloskey’s ‘cultural’ one) before returning to the view of a couple of decades ago that there really wasn’t one at all.

In the meantime research on the coal tax in early modern England is long over due….

(1) http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/44710/1/WRAP_Carfts_10.2010_craftsindustrial.pdf

R..C Allen, The British industrial revolution in global perspective, CUP, 2009.

J. Mokyr, The enlightened economy: an economic history of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale, 2009.

 (2) McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity : Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

http://www.johnkay.com/2011/10/04/the-map-is-not-the-territory-an-essay-on-the-state-of-economics/ http://www.johnkay.com/product/the-truth-about-markets/

(3) http://www.ehs.org.uk/app/journal/article/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2012.00663.x/abstract




(6) Allen, Robert C. “The Industrial Revolution in Miniature: The Spinning Jenny in Britain, France, and India.” The Journal of Economic History 69, no. 04 (2009): 901-27.

(7)http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/workingPapers/2016/WP240.pdf , for Keibek see this blog 

  J.Z. Stephenson, Wadham College, Oxford. judy.stephenson@wadh.ox.ac.uk, tw:@judyzara