Constructing Equality? Women’s wages, physical labor, and demand factors in Sweden 1550-1759

by Kathryn E. Gary, PhD candidate, Lund University

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Women were important workers in the past, but they are still under-studied and their contributions largely absent from big-picture discussions of historical living standards. This is largely because women’s work remains to some extent a black box, but recent research has both challenged assumptions about how women participated in the paid labor market (c.f. Humphries and Sarasua 2012) and provided data about women’s payment for different kinds of labor (c.f. Humphries and Weisdorf 2015). The current work contributes to both these areas, by creating series of men’s and women’s wages in early modern Sweden, and by exploring both the mechanisms behind the gender gap in pay as well as the conditions under which women enter paid labor, with the goal of better understanding work in the past in general.

Primary data come from unskilled workers in the construction industry in Southern Sweden, predominantly from the towns Malmö and Kalmar; these are combined with published data from Stockholm, also from construction workers (Jansson, Andersson Palm, and Söderberg 1991). All data are for individuals paid by the day; relative wages are simply the percentage of men’s wages that women earn.

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Figure 1 shows women’s relative wages from 1550 to 1759. Relative wages are high at the beginning of the period, around 80 percent, and increase to levels of parity in the early 17th century, after which they decline substantially, reaching as low as 40 percent during the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This is a substantial decline over the period of not much more than a generation.
Some relative wage peaks are related to events that change both the demand for and supply of labor. Kalmar was a border town between Sweden and Denmark; from 1611 to 1613 the two countries fought the Kalmar War. Following these years women’s wages peaked, likely due to necessary rebuilding and a shortage in the supply of men. There is a wage spike in the same city following a fire in 1647 – while the national average weighs down the peak values, the deviations are still clear in the series, and when Kalmar is examined individually women’s relative wages peak as high as 1.33.

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Table 1: Women’s work days as a percentage of all workdays in Kalmar, 1614-1710

 

Women’s ability to earn high wages goes against many of our theories about women’s earning potential – women are expected to earn less than men in physical tasks, because women are not as strong as men, and so are less productive physical laborers (Burnette 2008). Other theories suggest that women face constant wage discrimination (c.f. Bardsley 1999) – but this, too, is confounded by women’s ability to out-earn men, and by the large changes in the relative wage series. Something else is happening.

To understand we must look more closely at the data. In Kalmar workers are almost universally identifiable, allowing for deeper examination of the workforce. Table 1 shows the percentage of paid workdays that were worked by women, compared with the total number of paid work days in five year periods. Comparing the proportional feminization of the workforce with the amount of work, we see that the periods with the greatest amount of work are those in which the workforce is the most feminized – these periods are also those during which women’s relative wages are highest (see figure 1).

In combination with the relationship between total paid workdays and women’s relative wages across the whole country (figure 2), we are faced with a pattern that is familiar from the first and second world wars – when labor demand is high, women enter the labor force in higher numbers and are able to command higher wages. There is less evidence that women were systematically paid less either due to discrimination or because of their lower productivity – instead, women are responsive to economic forces, and especially to demand forces.

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Figure 2: women’s relative wages and total paid workdays in Sweden, 1550-1759

 

It is simple to to extend our sense of what is ‘traditional’ deep into the past, and to apply broad categories of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work. However, when we are able to suspend our assumptions and dig deeper into the evidence, the data tell a less expected story; women in Sweden worked in physical occupations, alongside men, often for similar wages. They worked especially hard when the need was highest, and women’s wages only fell away from men’s when work became less regular and men and women weren’t employed together.

Accounting for women’s work shifts our understanding of household living standards in the long run, and provides strong evidence for what is intuitively clear: we cannot truly understand the past if we continue to discount the experiences or contribution of half the population.

The full working paper can be read here, and a shorter version from the EHS annual conference is available here.

How (much) were British workers paid ? Evidence beyond wage rates

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J. Cobden (1953) The White Slaves of England

Since Phelps Brown Hopkins published ‘Seven centuries’ in the mid 1950s economic historians and cliometricians have used ‘day wages’ – day rates for masons, carpenters and bricklayers taken from building accounts – to estimate the earnings of workers of the past. Whilst recent work has shown that these rates were not what the masons, carpenters and bricklayers actually received [1] many historians have been working on the means of earnings of other groups. A wage formation conference at the Institute of Historical Research on 16 September aimed to bring the notion that wages are more multifarious than day rates to the fore. The programme brought research on lead and coal miners, hostmen, keelmen, laundresses, sailors, bankers, spinners, agricultural labourers and clergy to debate, and the features that all these groups had in common in their pay before 1900 was an observation that all who attended shared.

Kicking off the day in opening remarks, Leigh Shaw-Taylor put the conclusions that authors such as Greg Clark, and Robert Allen and others have drawn from long run compilations of builder’s day rates within a theoretical context of structural change, pointing out that the role of real wages and average wages has been confused by cliometricians, and reminding us that Malthus predicted shifts in the wages of the poor, not of the average worker.

In the first presented case of the day Jane Humphries and Ben Schneider (Oxford) overturned the notion, common in recent historiography, that spinners were well paid and part of a high wage economy in England in the 18th century; rather they showed only the most productive spinners in England earned what Arthur Young described, moreover many spinners were employed by parishes at low piece rates under the poor laws. Amy Ridgway (Exeter) presented the only data from agriculture at the conference. Using the records of Kingston Lacy in Dorset she showed that the number of day labourers hired on a casual basis increased throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century, contrary to the established literature. Kathryn Gary (Lund) presented a new wage series for unskilled men in Sweden in the long run. She showed definitively that the wages unskilled men were not enough to support a family.

Four papers presented at the workshop dealt with the earnings of miners or those engaged in the coal industry. Andy Burn (Durham) showed that the keelmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the late 17th and early 18th century had pay that consisted of variable elements. Part was for hauling, another part for loading, and the rates varied according to location and season. Although the men were relatively well-paid when they were at work, the seasonality of the trade challenged living standards, and created a public order problem for the authorities. Tim Barmby (Newcastle) has been researching the Allendale lead miners. There men and mine owners bargained a price per fathom to be mined. To bargain effectively they needed to be able to predict, or have better information about the seams and geology that they were mining. Barmby shows that wage bargains were a means by which the mine owners extracted information from the more knowledgable miners. Unsurprisingly, the system produced unequal gains, with the best teams repeatedly winning the bargains. Guy Solomon (Exeter), who has fully quantitatively analysed Peter Kirby’s 2010 data shows that piece rates in coal mining in Northumberland brought about large variations in wage amongst workers doing the same job. Matthew Pawelski (Lancaster) showed how a Derbyshire free miner of the mid 18th century, John Naylor, used his own rights to common mining land to earn a large amount to take him out of a period of significant indebtedness. The case shows that as well as having his own resources, Naylor took local work with other employers when he could, and highlights the multifarious nature of earning for men of this class, and the role of book credit in such small enterprise.

Richard Blakemore (Reading) has spent the last three years looking at how sailors were paid. He debunked the common myth that sailors were an early modern global proletariat paid poorly wages. Instead he shows that Sailors earnings were, again, highly variable – many mariners made money from trading goods between ports. The form in which sailors were paid varied according to risk. Blakemore showed that the bargaining systems between shipowners and mariners benefited both parties at different times. Laundresses – a vital group never properly examined before – are the subject of Kathryne Crossley’s (Oxford) research. Drawing on the records of Oxford Colleges she shows that their status, and the means by which they were paid shifted over the 17th and 18th centuries. In the earlier period they operated as enterprising sole traders, in the 19th century they were integrated into the discipline of college staff. Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) brought some badly needed research into white collar workers. Bank of England clerks had much in common with sailors – and laundresses – it turns out. The basic salary that the clerks received was at the very lowest end of white-collar earnings in in London. Variation and extra income were earned by the clerks through gratuities, frequently for favours for clients, and trading illegitimately as brokers. Judy Stephenson (Oxford) gave a review approach, centred around the question of trying to work out how representative day wages used in macroeconomics series really are of earners in London across the long eighteenth century. Early research, funded by Cambridge Humanities Grant, indicates that few London workers were paid by the day before 1800. Wouter Marchand (Utrecht) demonstrated that the pay of clergy in early modern Friesland was dependent on the quality of land that church lands produced income from. The clergy are one of those groups that economists love to refer to as sacrificing wages for status. Marchand shows that their wages were not determined by custom. The best paid clergy were in merged or combined parishes on fertile soil.

The commonalities between the cases presented at the workshop was remarkable. These kept coffee breaks and lunch and dinner abuzz with debate, conversation and connections. The most marked was the observation of varying levels of income due to the effects of piece rates, bargaining and variable pay structures. Variation in earnings of people doing the same jobs was a consistent theme throughout the cases presented. Moreover, nearly all the cases showed only small part of income came from basic pay, and auxiliary rates, gratuities, alternate employment and bargains, were used to meet the problems of information asymmetry, seasonality or uncertainty. This was directly related to the materiality of some of the occupations. It was also noted that the agency or bargaining power of workers in a number of sectors was a determinant of their income. A final comment was that that ‘custom’, which dominates a great deal of historical literature, was not mentioned all day as as a determining variable in any of the cases presented.

The conference reinforced the idea held by many participants that wages in the early modern period and nineteenth century were a more complex issue than the use of real wages in long run studies have suggested, but it also showed that the topic of wage formation is ripe for further research. The full proceedings and papers will be published at a later date.

Judy Stephenson. Judy.Stephenson@wadh.ox.ac.uk

[1] Stephenson, EcHR, forthcoming.