Paid spinning in rural landless and semi-landless households in Sweden 1767-1797: Some preliminary results

Gustafscenen Session 1: Labour, living standards and inequality organized by Erik Bengtsson, Kathryn Gary, Tobias Karlsson, Malin Nilsson and Jakob Molinder


Kathryn Gary, Malin Nilsson & Mats Olsson


We present the initial dataset of a five year research project with a focus on three different perspectives on spinners and industrialization. The first study focuses on the role of the state by returning to a classic debate in Swedish historiography. What role did manufacturies play in the Swedish process of industrialization? In the second sub-study we will investigate to what extent we can uncover a Swedish industrious revolution. The third sub-study focuses on the role of spinners’ wages, both as a potential driver of labour- saving capital investment by early industrialists and as a measure of both household and individual income. Altogether, the project looks at the impact of paid spinning from the individual to the national level, highlighting the role of women’s work in early modern Swedish economic development. Our primary data consist of lists of the workers employed by spinning privilege holders. These privileges were something of a hold-over from Sweden’s state-led manufactory system – while many manufactories closed after a policy change in the 1760s, wool cloth production remained in operation, and spinning was a continued priority. All spinning in the manufactory system – and so the vast majority of paid spinning – was regulated under the “spinning privileges” and recorded in this material. This material is unique in including detailed biographical information about individual workers, such as names, ages, and male family members’ occupations, as well as detailed information about wages and productivity.
Initial findings indicate that the state responded to the labor needs of different communities by ‘planting’ female-oriented jobs in areas dominated by male-only industries such as mining. While evidence of a ‘pure’ industrial revolution is lacking, there is some indication that adoption of cotton, a fairly new and globally-oriented textile, could have been a result of industrious behaviors. Measures of individual production and age-based wage profiles shows a life-cycle pattern: younger women focused on more highly-paid fine spinning, while older women spun more fiber by weight, but into courser thread. This helped even out age earning profiles along the life course after a peak in early adulthood.


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