Koyama on Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution
By Bryan Caplan
GMU economic historian Mark Koyama emailed me some comments on my Industrial Revolution post. Reprinted with his permission. Note that Billington’s figures imply a work year between 3900 and 4500, even assuming, contrary to Billington’s lurid picture, that workers got two weeks of annual vacation. Koyama:
My memory was not 100% accurate as the best estimate for male working hours in London in England in 1830 (when working hours were at their absolute longest) is actually 3356 rather than 3000. This estimate is from Voth’s use of court data in order to reconstruct how individuals used their time (2001). By 1870 other estimates put it at 2755. Working hours in excess of 3000 hours per year are seen as extraordinarily long in comparison to more recent episodes of industrialization so 4000 in the US still seems unrealistic (though it is not that much greater than the highest upper bound some historians have estimated). Of course, the point is that workers seemed to prefer working long hours in factories and using their wages to buy newly available consumption goods (cotton underwear which could be washed easily must have drastically increased consumer surplus relative to scratchy woolen underwear) rather than working in agriculture (where wages were lower and hours probably also long at least during some periods of the year).
In the UK and by extension the US, if a household had an able bodied adult male able to work then normally they would not be desperately poor (Robert Allen’s wage series show that real wages in English and the US were perhaps 2 or 3 times southern European wages and people were able to survive there). One reason why perceptions of poverty increased in England during the early 19th century (in addition to the point that it was just more concentrated and hence visible) was to due with the social dislocation associated with urbanization (much higher rates of illegitimacy, more single earner households etc.). Families without male earners were indeed desperately poor and reliant on very young children working and these households became more common during Industrialization.