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"Advanced Seminar" theme: The Market and its Agents - Prato, 2-7 maggio 2014

Author: Wouter Ronsijn

Title of the paper: The household, the labour market or the commodity market?
Enabling the division of labour within proto-industries: the case of the Flemish linen industry during a period of decline (first half of nineteenth century)517)

Abstract: One of the key assumptions in the original model of proto-industries, formulated by Mendels, Kriedte, Medick and Schlumbohm, is that the size and composition of families were determined by the proto-industrial work process in which those families were involved. The family was considered to be the basic unit of production, and the larger this unit, i.e. the more children a family had, the better. Among other reasons, with more children, a certain division of labour could be established within the family.
However, later studies showed that there were many alternatives to the family as the unit of production, and that a division of labour could not only be established within families, but also between families. Families could take up other people into their households to perform proto-industrial work, or individual family members could perform specific tasks for merchant-entrepreneurs (the Verlagsystem or putting-out). Another option was for family members to perform specific tasks within the production process, by exchanging the required raw materials and intermediate products independently, either at periodic markets or through informal contacts with other producers.
The latter option is the topic of this paper. The paper considers the division of labour in the Flemish linen industry around the 1840s, based on the linen censuses that were held in that decade. For many Flemish households at that time, the linen industry was a crucial part of their coping mechanisms. The production process encompassed several different steps that gave rise to a clear division of labour, which had regional and gendered dimensions. Firstly, the paper shows that periodic markets were a crucial element in enabling the division of labour in rural industries. In the 1840s, the linen industry of rural Flanders relied on a limited number of large markets for the sale of cloth, the final product, but also on a dense network of smaller markets where flax and yarn were exchanged. Trade at the latter markets was small, but the number of them was quite large. Secondly, the paper also emphasises that by the 1840s the importance of these small markets had expanded rather recently. Their establishment is linked to developments in relative prices and their effect on the existing informal exchange networks. As it became more difficult to make a living from spinning and weaving flax due to foreign competition and deteriorating terms of trade between linen products and agricultural products, the older, more informal exchange networks of commodities and labour between rural households also deteriorated. In response, the households that remained deeply involved in the linen industry relied more on formal exchange mechanisms such as markets, of which many were newly established between the 1780s and 1830s.

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