History of the Organization of Work


The proliferation of industry during the early modern period--that is, from the 16th to the 18th century, immediately preceding the Industrial Revolution, properly so called--arose from four factors: (1) the growth of wealth, derived partly from the influx of precious metals from the New World and from growing commercial and banking activities; (2) the growth of demand, or markets; (3) the introduction of new products; and (4) the development of new technology. The result was an increase in the scale of manufacturing industry throughout Europe, accompanied by changes in the organization of work.

The growth in the size of the market was caused only partially by the geographic explorations of the preceding era and subsequent colonization. Most of the new demand for goods came about as a result of a growing population, especially toward the latter part of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century, and a rise in the standard of living, especially among the class of burghers, or bourgeoisie--the town dwellers. The markets also grew in size with the replacement of the small medieval feudalities by larger political units--the royal kingdoms. When economic sway was exercised over a larger jurisdiction, it tended to eliminate many of the local restrictions on trade and commerce established by the previous smaller political units. Many new products--including spices from Asia and sugarcane from the New World--were also introduced into Europe, either directly, by the explorers, or indirectly, through expanded trade with distant points. The demand continued to increase along with the growing affluence and new manners of living in European society. Handicraft production no longer sufficed, and the guilds declined.

Beginnings of the factory system.

The changes in industrial patterns that emerged were less in the introduction of new mechanical contrivances than in the growth in extent of the application of power, primarily water and wind, to old devices and, even more significant, in the organization of work to meet the needs for production on a larger scale--the beginnings of the factory system.

The proto-factory of the 17th and 18th centuries centred in certain industries, especially textiles. The old guild corporations broke down, and the cottage system began giving way to larger units of production. The organization of commerce changed rapidly. New instruments in the fields of banking, insurance, and export marketing helped to amass capital and make it available for investment in industrial enterprises. In this movement toward the capitalization of industry, some of the lesser masters were driven down into the wage-earning class, while greater masters became capitalist employers.

In Britain the development of commercial concentration--and hence of industrial scale--was mainly the work of large companies or corporate bodies, such as woolen manufacturers, ironmasters, and hatmakers. Government encouragement was given by means of special legislation, especially grants of monopolistic charters. In France, however, the practice of mercantilism, a government-directed policy aimed at increasing national wealth and power, meant that the government itself took an active part in developing industries that were state owned and operated, among them the famous Gobelins tapestry works and the manufactories for production of furniture, porcelain, and other luxury items.

Although the state-run factories in France represented at least two of the essentials of factory production--the gathering of large groups of workers in one place and the imposition of disciplinary rules--they had little effect upon the organization of work because they produced small quantities of luxury goods and hence amounted to large handicraft operations. Furthermore, despite their size, the French Royal Manufactories did not possess the third prime element of a true factory system: mechanization. The great historical change in the organization of work came in 18th-century Britain with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, largely as the result of the new technology of power-driven machinery.

The Industrial Revolution.

Mechanization. The new machines introduced in the 18th century compelled a rational organization of job functions that was quite different from the old handicraft tradition. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) gave the classical description of the new production system as exemplified by a pin factory: "One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pin is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is in this manner divided into about 18 distinct operations." According to Smith, a single worker "could scarce, perhaps with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make 20." The new methods enabled a pin factory to turn out as many as 4,800 pins a day.

The great increase in productivity depended far more upon the rational organization of processes than upon individual skill. In the textile industry manual dexterity and alert response proved to be more valuable than experience, accounting for the use of inexpensive woman and child labour in the early mills. Some vestiges of the medieval guild apprenticeship, however, still remained in the early textile factories; the children were sometimes bound as apprentices for a period of at least seven years, usually until they were 21. In some areas the old cottage system of textile production was moved to the factory, with the entire family employed as a work team. In those cases the father would be employed for any heavy work while supervising his wife and children at the machines. Presumably the father also possessed the mechanical skills necessary to repair and maintain the machinery.

Division of labour in the workplace. Because machines could justify their high cost only if a heavy and continuous demand existed for their output, their presence led to a division of labour between the entrepreneur who owned them and his employees. The owner supervised his workers, compelling them to work at the pace of the machine. Even in enterprises that were not yet fully mechanized, the advantages of factory discipline were apparent at an early stage of the Industrial Revolution. Josiah Wedgwood designed his pottery works at Etruria in England "with a view to the strictest economy of labour." His plant was laid out so that the pots were first formed and then passed through the painting room, the kiln room, the account room, in which an inventory of production was made, and finally to storage. In potteries before this time, the workers could wander from one task to another; in Wedgwood's, the employees were assigned a particular post and worked at one task only. Out of 278 men, women, and children employed by Wedgwood in 1790, only five had no assigned post; the rest were specialists.

While the argument is sometimes made that the division of labour destroyed skill, the fact is that it might also have improved the quality of the finished product, for Wedgwood's pottery was superior to that of his competitors. It can be said that the division of labour does not so much destroy skill as limit it to a particular field of expression; and, within that particular task, it increases skills by continued repetition. It is interesting to note that Wedgwood's chief difficulty was not so much in training his workers as it was in introducing them to a novel form of discipline that ran contrary to centuries of independence. It was a constant test of Wedgwood's ingenuity to enforce six hours of punctual and constant attendance upon his workers, to get them to avoid waste, and to keep them from drinking on the job and taking unauthorized "holidays." Because he was a busy man involved in all the tasks of running an enterprise and could not stand over his workers and control their movements, he had to develop a hierarchy of supervisors and managers.

There can be little doubt that the condition of the workers, especially the women and children, in the early textile factories was miserable: 14 to 16 hours every day spent performing repetitive tasks in noisy, smelly, and unsanitary surroundings; and the workers' slum homes were equally unhealthy. It was at this period that the "social question" arose: why should poverty continue to exist in a nation that had the capacity to produce enormous quantities of goods? Answers to that question were to produce new social philosophies and political movements that have had major effects on society and politics ever since.

New industries. The introduction of steam-driven machinery at the time of the Industrial Revolution brought new industries into being or transformed older ones. This was especially true of the metalworking trades, where technological innovations made possible the replacement of wooden machinery with metal and the manufacture of such items as metal nails, glassware, and iron bearings. Expansion of manufacturing helped to stimulate the coal- mining industry. Coal was replacing wood as a fuel especially in England and northern France, where deforestation had made wood scarce. The pressure on fuel supplies came not only from domestic heating requirements and from the metallurgical trades but also from the brickmaking, brewing, dyeing, and glassmaking industries. In the coal mines the organization of labour remained much as it had been described by Agricola in the 16th century. (see also Index: steam power, mining)

Another spur to the rise of new industries was the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries. The forced movement of populations helped spread technical capabilities to new areas. For example, the Protestant Huguenots, expelled from France near the end of the 17th century, carried with them their special skills in metalworking and glassmaking when they migrated to England, Holland, Germany, and the American colonies.

Urbanization. One of the greatest stimuli toward a more rational organization of work was the general demographic trend in Europe from the 17th to the 19th century. Population grew swiftly, moving from country to city. It is possible that only a few European cities--Paris and the great Italian commercial cities of Venice, Genoa, and Naples--had as many as 100,000 people at the beginning of the modern era. London may have had only about half that number. By the beginning of the 17th century, however, rapid growth had begun, and, by the end of that century, London probably had 500,000 inhabitants.

Colonization of the New World.

Worldwide division of labour. Although exploration and colonization had originally been carried out in order to secure exotic and expensive spices, these products had little direct influence upon the organization of work in Europe; even the enormous trade in semitropical items such as sugar and coffee had little effect. However, wheat, wool, and meat from the temperate areas ultimately brought about an international division of labour, with the New World colonies furnishing agricultural produce to the manufacturing countries of Europe. In the 20th century such a division still exists in somewhat different form, with the underdeveloped nations of the tropics supplying agricultural and industrial raw materials to developed areas.

Slavery. In its effect on the organization of work, the most important result of the colonization of the New World and the demand for its products was the use of slave labour. Slavery was linked first with sugar production in the West Indies and later with cotton in southern North America.

Cultivation of sugarcane, especially its harvesting, requires heavy manual labour. Harvested cane must be sent to a mill for grinding within a few hours after cutting; this requirement necessitated establishment of a plantation system in which the workers would be housed close to the fields and the sugar mill. The natives of the West Indies were not numerous enough to perform the required work and were temperamentally unwilling to engage in such labour, even when harsh means were employed to force them to do it. The requirements of sugar planters thus introduced agricultural slavery into the Western Hemisphere. It began as early as 1518, when the Spanish government granted a license to import some 4,000 African slaves into the Spanish colonies. The plantation system and the consequent demand for African slaves spread during the next two centuries throughout the sugar-growing areas, including the British West Indies. Indeed, the British islands of the West Indies carried specialization in sugar so far that they found it most profitable to devote nearly all their land to the export crop of sugarcane and to import other foods.

In the temperate zone, where sugar production was not possible, slaves were little used except in tobacco-growing areas until near the end of the 18th century. The Puritan communities in New England engaged in small family farming, while the Southern colonies employed indentured servants (white labourers who agreed to work a number of years for some person who had paid their passage to the New World). (see also Index: United States)

Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 lowered the price of upland cotton and led to the use of that fibre as a staple for textile production. As a result, Negro slavery and the plantation system became fixtures in the American South. While slaves were employed chiefly as cotton-field labourers, they also worked as craftsmen, factory hands, and domestic servants, creating, in other words, a division of labour on the plantation. The regional specialization in production led to sectional economic and political differences and ultimately to the American Civil War and to the freeing of the slaves.