Time and Work in Eighteenth-Century London
By Hans-Joachim Voth
The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 58, No. 1 (1998)
Abstract: Witnesses’ accounts are used to analyze changes in working hours between 1750 and 1800. Two findings stand out. The article demonstrates that the information contained in witnesses’ accounts allows us to reconstruct historical time-budgets and provides extensive tests of the new method. Estimates of annual labor input in 1749/63 and 1799/1803 are presented. It emerges that the number of annual working hours changed rapidly between the middle and the end of the eighteenth century. These findings have important implications for the issue of total factor productivity during the Industrial Revolution.
Introduction: According to conventional wisdom workers during the Industrial Revolution toiled longer in 1850 than they had a century earlier. In his pathbreaking article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson, the most prominent proponent of this view, argued that “Saint Monday” (the practice of taking Monday off to recover from the weekend) was universally observed until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Once it began to disappear under the impact of the factory system, total workloads began to rise rapidly. In addition to the increase in labor input, work discipline increased sharply. Preindustrial work was characterized by irregularity. The allegedly slow pace of work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is said to have gathered pace gradually during the course of the week, culminating in a frenetic rush at the end of the week to complete work. The Industrial Revolution thus transformed work patterns that were irregular and often proceeded at a leisurely pace into the iron discipline of nineteenth-century cotton mills.