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The Cottage Industry

The growth of the rural population in the eighteenth century in many ways led to the growth of rural industry, too. The population boom created more rural peasants in Europe who needed work, and agricultural work wasn’t always available. Even rural residents who did have work on the land always welcomed the opportunity to supplement their income; since farming was largely seasonal, even those with full-time employment on farms had extra time to earn extra income.

Capitalists in the cities took notice of the labor surplus and saw an opportunity to employ rural workers at a price usually lower than urban workers earned. The primitive industry that resulted would later become known as the cottage industry.

Rural Industry or the Putting-Out System

Even in the Middle Ages, rural peasants participated in some amount of industry, although it had nothing to do with factories and manufacturing. Industrious peasants with hand tools produced all kinds of small objects, from wooden shoes to articles of clothing to lace to crafts. Prior to the eighteenth century, the peasants didn’t produce or earn much. As capitalists from the cities moved business into the countryside, the opportunities for the rural peasants to work increased rapidly. The move from occasional work to steady work for peasants in the countryside was the result of the putting-out system, a system that began in England and later spread to the continent.

A number of workers and their families were involved in the putting-out system. The system involved an entrepreneur and a circuit of households. The entrepreneur would invest in raw materials such as wool purchased from a rural farmer. The entrepreneur would then take the wool first to one home, then to another and another. The family of each household would perform each step of processing the wool. When the entrepreneur picked up the final product at the last home on his circuit, he had finished cloth or even clothing, which he could sell in the city or export. Often the entrepreneur would drop off a new load of raw materials as he picked up the processed materials.

This basic plan had countless variations as the entrepreneurs used any number of raw materials and had them processed to different stages of completion. The system worked well for all involved and the industry grew quickly. The entrepreneurs could pay the rural workers less than urban workers who had some protection from guilds, and the entrepreneur didn’t have to worry about the guilds’ quality-control measures in the countryside. The rural workers often had no other steady income, so they were happy to get whatever work came their way.

Proto-Industrialization and Textiles

Though a number of products fell under the umbrella of the cottage industry, the goods produced most often were textiles. The textile industry proved to be quite lucrative for the entrepreneurs who fronted the capital, and provided a stable income for the weavers and spinners. This system can be seen as proto-industrialization, the forerunner of work that took place in mills and factories.

Define Your Terms

textile is a type of material made from thread or yarn that is woven, matted, knotted, or formed in a similar matter.

The homes of workers who participated in the textile industry often contained little else but the loom and a few pieces of furniture. The entire family had work to do. One member spun the wool or cotton into thread or yarn, another wove the thread, and even children helped by combing or cleaning the wool or cotton. The weaver with his or her loom could work so quickly that several spinners were needed just to keep up. Often the weaver would recruit others in the village, in addition to his family members, to spin thread for him.

Define Your Terms

Unmarried and widowed women who made their living by spinning thread for weavers were known as spinsters.

Despite the benefits for all involved, problems arose in the rural textile industry. While the guilds had no control over the rural workers, they also had no control over the entrepreneurs. This meant that there was no one to enforce a system of standard weights and measures, no objective person to make sure the bales were the proper weight or that the workers turned in the proper amount of finished product. Disputes were commonplace. Quality suffered sometimes, too, especially because of the workers’ work habits. It was common for workers to work hard all week and then take a day or two off after payday. Then, as the deadline approached, the workers kicked it into high gear to finish on time. Almost certainly the quality suffered as a result.

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