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Economics and Trade • Movers and Shakers: A Discussion about Industry and Power

Today when we read the history of the Industrial Revolution in England and the rise of the factory system and large textile mills, our modern sensibility may view the invention of the steam-powered loom as a great leap forward in manufacturing technology. However, to early-19th-century handloom weavers—who, as their name implies, performed their jobs in the old-fashioned method—the introduction of power looms was a disaster. These workers did not have the skills, education, or training that would allow them to take part in industrial textile production and the operation of power looms. As a result, by the 1830s, handloom weavers were experiencing widespread unemployment. At that time, there was extensive unrest throughout Great Britain over opposition to the Corn Laws, which raised the price of grain and therefore the price of food, which in turn increased hunger and starvation among poor people such as weavers across Britain and Ireland. Thus, Queen Victoria appointed the Royal Commission on Hand-Loom Weavers in 1837 to investigate conditions and offer possible solutions to the weavers' economic distress. Below is an excerpt from the Report of the Commissioners, published in 1841.

It is obvious that in the same market all commodities of the same kind and of the same goodness will sell for the same price, whatever be the means by which they have been produced. The purchaser will not pay more for a piece of cotton woven by hand, than for a similar one woven by power, though the latter may have cost less to the producer. It is obvious, too, that no manufacturing capitalist will voluntarily accept a less profit than he could obtain by using the cheapest mode of production that he can employ. . . .

Every inferiority in the means of production, — every inferiority in the habits or skill of the workman, or in the tool which he employs, and even every natural deficiency arising from want of coal or of water, or of means of communication, falls ultimately on the price of the workman's labour. The purchaser will not consent to its being met by an increase of the price of the commodity, and the manufacturer is never willing, and seldom able, to deduct it from the small portion of the wholesale price which constitutes his profit.

We do not mean to represent these effects as immediate. The mechanical improvements which produce changes in manufacturing processes so great as to substitute one class of workpeople for another, such as the mule or the power-loom, are of slow introduction. Nearly 20 years have passed since the application of the power loom to wool, and though constantly extending, it is still much less employed for that purpose than the hand-loom. So much less, that its use does not seem to have as yet affected wages in the woollen trade.

Again, the rise of a manufacture in a new district is always gradual. Years therefore generally elapse before the influence of a new process, or of a superior local advantage, is shown in a diminished price of the manufactured article. During this interval the effect of either is rather to give higher wages and higher profits where it has been adopted, than to lower those obtained in the establishments where it has not come into use. But sooner or later its influence is inevitable, and the workman who is unwilling or unable to obtain work under the new system, must submit to lower wages, and, in many cases, to irregular employment.

He often attributes his calamities to his employer, and often attempts resistance by combination and violence. But the influence against which he contends is irresistible. The manufacturer who should yield to the wishes or to the menaces of his work people, and attempt to maintain a rate of wages greater than the price of the commodity will justify, must in time be ruined, and the only change on the workman's fate would be, that his employment, instead of continuing at a depressed rate of wages, would cease suddenly and altogether. One of the most melancholy instances of the mode in which the introduction of improved manufacturing processes affects those who are unable or unwilling to adopt them is found in the contest which has been long going on in many cotton and silk fabrics between the power-loom and the hand-loom.

The steam-engine, always exerting the same force, produces a more uniform texture, and can finish a larger quantity of web in the same time. Its produce is both better and greater. In the fabrics, therefore, on which the power-loom can be employed, it must supersede the hand-loom weaver, unless the latter can furnish his work at a cheaper rate. The consequence is, that with every improvement in the power-loom, which either cheapens its services so as to enable it to work on even terms with the hand-loom, or renders them applicable to a new fabric, the demand for the labour of the hand-loom weavers employed in producing similar articles diminishes, and, if their wages remained unaltered, must cease; since the manufacturer who persisted in employing them must be undersold.

Their obvious resource is to take work at the power-loom, which in many cases would employ them all; but partly the dislike of factory restrictions, and partly the aversion to change, which prevails in proportion as education is deficient, leads the great majority of them to stick by the hand-loom while it will afford a subsistence, however poor. They are forced, therefore, to offer their services at a rate of wages which render them rather cheaper than those of the power-loom; and which can continue only until some further improvement shall again have made the power-loom a successful rival, and the hand-loom can be kept at work only at a still further reduction; and thus the unequal race continues, until the hand-loom weaver, finding the united wages of himself and of his family unequal to support life, is gradually ground out of the market, and forced to endeavour to find some other employment.

Source: Report of the Commission on the Condition of Hand-Loom Weavers. London, 1841.

MLA Citation

"Report of the Commission on
Hand-Loom Weavers
The Power Loom (1841)." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1847193. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2169905

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