Robert Allen’s spinning jenny is broken

The late Eric Hobsbawm famously remarked ‘whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton’. Traditional accounts of the British Industrial Revolution tell the story of an Asian textile – cotton – transformed into a cheap, mass-produced British staple by means of cost-cutting mechanical inventions. Indeed, technology was centre stage in Adolphe Blanqui’s 1837 Histoire de l’Économie Politique en Europe, the book which offered probably the first systematic application of the concept of industrial revolution. Blanqui insisted that Britain had recently undergone an economic revolution comparable to the social and political revolution experienced in France. In a chapter entitled ‘On the economic revolution in England caused by the discoveries of Watt and Arkwright’, he defined that economic revolution in terms of technology, or, to be more precise, in terms of just two machines:

‘Two machines, henceforth immortal, the steam engine and the spinning machine, overturned the old commercial system and, almost at the same moment, gave birth to material products and social questions unknown to our fathers … Hatched in the brains of Watt and Arkwright, two men of genius, the industrial revolution took possession of England.’

Recent quantitative studies of the classic period of the British Industrial Revolution, from 1760 to 1830, have suggested that overall rates of economic growth were significantly lower than had previously been assumed. Yet despite the tendency to downplay the significance of Industrial Revolution for the economy as a whole, economic historians continue to foreground those technological innovations on which the very notion of Industrial Revolution was originally founded. The question of why the crucial technological innovations were British is central to the two most recent (and influential) general treatments of the Industrial Revolution – Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective and Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850. Both books employ a distinction between micro- and macro-inventions, identifying James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Richard Arkwright’s water frame as key macro-inventions in cotton spinning, along with Samuel Crompton’s later spinning mule, which integrated the principles of the first two machines.

Robert Allen, constructs his argument about technical innovation around Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, famously invented in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire in the mid-1760s. He offers an explanation for this key macro-invention rooted in economic incentives, in particular in an economy with high wages, but cheap capital and very cheap energy, which rendered worthwhile the high costs of developing macro-inventions and converting them into commercially useful technologies. In his book and an associated article, Allen offers an elaborate cliometric comparison of the jenny’s potential to reduce spinning costs in Britain, France and India. He concludes jennies more than paid for themselves at high British wages for hand spinning, but were not economically advantageous at lower French wage rates, and certainly not at even lower Indian wages. His analysis has been subjected to considerable technical criticism by his fellow cliometricians. However, there is a more profound problem with Allen’s argument. The evidence on which his calculations are based is flawed.

16 spindle version of James Hargreave's spinning jenny, as patented in 1770. Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

16 spindle version of James Hargreave’s spinning jenny, as patented in 1770. Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

Allen’s contrast between England and France depends on evidence for low French wages in hand spinning and a correspondingly slow take-up of the spinning jenny in France. He insists that French cotton producers declined to adopt the jenny in any numbers. His evidence is a 1790 French government estimate, which put the number of jennies in the whole of France at only 900, which he contrasts with an estimate of 20,070 jennies for Britain in 1788, almost certainly a considerable exaggeration. He fails, however, to point out that the French estimate was made immediately after the mass machine-breaking riots that accompanied the early months of the French Revolution in the preceding year, 1789. The number of jennies in use in France in the later 1780s was probably much higher, as Jeff Horn has pointed out. Using the small numbers of jennies reported in 1790 cannot demonstrate that the machine was uneconomic in France.

It was certainly not the view of the French government inspectors of manufactures that the jenny was uneconomic. Louis-Casimir Brown, inspector of manufactures for Picardy, reported in 1779 that the jenny ‘combines the advantages 1st of having a yarn of the same degree of twist, 2nd and of a constant fineness, as long as the spinner of the slivers has drawn them out smoothly, 3rd finally it is possible to spin much more’. He provided a detailed breakdown of costs, which indicates a saving over equivalent hand-spun yarn of more than 20%. Eight years later, an evaluation of jennies with 40 spindles spinning cotton at Oissel in Normandy by Jean-Baptiste Goy, the French inspector of manufactures for the Généralité de Rouen, agreed: ‘these machines combine the advantages of reducing labour costs a little, with the production of a yarn that is more uniform’.

Allen is lead further astray by his reliance on French spinning wage data derived from Arthur Young, the English agricultural writer who toured France in 1787-9. Oddly, Allen’s references are not to Young’s own book, Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789, published shortly after his return to England, but to Constantia Maxwell’s collection of extracts from it, first published in 1929. Nor does Allen reference the wages Young reported for cotton spinning, but rather Young’s averaging of all his observations of spinning earnings across France, including the spinning of flax, hemp, coarse wool, and fine wool, which often paid far less than spinning cotton. Young recorded relatively few observations for cotton spinning wages in France. Those he did report were mainly for Normandy, in the eighteenth century France’s counterpart to Lancashire for cotton manufacturing. Country spinners near Le Havre earned 16 sous per day, at Yvetot in the Caux 12 sous per day, at Rouen, described by Young as ‘the Manchester of France’, 12 sous per day, while good cotton spinners at La Roche-Guyon, to the south-east on the edge of the Normandy cotton spinning zone, earned 12 sous to 15 sous per day. Only at Angers, in Anjou nearly 200 miles to the south-west, did he report lower rates for spinning cotton of 5 sous to 10 sous per day. The 12 sous to 16 sous per day he recorded in Normandy represented 6d. to 8d. a day in English money. That is the mid-range of the 4d. to 10d. a day (assuming a six-day week) Young had previously recorded at Manchester in 1771.

So it is not clear from Young’s data that there was any difference in average wages for hand cotton spinning between the key cotton manufacturing districts in England and France during the years jennies were being introduced. The foundations of the cliometric edifice constructed by Allen to explain international differences in the adoption of the first major spinning innovation of the Industrial Revolution are flawed.

[This is an extract from a longer paper, ‘Fashion, Textiles and the Origins of Industrial Revolution’. It explores the markets for 18th century Lancashire ‘cotton’ textiles and the fibres from which they were woven to re-interpret the key textile inventions of the early Industrial Revolution. The full paper is available at John Styles’ pages, at]

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2 Responses to Robert Allen’s spinning jenny is broken

  1. Holly Dumont says:

    In your research on spinning from 1550-1800, have you come across anything on spinning yarn, not for fabric, but for embroidery?

    I’m working on a Jacobean project, and every darn book says the same thing. (The yarn was wool). I’d like to to know microns, breeds, where would someone like Beth of Hardwick would send to for her embroidery yarn. Was it spun in Shrewsbury? The Earl of Shrewsbury’s Papers indicated: Their income from land was derived mainly from three sources – from rents, from the rich sheep lands of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire which were kept in hand. (the third was minerals, but that was later).
    But I cannot find any wool processing in this area. I’m sure they didn’t run to the local haberdashery…so any ideas where to look? Has the National Trust or the V/A looked at any of this work with microscopes to tell about the wool? Where can I look? I’ve spent weeks on this project. If I could just get one definitive answer, I could start the dyeing process. Thanks, for any and all help. (I can’t believe how many times I’ve seen the words, “poor woman, spinning white wool”.

  2. Carolyn Penny says:

    Would like to be on your email list for updates to the spinning projects. … worthy endeavor!


    Carolyn Penny, Spinner in North Carolina, USA

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