Population Explosion and Growth of the Cottage Industry

There are a number of misconceptions about the population of Europe in the past, such as the idea that people married young and had large families, or that they were so ignorant that they had no methods of birth control, and therefore could not control their numbers, as a result of which the population grew geometrically. In fact, the population grew slowly until 1700, and followed a very irregular cyclical pattern.

A great surge in population growth occurred in the late sixteenth century, which outpaced the growth of agriculture. As a result, food prices rose higher than wages, a development that was exacerbated by the influx of gold and silver fro South America. The result was a decided decline in the living standards of the peasantry. As a result, population growth slowed and even stopped in the seventeenth century. The birth rate was moderately high, but the death rate was exceptionally high. The end result was a growth rate of between .05 and 1 percent, enough to double the population in 70 to 140 years. The population did not grow at that rate, however, in fact at times it reversed itself, largely as a result of famine, disease (the Black Death was but one of several plagues that devastated Europe) and war. Famine resulted from poor farming practices and crop failure. In France, in 1769 alone, five percent of the population died from hunger. Disease was often opportunistic, as peopleís resistance to disease was reduced due to poor diet. War killed directly and indirectly: soldiers passing through areas often spread venereal disease among the populace. Scarce food supplies were often requisitioned for military use, and peasants were left with insufficient supplies. The most extreme example of wartime civilian casualties was in the Thirty Years War. Some areas of Germany saw their populations decreased by two thirds.

Disease was the most effective weapon of the grim reaper, particularly in cities which were unhealthy and unsanitary. More people died than were born in most cities. A number of European monarchs only ascended the throne because older siblings died. Henry VIII became King only when his brother Arthur died. Frederick the Great of Prussia came to the throne only after his two elder brothers died before their first birthday. The poor were particularly vulnerable to disease, and infant mortality was appallingly high. In 1719, 14,000 people died of smallpox. In Salonika, (present day Greece, but then part of the Ottoman Empire), between 1781-1783, over 400 people died every day from malaria. Whooping cough killed at least 40,000 children in Sweden over a period of fifteen years, and more than 100,000 people in Brittany died of dysentery in the 1770ís. Many states tried to close frontiers and ports to prevent disease from spreading, or quarantined those who did cross over, but normally to no avail.

By the eighteenth century, the population of Europe began a noticeable increase, largely because of a decrease in the mortality rate. A significant factor was the demise of the Black Death. The Asian Black Rats, which had carried the fleas which transmitted the disease were mysteriously overwhelmed by the brown or wander rat. The brown rats managed to drive out the black rats. The brown rat can contract bubonic plague, but its main parasite is a flea that carries the disease poorly, and does not care for the taste of human blood. One noted authority commented, "This revolution in the animal kingdom must have gone far to break the lethal link between rat and man."

Other advances which lent themselves to population growth were improvements in the water supply and sewerage systems, which reduced deaths from typhoid and typhus. Drainage of swamps and marshes reduced the insect population, primarily mosquitoes and flies which carried disease. The result was a substantial decline in mortality among children and young adult. Medical science contributed only nominally. The most important medical advance was the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner, who discovered that cowpox, a harmless viral infection, precluded smallpox infection. For many years, however, inoculation against smallpox was confined to England, and did little to reduce the mortality rate on the continent.

Additionally, with the development of canals and roads, food supplies could be transported reasonably quickly. Thus, if there were a local crop failure, supplies from other areas could be brought in to prevent famine and starvation. Wars became more "gentlemanly" such that the population at large was not devastated. The introduction of potatoes, from South America, which are rich in vitamins A and C, was a significant asset to the European diet.

Thomas Malthus, the author of Essay on Human Population, was alarmed at the growth in population, and predicted that plague, disease, war, and infant mortality, which he called "natureís auditing with a red pencil," would become less significant. He predicted that the population would "increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it," that is food supply would only grow arithmetically (2,3,4,5) whereas population growth would grow exponentially (2,4,8,16,32). Malthus alarm was not well founded. There was significant increase in agricultural production; the problem was lack of work with which to buy food and other necessities. It was this shortage which led to the development of the cottage industry described below.

Birth control seems to have been practiced somewhat, although no records are kept, because it was considered a delicate subject, not to be discussed or written down. As a result, the historical record is sketchy. The British writer, James Boswell, speaks of his sexual encounters "in armor." Under any circumstances, birth control was at best unreliable.

Sadly the increase in population outstripped the increase in agricultural production, and created a substantial imbalance between the number of people and the number of economic opportunities available to them. Agriculture could not provide enough work for the growing labor force, and poor people in the countryside had to look for new ways to make a living.

Growth of the Cottage Industry: Poor in the countryside increasingly needed income outside of agriculture, and capitalists from the city willingly provided it, often at wages lower than would have been demanded by city dwellers. As a result, manufacturing with hand tools in peasant cottages and work sheds grew markedly.

Peasants had always made some clothing, processed food, and constructed housing for their own use. The production of items for resale had been jealously guarded by the craft guilds and urban merchants, but with the growth of the rural poor, they could no longer control the market. Peasants would work for considerably lower wages, and the closely guarded markets of the cities soon dissipated.

The system used by poor workers was known as the Putting Out System. Under this system, a merchant would provide raw material to cottage workers who would process it in their own homes and return the finished product to the merchant for sale. For example, the merchant might furnish raw wool which the worker would spin and weave into cloth. The merchant would pay the worker by the piece (a system of "production pay") and then resell the cloth. There were any number of variations of this system. At times, the workers would buy their own raw materials and sell the finished product to the merchant; in other instances a number of workers might work together in a workshop to produce a complicated product.

The putting out system was a form of capitalism. Merchants needed large amounts of capital, which they held in the form of goods being worked up and sold to distant markets. Their goal was to make a profit and increase the capital in their businesses. There were a number of advantages to the putting out system which made it feasible. There were large numbers of workers who were either unemployed or underemployed who would work for low wages. There were no guilds in the countryside to enforce regulations, so workers could change procedures and experiment if they wished. (The Guilds discouraged development of new methods and also maintained quality control). As the industry grew, textiles, knives, clocks, gloves, musical instruments, buttons, housewares, were produced in the country, along with luxury items such as tapestries, porcelain etc. The latter items required a degree of expertise which was not common; therefore they remained expensive and luxuries.

Previously, Guilds had carefully controlled the industry in which each was engaged. Journeymen and master guildsmen oversaw the training of boys twelve to thirteen as apprentices. In France, journeymen perfected their skills by completing a Tour of France, the origins of the present day Tour de France. He toured a number of cities over a period of several years, was housed in the craft associationís "mother house," and returned with skills acquired from many masters.

The Textile industry was by far the major occupation of cottage workers. Workers often worked in a small workshop consisting of a single room. The loom would occupy most of the room, and there was little space for furniture. The loom was unchanged for the past several hundred years other than the introduction of the flying shuttle, which allowed the weaver to throw the shuttle back and forth between the threads with one hand. Other pieces of equipment would include spinning wheels, dyeing vats, and carding equipment to card wool. It was first and foremost a family industry, with everyone employed in it. The father normally was responsible for weaving, and other members of the family from the youngest to the very old, contributed in some way.

Weaving required more spun yarn than a single spinning wheel could produce, and it was necessary to find others to spin. As a result, the wife would often recruit unmarried women and widows who spun for a living. They were appropriately called "spinsters," a term now applied to unmarried women beyond child bearing age.

Relations between textile cottage workers and merchants were not good. Merchants were often accused of delivering bales of wool which were underweight, and the merchants in turn accused the workers of stealing raw material. A poem written about 1700 called The Clothiers Delight, or the Rich Manís Joy and the Poor Mans Sorrow, tells the tale of a merchant bragging about the methods he uses to "beat down wages."

            We heapeth up riches and treasure great store
            Which we get by griping and grinding the poor.
            And this is a way to fill up our purse
            Although we do get it with many a curse.

But the problem worked both ways. Rural labor was cheap and scattered about the countryside, which made it difficult to control. Cottage workers tended to work in spurts. They were paid on Saturday afternoon, and might take the next few days off, particularly if there were a tavern near by. In fact, no work on Monday was observed so religiously that it became known as "holy Monday." If times were good and merchandise sold quickly, cottage workers were inclined to loaf. Thus merchant capitalists began to search for ways to produce more efficiently and squeeze still more work out of cottage workers.