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domestic system

domestic system. The organization of production by entrepreneurs not in a specialized workplace, but in the homes of workers. The method began in the Middle Ages when almost all manufacturing was carried out within the home whether in town or country. However, when markets grew rapidly, some production was concentrated in factories. For some products, such as many varieties of textiles, gloves, boots, and shoes, the system of subcontracting remained appropriate. Hand-looms and knitting-machines, such as the Griswold used for stocking- and glove-making, were typical of those installed in workers' homes. In some districts, such as the east midlands, new houses were erected during the 18th cent. with space to accommodate the knitting frames. The spacious room at the top of the house had large windows to capture the maximum daylight for operating the frames accurately.

The domestic or putting-out system had many advantages for the master or capitalist manufacturer. The work often required little training. Workers were paid only for their output, and employers did not have to bear the cost of lighting and heating, nor provide space for the machines which were used. In addition, employers responded to variations in demand by increasing or decreasing the amount of work subcontracted. Most workers paid rents for the machines, whether or not they were in use, and stored in their cottages raw materials or components. The masters employed ‘bagmen’ to distribute raw materials and to collect finished items. The payments for work done depended on the quality of the product and disputes often arose between agents and workers.

The decline of the domestic system was a consequence of the industrial revolution. Growth in mass markets, combined with the development of textile machines, gave dominance to factory production of cloth, knitwear, and lace. The domestic system continued in the trades where there were specialized markets or where there were constant changes in the demand for decorative accessories and trimmings for the fashion industry. The pattern also continued in areas such as tailoring, paperbox-making, and even chain-making.

During the 20th cent. the domestic system or home working survived, usually associated with low-paid work by women. These workers, isolated in their homes, rarely joined trade unions or organized to obtain adequate pay and conditions. The Trade Boards Act of 1909 was designed to cover the ‘sweated industries’ of the domestic system and established panels, drawn from employers and employees, to determine minimum rates of pay. However, this law provided no effective means of enforcing the statutory wage rates. It was abolished by the Wages Act of 1986.

Home working continues during the early 21st cent. in a wide range of contexts, from the making of exclusive high-fashion knitwear from expensive fibres for the fashion industry to new developments in telesales and networking from home through computers.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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