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PROTO-INDUSTRY. The term "proto-industry" refers to a form of manufacturing production and organization, and the process of protoindustrialization refers to a historical process and to an economic theory of development. Historians have generally accepted the central features of proto-industrialization as an economic process with deep social ramifications that began around 1650 (there is much more disagreement about when it ended), but they have been more skeptical about the theory as an explanation for the emergence of the industrial revolution.


As a historical process, proto-industrialization refers to an intensification of rural manufacturing that occurred in various parts of Europe after 1650, above all producing textiles for national and international markets. In other words, quickening demand beyond the immediate vicinity of production, and even overseas, was the fundamental stimulus for expanded production. Production was organized in cottage workshops, and the primary unit of production was the household. Merchants distributed raw materials like wool or flax (for making linen) to peasants. Men and women would spin the raw material into yarn, and merchants would then put the yarn out to weavers working looms in their cottages to produce cloth. Merchants would then distribute the cloth to other cottage workers for bleaching and dyeing and collect it a final time for sale to a wholesaler in a near or distant city. The peasant workers were paid piece rates.

This type of rural manufacturing, sometimes called "the putting-out system," existed at least from the sixteenth century, notably in the Netherlands, as merchants sought cheaper labor than what was available in towns, where cloth workers were well organized to defend their economic interests. Initially peasants engaged in cottage manufacturing to supplement their income from farming, spinning, and weaving in their homes in the intervals between planting and harvesting. As demand for textiles grew after 1650 and above all in the eighteenth century, however, merchants sought more and more cottage workers to produce more and more goods. Proto-industrialization took hold often, although not exclusively, in areas with poor soil, hilly terrain, or concentration of land in a few hands. It reached an unprecedented scale in the eighteenth century, even dominating particular regions in the Netherlands, northern France, the German Rhineland, Belgium, and above all England. Proto-industrialization had important economic ramifications. It strengthened marketing networks as the volume of textiles multiplied and contributed to the accumulation of profit to entrepreneurial merchants who in turn sought further outlets for reinvestment. Moreover, because workers were paid cash for their products, they became increasingly integrated into a cash- and wage-based manufacturing economy. Each of these factors further prepared Europe to make the leap into industrialization.

Contributing to the expansion of proto-industrialization in the eighteenth century were population growth and an increased and better supply of food. More rural workers became available, and expanding commercial farming provided markets with food for them. Proto-industry employed far more people than the traditional cottage industry had, and in some areas peasants gave up farming entirely and became dependent upon "wages" paid by urban merchants. In some rural regions, a majority of the population worked for urban merchants. In England, as commercial and capitalistic farmers purchased and enclosed more and more fields, the population of propertyless rural workers grew more dramatically than anywhere else in Europe.

As proto-industrialization advanced, more peasants were driven into poverty, and landless peasants were more inclined to work for low wages than urban artisans. Merchants, driven by increasing competition in the market and the capitalistic motive to maximize profit by minimizing costs, exploited this source of cheap, unorganized labor. Some historians refer to this process as proletarianization, referring to the transformation of once independent farmer-manufacturers into a class of propertyless, impoverished wageworkers totally reliant upon the merchant-capitalistand the vagaries of demand in distant marketsfor their livelihood. Such developments had deep social, even demographic, consequences. Recent empirical studies show that populations in proto-industrial regions looked very different from those in other rural areas or towns. Marriage ages dropped lower in proto-industrial communities than anywhere else, and fertility rates rose the most and the fastest. Because of the impoverishment that came with proletarianization, poor public health, and rising levels of occupational disease, mortality rates were the highest among these communities as well.


Proto-industrialization describes a historical process, but it also refers to a theory of economic development first advanced by Franklin Mendels in a seminal article in 1972. This theory, subsequently championed by such historians as Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jürgen Schlumbohm, argues that proto-industrialization had a direct and causal relation to the emergence of factory production, assumed to be the key characteristic of the industrial revolution. Moreover, it focuses almost exclusively upon the woolen, linen, and cotton industries. Empirical studies confirm, as the theory attests, that the first factories were in the countryside and often concentrated the decentralized cottage production in a single building. It is also true that in some areas proto-industrial merchants acquired substantial resources which they later invested in the building of new machines and factories. One can plausibly draw the conclusion, as the proponents of the theory of proto-industrialization have, that cottage manufacturing in both its small traditional form and as proto-industrialization was eventually replaced by factory production. And, of course, it is well known that the cotton industry was the leader in factory-based industrial development.

The theory of proto-industrialization has as many critics as champions, however, among the earliest being Maxine Berg, Pat Hudson, and Michael Sonenscher. Recent research has demonstrated that industrialization was a slow and protracted process, certainly not complete by 1800, that it did not occur exclusively or even primarily in the countryside, and that it had multiple causes. Moreover, historians are much more inclined today to see the connections between proto-industry and factory production as more geographically limited than the theory originally asserted. Furthermore, studies of the economic functions of cities have shown that, contrary to the assumptions of the theory, cities and towns were not just centers of trade and finance, but were in fact also important manufacturing centers where productive artisans engaged in myriad industrial activities (increasingly supplementing their manual labor with mechanized sources of power as the nineteenth century unfolded), few of which were organized in proto-industrial fashion and even fewer of which evolved into factories.

Perhaps the weakest feature of the theory of proto-industrialization is its overemphasis on the factory in the emergence of industrialism. Research in the last ten years points out that it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that factory production in textiles truly came to dominate, largely as a result of the widespread installation of power looms. In 1841 in England, for example, scarcely more than half (53 percent) of all cotton workers were employed in factories.

Recent empirical studies have prompted historians to conclude that there were many roads to industrialization, proto-industry and factory production in the countryside being but one, textiles being an important but certainly not the only industry. In fact, much industrialization occurred outside of the factory, notably in metal smelting and mining. A theory like proto-industrialization, therefore, is not so much wrong as limited in its applicability. Indeed, there were many areas of Europe where proto-industries thrived yet did not evolve into factories, nor did these areas sink into "deindustrialized" backwaters, the only two trajectories entertained by the theory of proto-industrialization. Even as some textile manufacturing moved into factories, out-work or cottage work expanded as manufacturers sent work home to be done by workers' families. This was particularly the case in the garment industry, where women did fine needlework and cloth finishing in their homes. Moreover, many other industries besides textiles were proto-industrialized (notably in metalware production), and continued to thrive throughout much of the nineteenth century, even as factory-based industrialization took hold. Indeed, as late as 1851 in England, only 5 percent of the overall industrial workforce worked in factories. Artisanal workshops in the countryside continued to exist and even expand, often as ancillary businesses supplementing the work being done in factories. Skilled machinists and tool and die makers, necessary for the functioning of the machines in the factories, are an illustrative case in point.

See also Artisans ; Capitalism ; Commerce and Markets ; Guilds ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Laborers ; Poverty ; Strikes ; Textile Industry .


Berg, Maxine, Pat Hudson, and Michael Sonenscher, eds. Manufacture in Town and Country before the Factory. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1983.

Clarkson, Leslie A. Proto-Industrialization: The First Phase of Industrialization? Basingstoke, U.K., 1985.

Kriedte, Peter, Hans Medick, and Jürgen Schlumbohm. Industrialization before Industrialization: Rural Industry in the Genesis of Capitalism. Translated by Beate Schempp. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1981.

Leboutte, René, ed. Proto-industrialisation: recherches récentes et nouvelles perspectives: Mélanges en souvenir de Franklin Mendels =Proto-Industrialization: Recent Researches and New Perspectives: In Memory of Franklin Mendels. Geneva, 1996.

Mendels, Franklin F. "Proto-Industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process." Journal of Economic History 32, no. 1 (1972): 241261.

Ogilvie, Sheilagh C., and Markus Cernan, eds. European Proto-Industrialization: An Introductory Handbook. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

James R. Farr