On Labor Day, be thankful that we don’t have to do as much laboring as our ancestors did

One day in the 1760s, James Hargreaves, a hand-loom weaver from the village of Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire, England, saw an overturned spinning wheel. These wheels had been fixtures of British households for centuries. At any given opportunity, the men, women, or children of the household would sit themselves at the machine and tease out raw wool into skeins which could then be sold for weaving. This was a hugely important way for poverty stricken households – as almost all were at that time – to support themselves.

But seeing the overturned spinning wheel got Hargreaves thinking. What would happen if several spindles were to be placed upright, side by side? Wouldn’t it be possible for the person operating this contraption to spin several threads at once? Hargreaves got to work and, using a knife, shaped a primitive engine, or ‘jinny’, a single spinning wheel, with, eventually, as many as eight separate spindles. The ‘spinning jenny’ was finally perfected in 1766 and was one of the key early innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

Sadly, Hargreaves’ jennies were not well received by his neighbors. If each one allowed one person to do what had previously taken eight to do, wouldn’t each machine put seven spinners out of work? Hargreaves’ barn was raided and the first twenty jennies were burned.

Hargreaves’ neighbors were subscribing to the ‘lump of labor fallacy’. This holds that there is a fixed amount of work within an economy and that any labor saving device puts people out of work. It lives on today in worries that robots will leave millions unemployed. This is the same erroneous thinking that led to the destruction of Hargreaves’ jennies in the 1760s. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

Hargreaves’ jennies did enable each worker to produce more. But it did not lead to mass unemployment. Instead, it lead to both higher wages for the workers and lower prices for their output. Workers were now able to purchase what they had produced. As Robert Lacey notes in his excellent book Great Tales from English History,

“Spinners and weavers took to parading the streets on pay-days with £5 notes in their hatbands. Their wives drank tea out of the finest china”

The consumer society was born. That term has a bad reputation now, but try getting by on the consumption of an early eighteenth century peasant and see how you feel.

A host of inventions followed, raising worker productivity ever higher. Richard Arkwright, a barber and wigmaker from Preston, worked with a Warrington clockmaker, John Kay, to produce a ‘frame’ which used rollers to draw out and twist the yarn. Samuel Crompton, a Bolton weaver, devised a crossbreed of the jenny and frame that became known as the ‘spinning mule’.

Factories followed, many of them utilising child labor. But the old ‘putting out’ system, with the spinning wheels in people’s houses, had also used child labor. They had had to because there was such little productivity that every hand, however small, had to work every possible minute to eke out the bare essentials for survival. By contrast, the vastly more productive processes invented by people like Hargreaves, Arkwright, Kay, and Crompton, created circumstances where these essentials – and very much more – could be secured with ever less labor. Children could never have left the old ‘putting out’ system for school, but they could get out of a factory and into one.

Despite the fact that these inventions had great social benefits, the inventors were not motivated by altruism. As Adam Smith pointed out,

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.”

Labor Day is celebrated by not laboring. And it is because of the vast increases in productivity in the last 250 years that we are able to do so. So thank you, James Hargreaves.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.