1800s European Economy - Economic History of Europe
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European Economy - 1800s


Early reaper and binder, cutting oats

November 2016 - By 1800 AD, France, Britain, and Spain were all getting rich by using their strong armies and navies to take wood, food, and other things from other countries without paying for them. France was taking things from West Africa and Haiti. Britain was taking stuff from India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and using the cotton grown by enslaved African-Americans in the United States. Spain was taking sugar, cotton, and silver from South America.


An early train

Taking all this stuff meant that people in France, Britain didn't have to spend all their time farming to get enough food to eat. Instead, more children could go to school, and more people could spend time inventing things. Among the first things they invented were ways to get more food faster - machines that could plow, reap, and thresh wheat and oats, for example. They invented fertilizers to make the same land grow more food, and steam engines that could help people plow and reap and thresh. They worked on canals and trains that could carry food from one place to another where people needed it, and they worked on a telegraph and telephone so that people would know right away where to bring the food.

As people in northern Europe got richer, they could afford to buy things that weren't food - clothes, furniture, books, and toys. Cheap cotton and spinning and weaving machines made clothes cheap enough that people could begin to own several dresses, not just one. By the 1850s, Britain started to make a lot of high-quality Besemer steel. First the steel was for railroad rails, but soon factories made steel into forks and knives, cans and can-openers, screws and screwdrivers, and much more. But those machines needed power. More and more people had to work in coal mines across northern Europe, digging up coal to run the machines.

But who would work in these factories and mines? Most adults were busy farming, so in the early 1800s mainly teenaged girls and children worked in the factories. People tried to pass laws preventing kids from working, but they were needed so the laws mostly didn't work. Gradually, as machines began to do a lot of the farming, even adults began to work in factories, where they worked harder for less pay than they had on the farms, and often got sick. By the 1830s, workers began to form unions and fight together for better working conditions. British coal miners fought hard and won better pay and better safety rules.

One way to avoid the laws keeping kids out of factories, and to make it harder for people to form unions, was to let people work from home. In the late 1800s many women and kids worked in their own houses, sewing clothes or making tools or toys for big companies to sell. They got paid a few pennies for each thing they made, so they had to work very long days to make enough to live on.

Learn by doing: go see tractors and reapers working on a farm
More about coal
More about steel
More about glass
European economy in the 1900s

Bibliography and further reading about the European economy:

European economy in the 1900s
Modern Europe
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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