Home-working had its advantages, even in the 18th century

Home-working had its advantages, even in the 18th century

And there exist surprising parallels with today

Sally brown, who was born in Vermont in the early 1800s, had a typically varied schedule for a working woman of the time. As her diary shows, one day she is finishing stockings; another she is milking a cow; another she is refining wool. All of her jobs were done from home.

The shift from offices to kitchen tables among white-collar workers in 2020 seems unprecedented, and only possible with Slack and Zoom. But it is nothing new. Indeed, the history of home-working suggests some surprising parallels with today.

The emergence of capitalism in Britain and elsewhere from the 1600s to the mid-19th century did not take place primarily in factories, but in people’s houses. Workers made everything from dresses to shoes to matchboxes in their kitchens or bedrooms. When Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776, it was perfectly common to work from home. Smith famously described the operation of the division of labour in pin-making, but not in a dark, satanic mill. He was describing a “small manufactory” of perhaps ten people—which could well have been in or attached to somebody’s house.