Wenjun Yu and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Textile Wages, Women's Earning Power, and Household Living Standards in the Yangtze Delta, 1756 -c.1930"2024.

This paper explores the real incomes of textile women and their economic contributions to household subsistence in the Yangtze Delta from 1756 to 1930. It finds that the daily real income by traditional hand spinning and weaving experienced a steady decline in the whole investigating period. However, when hand weavers used machine-made yarn, textile productivity improved and the daily return had an obvious increase. While this new method of hand weaving induced relatively high real incomes between the 1880s and early 1910s, in the longer term hand weavers' earnings generally declined. Nevertheless, women's annual remuneration still averaged around 65% of the income needed for a household's subsistence. When hand weaving stagnated since the 1920s, handicraft textile women contributed less than 20% of household subsistence expense, while the wages earnings of women who worked in urban mills hovered between 40% and 60% of a household subsistence budget. The earning power of Yangtze textile women was, on the one hand, depended on commercialization, global trade and textile industrialization in different historical eras, on the other hand, conditioned by their life circles and household labor allocation. No matter what kind of textile production women did, their economic contribution to the household throughout the period should not be underestimated.


Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Corinne Boter, Katherine Frederick and Sarah Carmichael, "Global Shifts and Local Actors. Revising Macro-Level Theories on the Relocation of Textile Production From the Lens of the Household in the Netherlands and Java, c. 1820-1940.",  BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, Vol. 138 No. 1, pp. 4-30.

The location of major textile manufacturing centers has shifted several times over the past 250 years, from Asia to Europe and the US, then back to Asia. Mainstream explanations for these shifts take a macro-approach and hence oversimplify the mechanisms behind them. We investigate these mechanisms at the micro-level of the household to gain a deeper understanding of the relocations of textile production worldwide. We do so by studying Dutch and Javanese households' productive and consumptive behaviour in the period 1820-1940, when colonial relations between these two regions played an important role. We show that households' labour allocation, livelihood strategies, and consumption preferences are crucial to understand the interaction between global shifts and local actors.

Rolf Bauer and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (eds.), Global Agricultural Workers from the 17th to the 21st Century (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2023).

Agricultural workers have long been underrepresented in labour history. This volume aims to change this by bringing together a collection of studies on the largest group of the global work force. The contributions cover the period from the early modern to the present – a period when the emergence and consolidation of capitalism has transformed rural areas all over the globe. Three questions have guided the approach and the structure of this volume. First, how and why have peasant families managed to survive under conditions of advancing commercialisation and industrialisation? Second, why have coercive labour relations been so persistent in the agricultural sector and third, what was the role of states in the recruitment of agricultural workers?


Aditi Dixit and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Supply of labour during early industrialisation: Agricultural systems, textile factory work and gender in Japan and India, ca. 1880 - 1940", The Indian Economic & Social History Review, Volume 59 Issue 2.

This article explores the reasons behind the marked differences in the gender division of labour in the emerging textile factories in Japan and India in the first half of the twentieth century. In Japan, the overwhelming majority of the workers in spinning mills were young, unmarried women, while in India men—married as well as unmarried—formed the bulk of the factory textile workforce. We argue that variations in agrarian systems and labour regimes constitute an important set of factors explaining some of these differences in gender patterns. The structural differences in the productivity, intensity and the social organisation of labour in agricultural economies in both countries led to notable variances in the gender composition of the supply of (rural) labour for the factories. Differential deployment of rural farm and non-farm labour, in combination with distinct labour recruitment practices in the countryside, caused rural households to adopt radically different income-generating strategies.

Katherine Frederick and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, “Local advantage in a global context. Competition, adaptation and resilience in textile manufacturing in the ‘periphery’, 1860–1960”, Journal of Global History, First View, 1-24.

For decades, the link between manufacturing, economic development, and colonialism during the globalizing nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been subject to considerable debate. Dependency-school theorists have long argued that imperial ‘core’ countries stifled domestic handicraft industries in the ‘periphery’ by flooding colonial markets with manufactures from the metropole and coercing colonized people to produce raw materials.1 Meanwhile, many neoclassical economists have contended that industrial development was inherently handicapped in much of the ‘Global South’ by endogenous factors, including purported ‘backwardness’ in non-Western societies, a lack of dynamism of indigenous elites, and/or geographic conditions that predisposed the south to focus on primary production, in lieu of manufacturing, to meet rising demand for raw materials in the ‘Global North’.2 Although belonging to different ideological camps, both schools share certain key perspectives: first, that the ‘Western’ model of modernization was the road to development; second, that handicraft industries in the Global South were unable to withstand competition from machine-made imports; and third, that the ability of colonized regions to achieve economic growth was determined by demand and/or policies from the Global North, thus discounting indigenous economic agency. Crucially, however, the responses of local actors to both colonial policies and broader global economic forces could produce more complex outcomes than these outlooks allow.


Boter, C., "The Emergence of the Dutch Housewife Revised. How Shifts in Local Labour Market Structures Shaped Dutch Unmarried Women’s Labour Force Participation, 1812-1929", Historical Life Course Studies, 10 (March), 130-134.

Most studies on the long-term development of female labour force participation argue that social norms and rising wages were key drivers. However, the majority of these conclusions apply to married women. Instead, this study zooms in on unmarried women. Based on nearly 2 million marriage records that have been digitalised by Kees Mandemaker's LINKS project, it shows that there were large regional differences in the levels of labour force participation that were closely connected to local job opportunities. This research concludes that even though social norms and income levels were indeed important, local sectoral employment shares were the key driver of Dutch unmarried women's work during the long-19th century.


Katharine Frederick and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Wielding the thread: Local textile markets and global competition in the periphery, circa 1860-1960", 2020.

This paper analyzes domestic cloth production in relation to consumer preference in Java and sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of uncovering how local industries coped with the effects of broader global and colonial forces during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Market-oriented deindustrialization theories based on Ricardian theory purport that, by the nineteenth century, world regions with a comparative advantage in manufacturing (primarily the West) prevailed as providers of industrial goods to the global market place, while regions with a comparative advantage in raw materials production (the Global South) abandoned industrial manufacturing for domestic markets in favor of tropical commodity production oriented toward global markets. However, the survival of numerous handicraft industries well into the twentieth century is a clear indication that simple comparative advantage is an insufficient explanation of industrial vitality. Inspired by contemporary business theory, we argue that many domestic handicraft producers in the Global South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wielded certain competitive advantages – derived from the very different production and marketing strategies pursued by handicraft manufacturers relative to factory producers – which provided competitive protection despite increasing globalization. We place particular emphasis on one crucial, yet understudied element in the explanation for the resilience of local production: the capacity of local producers to accommodate local consumer preference. Specifically, strategies of product differentiation and responsiveness to shifting consumer needs, along with flexibility in manufacturing methods, enabled local producers to remain competitive in confrontation with mounting imports from early factory producers, who typically offered cheap, but lower quality and less unique products. Moreover, some local manufacturers could even compete on the basis of price given the very low labor costs involved in seasonally oriented handicraft production.    

Kirsten Kamphuis and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Education, Labour and Discipline: New Perspectives on Imperial Practices and Indigenous Children in Colonial Asia", International Review of Social History 65:1, 1-14.

This article provides an introduction to the two articles in this Special Theme on education, labour, and discipline in colonial Asia. It offers a brief historiography of education to indigenous children in the colonial context provided by non-state as well as state actors. We argue that while many studies have separated the motives behind, and actions of, these different actors in relation to education and “civilizing missions”, it is worthwhile connecting these histories. Moreover, apart from looking at motives, the articles in this Special Theme aim to show the value of studying educational practices in a colonial context. Finally, this introduction identifies several opportunities for future – comparative as well as transnational – studies into the topic of education, child labour, and discipline.

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Van regionaal naar globaal. Wat kunnen we leren van internationaal vergelijkend historisch onderzoek naar arbeid en gender?", The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 17 (1): 77-96

This article aims to bring together three different long-term, global comparative studies on women’s work in three sectors: the textile industry, domestic service and sex work from the seventeenth century to today. Although there were notable differences between developments in these three occupations over time, it is clear that they all represent the ubiquitous precarity that runs through the history of work. Instead of viewing precarious labour as a novel development, history shows that the ILO model of ‘standard employment’ is an exception in history. Both in the Global North and in the Global South, at least half of the world’s historical population – women – often worked in underpaid, poorly organized jobs, under unequal power relations. However, despite these consistent practices of subordination, this article also highlights that within the given constrictions, female labourers who were formally powerless could exert considerable agency, using informal networks and power mechanisms that often emerged from the inherent intimacy of the labour relations they were involved in.

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Reversal of fortune or continued misery? Ulbe Bosma's Making of a Periphery reviewed", International Review of Social History 65:3, 495-505.

With his latest book, The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma makes a successful attempt to “decompress history”. Apart from praising his work, I want to offer two critical comments and a suggestion for global comparison. First, I argue that the role of colonialism/imperialism is somewhat downplayed in the book. Second, although I am impressed by the vast body of literature cited, I believe that at several instances the book might have benefited from its arguments being underpinned by more solid empirical quantitative data. Finally, I raise the question how unique the “plantation economies” of Island South East Asia actually were, which also implies a suggestion for further research along the lines of Bosma's impressive monograph.

Katharine Frederick, Twilight of an Industry in East Africa. Textile Manufacturing, 1830-1940, London etc.: Palgrave Macmillan 2020.

Cotton textile industries vanished from much of East Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book investigates the underlying causes of industrial arrest in the region through a series of in-depth case studies. Findings are considered in light of existing studies on comparatively more resilient textile centers elsewhere on the continent to derive insights into the determinants of differing industrial trajectories across sub-Saharan Africa. Frederick argues that scholars have placed undue weight on global forces as the primary drivers of industrial decline in the Global South. Rather, this book reveals how local factors – principally demographic, geographic, and institutional features – interacted with external forces to influence unique regional outcomes during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as sub-Saharan African was increasingly integrated into global trade networks and European colonial empires.

Boter, C.A. and Woltjer, P., "The impact of sectoral shifts on Dutch unmarried women’s labor force participation, 1812-1929", European Review of Economic History, 0:0, 1-35.

During the nineteenth century, Dutch female labor force participation (FLFP) was relatively low. Most scholars argue that social norms and rising wages were driving this development. However, their conclusions principally apply to married women. We study unmarried women’s LFP (UFLFP) and investigate a third driver: shifting sectoral employment shares. We include all three drivers in a logistic regression based on nearly 2 million marriage records from 1812 to 1929. We conclude that social norms and income levels mattered, but that shifting sectoral employment shares were driving the decline in UFLFP because sectors with low demand for female laborers expanded.

Boter, C.A., "Living standards and the life-cycle: reconstructing household income and consumption in the early twentieth-century Netherlands", The Economic History Review 73:4 (2020), 1-24.

Conventional methods of measuring historical household living standards are often criticized because of the omission of women's and children's wages and non-wage income; the focus on urban centres; and the exclusion of life-cycle changes in household composition, income and consumption. This article presents a method that accounts for these issues and applies it to agricultural and textile households in the early-twentieth century Netherlands. It uses total household income, as opposed to the husband's wage, as the enumerator for calculating alternative welfare ratios. The results show that welfare ratios were not only structurally higher than those based on the male-breadwinner model, but also followed a different life-cycle trajectory. Furthermore, household portfolios were diversified and depended on local labour market structures. Thus, the study concludes that analyses based on men's wages only reflect the rough outlines of how households functioned.

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Globalization and women's textile work: a comparative perspective", 2020.

This paper stages a rather wide-ranging historical overview of changes in women’s work in the textile industry over a long period of time, in many parts of the world. Textile production has been highly labour-intensive throughout history. Even after machines were introduced since the late eighteenth century, textile producers have always been in need for cheap, flexible labour. In most places and times, it was women – and to a lesser extent children – who provided this labour. An important strategy in the search for cheap labour was the relocation of textile production. Although the latest shift, with mass cotton textile production moving from industrial sites in “the Global North” to “the Global South” is relatively well-known, earlier shifts have also occurred. In this paper, I aim to identify the most important drivers of these shifts, as well as their consequences for women workers. I will look at the process of globalization, but also at the availability, or the absence, of alternative work opportunities for women to explain these changes.


Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Women, Work and Colonialism in the Netherlands and Java. Comparisons, Contrasts and Connections, 1830-1940, London etc.: Palgrave Macmillan 2019.

Recent postcolonial studies have stressed the importance of the mutual influences of colonialism on both colony and metropole. This book studies such colonial entanglements and their effects by focusing on developments in household labour in the Dutch Empire in the period 1830-1940. The changing role of households’, and particularly women’s, economic activities in the Netherlands and Java, one of the most important Dutch colonies, forms an excellent case study to help understand the connections and disparities between colony and metropole. The author contends that colonial entanglements certainly existed, and influenced developments in women’s economic role to an extent, both in Java and the Netherlands. However, during the nineteenth century, more and more distinctions in the visions and policies towards Dutch working class and Javanese peasant households emerged. Accordingly, a more sophisticated framework is needed to explain how and why such connections were – both intentionally and unintentionally – severed over time.


Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, ‘Challenging the de-industrialization thesis. Gender and indigenous textile production in Java under Dutch colonial rule, ca. 1830-1940’, The Economic History Review volume 70, issue 4, pp. 1-29.

Many dependency theorists as well as economic historians have contended that nineteenth‐century imperial policies and economic globalization de‐industrialized the global ‘periphery’. European metropoles extracted raw materials and tropical commodities from their overseas territories, and in turn indigenous consumers bought their industrial products, textiles in particular. This article investigates three of the assumptions of Ricardian trade theory that are often behind the de‐industrialization narrative. In this article it is argued that, at least for colonial Java's textile industry, these assumptions should be reconsidered. Adverse trade policies imposed by the Dutch and a prolonged terms‐of‐trade boom in favour of primary commodities make colonial Java a unique case for exploring the merits of the de‐industrialization thesis. Here it is demonstrated that Javanese households resourcefully responded to changing market circumstances, in the first place by flexible allocation of female labour. Moreover, indigenous textile producers specialized in certain niches that catered for local demand. Because of these factors, local textile production in Java appears to have been much more resilient than most of the historical literature suggests. These findings not only shed new light on the social and economic history of colonial Indonesia, but also contribute to the recent literature on alternative, labour‐intensive paths of industrialization in the non‐western world.

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, ‘Big questions and big data. The role of labour in recent global economic history’, International Review of Social History 62:1, 95-121.

This article argues that global labour history (GLH) and global economic history have much to offer each other. GLH would do well to raise sweeping questions – for instance about the origins of global inequality – engage more with theory, and increasingly use quantitative methods. Instead of seeing labour and labour relations as historical phenomena to be explained, they can serve as important explanatory variables in historical analyses of economic development and divergence. In turn, economic historians have much to gain from the recent insights of global labour historians. GLH offers a more inclusive and variable usage of the concept of labour, abandoning, as it does, the often narrow focus on male wage labour in the analyses of many economic historians. Moreover, GLH helps to overcome thinking in binary categories, such as “free” and “unfree” labour. Ultimately, both fields will benefit from engaging in joint debates and theories, and from collaboration in collecting and analysing “big data”.