Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Useable Teaching Resource on the Division of Labour

Daniel Sichel, possibly a future professor of economics at Wellesley College, has written a paper of interest to those who know of (even if the have not yet read), Adam Smith on the division of labour in the production of pins and how the substantial increase in productivity was achieved in some 18th-century pin factories, when young labourers combined to increase production from one to twenty pins a day to forty-eight thousand pins a day (WNI.i.3: 14-15).

It was common to find nail factories even in small villages like Kirkcaldy in Fife, Scotland, where Adam Smith was born and brought up by his widowed mother, Margaret Douglas Smith. His pin factory arithmetic example possibly came from French sources, though Smith stated that “I have seen a small manufactory … where ten men only are employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations” (WN, 15).

Daniel Sichel has written a paper on nails and screws that is an associated product to pins:

Everyday Products Weren't Always that Way: Prices of Nails and Screws Since about 1700.”

A downloadable copy is available HERE

Sichel’s paper is well worth reading. It documents the same process of increasing productivity and falling unit costs in “everyday products” that affected the living standards of the populations who benefitted directly from rising living standards, and, in time, the many of which had suffered with severe privations from the general poverty of pre-industrial societies, experienced since humans left the forests for agriculture and shepherding, from 11,000 years ago. The population benefitted both from falling unit prices for everyday items and from the general fall in the price of products for which nails and screws were relatively minor inputs, though progress to relative opulence was uneven for many decades to the 20th century for those without property, or skills and education, as was common throughout the millennia.

While non-market economies were in permanent poverty for the majority of populations, the gradual emergence of industrialisation lifted tens of millions out of abject poverty. Those economies still without modern markets continue to languish in poverty and remain vulnerable while it continues to the calamities of famine, floods, and disease, plus civil wars and domestic oppression.

Use Daniel Sichel's examples in economic class teaching. It follows the changes from the early division of labour and its affect on unit prices, and also brings it up to the 21st century as the '18 operations' have been mechanised, for even greater increases in output of nails and screws (as also for pins).

[Hat tip: to David Warsh:, an authoritative and regular author of an invaluable weekly resource on contributions to economics in the, mainly US, political order, and of some of the key people close to the key policy debates.]



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