Age of Invention: Live and Let Dye

You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. It currently goes out to 4,080 people. You can subscribe here:

This week, I’d like to try something a little different. One of my favourite things about writing Age of Invention is the responses I get. I receive all sorts of thoughtful queries, questions, and comments. But for everyone other than me, they are dispersed, hard to find, or even hidden. They play out in long Twitter discussions, are occasionally posted in Substack’s comments feature, or are sent to me directly by email. Yet despite their invisibility to you, they often provoke days or even weeks of research for me — often because a question has given me a slight doubt, or because a comment has provoked a new line of enquiry.

So I’d like to start sharing some of that with you. I may not reproduce the comments exactly, but will pick and choose points that I’ve found especially thought-provoking. And, for fun, I will put them under an inventor’s pseudonym (feel free to make requests). So, let’s give it a whirl:

Based on the last newsletter, about the contribution of wool cloth exports to London’s extraordinary early modern growth, “Su Song” commented:

You mentioned that cloth exports stayed fairly stable 1550-1650. But doesn’t that contradict your thesis that the switch to the new draperies enabled London’s expansion? Sure, London merchants replaced foreign ones as the main carriers of its imports and exports, and I can see how that might have increased profits for those merchants, but how would that have caused the port to employ so many more people? Without a major increase in cloth exports, I can’t really see how the rise of the new draperies could explain London’s spectacular and anomalous growth, especially when compared to other cities.

It’s an excellent question. In fact, it’s been bothering me all fortnight. My instinctual answer was that the number of cloths exported wasn’t necessarily the same as their value. And certainly, there’s evidence that the value of exports must have increased, as we know that there was a dramatic increase in the value of imports. It’s unclear how much London’s imports were worth in the 1550s, but in 1600 they stood at an estimated £1m, rising by 1638, on the eve of Britain’s various civil wars, to about £2.5m. Now, imports can also be bought with bullion, but I’m not aware of the period having seen a major outflux of gold and silver. If anything, the opposite. England produced no gold or silver of its own, but in the same period its coinage in circulation increased from just £3.5m to about £10m, while goldsmiths and silversmiths also simultaneously ramped up production of their wares. So there was seemingly no shortage of precious metals, while the evidence we have from foreign exchange rates also suggest there was a trade surplus. So London’s increased imports simply must have been paid for with even more valuable exports.

But how? One possibility is that something about the quality of England’s cloth exports must have changed. Yet the shift I described, in which woollens were replaced by worsteds, generally involved exporting a much cheaper kind of cloth. The new draperies were lighter, flimsier, and made with coarser, lower-quality wool. Sure, they may have employed many more people when it came to spinning, but their much cheaper wool more than made up for this (the vast majority of the cost of making woollen cloth was from just the raw materials, not wages). The new draperies also used much smaller, narrower looms, and rarely required fulling, tentering, napping or shearing, so they also saved on capital costs. In the shops of English retailers, the new draperies were generally half the price of luxury broadcloths, in terms of pence per yard. Often cheaper. They were also typically cheaper than the other major varieties of woollen cloth, like kerseys. If lower-value worsted was gradually replacing woollens then — they were nearing half of London’s cloth exports by 1640 — how did export values increase?

Part of the answer, it seems, is that London increasingly exported its cloth in a more finished state. Technically, the country had prohibited the export of unfinished cloths since the fifteenth century. But the quality of its dyes had been so poor, that the government generally licenced unfinished cloth exports anyway. In the 1550s then, the woollen cloth transported to Antwerp had thus not been sheared or dyed. The finishing had taken place there, before the cloth was then re-exported at much higher prices to the rest of Europe.

With the fall of Antwerp, however, England had the opportunity to undertake these processes itself, especially with the immigration of so many skilled Flemish refugees. In the late sixteenth century, they and other immigrants boosted England’s domestic production of dyestuffs like woad (for blue), madder (for red), copperas (green), and alum (a mordant, used to fix the dye to the cloth). Increasingly, dyeing and finishing took place in London itself, with that role solidified by the city’s unique access to exotic imported dyes like indigo, brazilwood, logwood, and cochineal, an insect that was ground up to produce a rich crimson called carmine. (It’s actually still used for this. In the EU, for example, the food additive E120 is made from cochineal bugs, which up until very recently was used to redden Smarties and Skittles, and is still used in red M&Ms).

By 1614, English policymakers were sufficiently confident in the country’s dyeing industry that they sought to restrict the licences for exporting undyed and undressed cloths to northern Europe. This followed the suggestion of the merchant William Cockayne, who largely traded cloth to the Baltic. But the Cockayne scheme was an abject failure. It turned out that Cockayne’s real agenda had been to capture the export market for unfinished cloth for himself, by being one of the few people to still have a licence for it. But he failed to keep up English exports of even unfinished cloth, while the Dutch responded to the scheme by simply banning all imports of English finished cloth too. English cloth exports of all kinds plummeted.

Nonetheless, despite a Cockayne-induced hangover in the 1620s, recent estimates suggest that the proportion of exported cloth that was dyed and finished steadily increased from almost none in the 1550s, to about a quarter by 1600, and two thirds by the 1650s. England’s major export thus began to move up the value chain, with finishing sometimes even doubling the cloth’s value abroad.

But was this enough to explain London’s growing trade? I think there are a few more pieces to the puzzle. For a start, it’s possible that London did in fact import more than it exported, but that it offset this deficit by taking advantage of various indirect trades that were still controlled by its merchants. For example, London merchants sent ships out from the west of England to Newfoundland to fish for cod, which they then took to the Mediterranean to exchange for various London-bound imports like wine. Through the means of such triangular trades, the rest of the country’s export surplus might thus have supported a trade deficit in London. (The more infamous triangular trade was of course that in African slaves and Caribbean sugar, but as far as I can tell this only really took off later, in the eighteenth century).

Even apart from its increasing value, however, London’s trade also changed qualitatively. Its imports from Antwerp in the 1550s had been dominated in terms of value by very small but expensive items intended for the super-rich. Expertly made trinkets like glassware, paper, or metal-made German goods, along with Italian silks or velvet clothes, and Flemish handkerchiefs, scarves, stockings, and gloves. Light, high-value goods that required very little space in a ship’s hold. Yet the late sixteenth century saw the introduction of many of these industries to England itself — sometimes through immigration, and often helped along by a few patent monopolies granted to foreigners. In terms of value then, ever more valuable English exports were exchanged abroad for remaining import goods that were increasingly bulky, unfashioned, or raw — especially as English merchants extended the range of their voyages to go directly to the sources of various luxury materials. Imports of Italian-woven silks, for example, declined, while imports of raw silk from the eastern Mediterranean expanded dramatically.

By the mid-seventeenth century, English imports were dominated by goods carried from farther afield and in quantity, like sugar, spices, currants, olive oil, tobacco, salt, linen, and wine — some of them imported in such bulk that their value per ton fell dramatically, even while the total amounts spent on them grew. Tobacco for example, dropped in price from 6s 8d (that’s 6 shillings and 8 pence) per pound in c.1600, to less than 1s per pound by the late 1630s. A decrease of over 85%. It meant that while the total sums spent on it grew by almost 40 times, the actual amounts imported increased by almost 240 times, to almost 3.8 million pounds per year.

These increased tonnages and distances also required more and larger ships. So at the same time, some especially low-value trades increased in both value and weight too, with ever greater amounts of timber, iron, hemp, tar, and pitch imported directly from the Baltic to build England’s expanding merchant fleet. The historian Ralph Davis estimated that a ship built entirely of foreign goods required as many as two to three ships of its own size just to import the materials. Shipping, and thus the port of London itself, had to grow out of all proportion to the trade’s increasing value. So along with larger ships came larger crews, and still more people to run the port, warehouses, and various other shipping-related industries. As one contemporary put it, “it is the great quantities of bulksome commodities that multiplies ships and men”, and London’s imports were getting astonishingly bulksome.

So, on one side of the equation the value of London’s exports increased because its wool cloth was increasingly dyed and finished at home. And on the other side, its increasingly direct access to faraway markets, along with a fair amount of domestic import-substitution, meant that its remaining imports became significantly bulkier too. Its cloth exports moved up the value chain, while its imports, despite their exoticism, moved down it. From those parallel movements, London thus rose.

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