Home > Uncategorized > An inquiry into the wealth and size of households, Friesland, 1749

An inquiry into the wealth and size of households, Friesland, 1749

Update 1: the link to the graph was broken and has been restored

Update 2: I had some difficulties translating the Dutch ‘Knecht’ into english and for lack of a good alternative I used the word ‘servant’ (‘journeyman’ is not right as a knecht could stay for decades). I finally found a good discussion about this, look here, in the introduction of ‘Servants in early modern husbandry’ by Ann  Kussmaul, pp. 5-6. Dutch ‘Knecht’ and the english eighteenth century word ‘servant’ meant about the same thing (‘the servant of the blacksmith or the carpenter’ were craftsmen, though not master craftsmen) but the present meaning of ‘servant’ seems to be restricted to ‘domestic servant’, a ‘knecht’ was however most of the times not a boarding servant.


In his terrible but much cited book ‘A farewell to alms – a brief economic history of the world‘  (look here for the most devastating book review I’ve ever read, by, who else, Deirdre McCloskey) Gregory Clark states (pp. 7-8) that in pre-industrial England

economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success. The richest men had twice as many surviving children at death as the poorest. The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out… The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism – patience, hard work, innovativeness, education – were thus spreading biologically throughout the population

I hate this very conservative idea. But I’m an economic historian, more or less specialized on Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands, and so I  do have to ask the question: ‘Was this true for Friesland‘ ? And I can answer it (preliminary analysis, I still have to run some statistical tests). In 1748 high food prices led to a tax revolt in (among other places) Friesland. This revolt led in its turn to a short-lived attempt to untax consumption and to tax wealth instead. Part of this attempt was an investigation of the wealth, the main occupation and the number of members of the household of 12 and over as well as the number younger than 12 (who were supposed to be too young to gain any kind of income) of every Frisian household. Faber has already used this information to investigate the distribution of occupations in Friesland in 1749, the basic data are published in this series. But aside from investigating the division of labour it also enables us to investigate the wealth of households and the number of children (at least the number of household members younger than 12) of these households – which is what I did. At this moment I have about 10.000 households in my database and I’m still tinkering with the information but it is possible to check the hypothesis of Clark. The investigation identified poor households, which by default were supposed to have a gross wealth of 100,– guilders, and non-poor households. Did these poor indeed have fewer children? And did people in better paying occupations (or at least in occupations which generated more wealth, mind that wealth was an important collateral for households to obtain loans in dire times) have more children than people in the ‘lesser trades’? I’ve calculated the wealth and the number of children of poor and non-poor households of different occupations: labourers, servants, carpenters and bakers (table 1).  Mind that ‘labourers’ were quite another group than ‘servants’. Servants had a more or less steady job while ‘labourers’ were the flex workers of their time. Mind also that Friesland was a commercially advanced and quite wealthy but also very much a pre-industrial region: a non-agricultural company which occupied more than five people was a large.

Tabel 1. Number of households of labourers, servants, carpenters and bakers, % poor households per occupation (i.e. with a wealth of 100,–) and average wealth of the non-poor households.


As we can see, differences between labourers and the rest were large, especially with regard to the percentage of poor households. Part of this difference was probably caused by larger seasonal spells of unemployment for labourers. But the question remains: did these poor households indeed have fewer children (here defined as members <12, which is supposed to be a predictor of the total number of children). Graph 1 shows the number of members <12 and >=12 per household and occupation, making a distinction between poor and non-poor households.

Friesland 2

Oops. Poor households actually had more children than non-poor households… and even much more. This does not seem te be a life cycle effect. A staple of household studies is that when children in poor households get older they start to earn money, which increases income and wealth of the household. But this pattern does not show: that would mean that non-poor households had more member >= 12 than non-poor households, which was generally not the case. Clark has work to do. The pattern which does seem to show is that rich people had more (surviving) children but that poor households were poor because they had a lot of surviving children. Reproductive success translated powerfully into difficulties to make both ends meet.

  1. August 21, 2013 at 9:49 am

    The McCloskey review is a beaut. Best of all is the footnote on Clark’s failure not merely to acknowledge his sources, but to present them as his own work. Priceless. O

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: