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The distinct seasonality of early modern casual labor and the short durations of individual working years: Sweden 1500-1800


  • Gary, Kathryn

    () (Department of Economic History, Lund University)


Historical wage studies have never been able to truly or accurately address the changes in the working year. Real wages have almost always been based on the wages of unskilled and casual laborers, typically paid by the day. Their annual incomes are not clear or obvious – the income is directly dependent on how many days they work. Implicitly the literature has assumed that the number of days worked is a matter of labor’s decision of how much labor to supply, but the actual work year, both at the individual level and for a statistical ‘typical’ worker, has remained to a large extent a black box. This paper makes use of nearly 28,000 observations representing over 151,000 paid workdays across over 300 years to investigate individual work patterns, work availability, and the changes in work seasonality over time. This sample is comprised of workers in the construction industry, and includes unskilled men and women as well as skilled building craftsmen – the industry which is often used to estimate comparative real wages through early modern Europe. Data come predominantly from Scania, the southernmost region in modern day Sweden, and especially from Malmö, the largest town in the region. Findings indicate that workers probably do not engage in paid labor on a purely labor-supply based schedule, but are instead also impacted by the demand for construction labor, which was highly seasonal. Seasonality was stronger further back in the past, indicating that finding longterm work may have been more difficult in earlier periods. A typical work year would probably not have been longer than 150 days, and would be made up of shorter work spells at several different sites. This is not enough work to meet standard assumptions of 250 days, or enough work for an unskilled man to support his family at a respectable level (see Allen 2001).

Suggested Citation

  • Gary, Kathryn, 2019. "The distinct seasonality of early modern casual labor and the short durations of individual working years: Sweden 1500-1800," Lund Papers in Economic History 189, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:luekhi:0189

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. de Vries, Jan, 1994. "The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 54(2), pages 249-270, June.
    2. Kussmaul,Ann, 1993. "A General View of the Rural Economy of England, 1538–1840," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521458313, April.
    3. Kerstin Enflo & Anna Missiaia, 2020. "Between Malthus and the industrial take‐off: regional inequality in Sweden, 1571–1850," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 73(2), pages 431-454, May.
    4. Humphries, Jane & Weisdorf, Jacob, 2014. "The Wages of Women in England, 1260-1850," CEPR Discussion Papers 9903, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    5. Stanley Engerman & Claudia Goldin, 1991. "Seasonality in Nineteenth Century Labor Markets," NBER Historical Working Papers 0020, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Voth, Hans-Joachim, 1998. "Time and Work in Eighteenth-Century London," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(1), pages 29-58, March.
    7. Allen, Robert C., 2001. "The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 38(4), pages 411-447, October.
    8. Allen, Robert C. & Bengtsson, Tommy & Dribe, Martin (ed.), 2005. "Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199280681.
    9. Gary, Kathryn E. & Olsson, Mats, 2019. "Men at work: Real wages from annual and casual labour in southern Sweden 1500–1850," Lund Papers in Economic History 194, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    10. Stephenson, Judy Z., 2018. "Looking for work? Or looking for workers? Days and hours of work in London construction in the eighteenth century," MPRA Paper 84828, University Library of Munich, Germany.
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    12. Judy Stephenson, 2018. "Looking for work? Or looking for workers? Days and hours of work in London construction in the eighteenth century," Oxford Economic and Social History Working Papers _162, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
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    14. repec:cge:wacage:2015 is not listed on IDEAS
    15. Jane Humphries & Carmen Sarasúa, 2012. "Off the Record: Reconstructing Women's Labor Force Participation in the European Past," Feminist Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 18(4), pages 39-67, October.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jensen, Peter Sandholt & Radu, Cristina Victoria & Sharp, Paul Richard, 2019. "Days Worked and Seasonality Patterns of Work in Eighteenth Century Denmark," Discussion Papers of Business and Economics 10/2019, University of Southern Denmark, Department of Business and Economics.
    2. Humphries, Jane & Schneider, Benjamin, 2020. "Losing the thread: a response to Robert Allen dagger: a response to Robert Allen," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 102559, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.

    More about this item


    working year; seasonal work; labor patterns; early modern; Sweden;

    JEL classification:

    • J23 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Labor Demand
    • N13 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • N34 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Europe: 1913-

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