Workers, manufacturers or idlers?
Most accounts describe industrialisation as the culmination of successive stages of development. This paper challenges such linear and schematic characterisations through an analysis of the labour hierarchies in silk textile production in Lombardy after the abolition of trade guilds. It begins by explaining how periods of strong growth in the textile market – and, conversely, periods of contraction and crisis – affected workers’ productive roles. We then analyse how efforts by the public authorities to reduce the theft of silk by workers forced them to distinguish between those who could legitimately sell the products they produced on the market and those only permitted to sell the force of their labour. Finally, on the basis of studies of factories in Como and Milan, we provide an account of the factors that determined the persistence of this fluidity in workers’ status.