The shift from offices to kitchen tables among white-collar workers in 2020 seems unprecedented, and only possible with Slack and Zoom. But it is nothing new. Indeed, the history of home-working suggests some surprising parallels with today.
The emergence of capitalism in Britain and elsewhere from the 1600s to the mid-19th century did not take place primarily in factories, but in people's houses. Workers made everything from dresses to shoes to matchboxes in their kitchens or bedrooms. When Adam Smith wrote "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, it was perfectly common to work from home. Smith famously described the operation of the division of labour in pin-making, but not in a dark, satanic mill. He was describing a "small manufactory" of perhaps ten people—which could well have been in or attached to somebody's house.
It is not easy to put exact numbers on how many people have worked from home during different historical periods. Even in Britain, where economic data reach farther back than in any other country, little reliable labour-force data exist until the mid-1800s. Other sources left clues, however. One relates to the meaning of the word "house". Today it connotes domesticity. But up until the 19th century it had a much broader definition, with the suffix "-house" encompassing economic production, too. In "A Christmas Carol", Scrooge works in a "counting-house". Architecture offers other hints. In Britain, many 18th-century houses still have unusually large upstairs windows; cloth-weavers, who worked there, needed as much light as they could get.
The emergence of an at-home industrial workforce had two main causes. The growth of global trade and the rise in per-person income from the 1600s onwards raised demand for manufactured goods such as woollens and watches.
Home-workers may have been poorly paid relative to factory folk, but they could earn income by other means. That was not the only advantage. Home-workers in rural or semi-rural areas could forage for fuel and food, and so boost their meagre incomes. Home-workers also had more control over their time. So long as the work was done to the required standard and on time, they were not told exactly when or how to do it. That was in sharp contrast to the factory, where every aspect of life was planned in advance and workers were closely monitored. And home-workers could decide on the exact mix between work and leisure—in contrast to factory workers, who either worked the 12- or 14-hour days stipulated by the factory owner or none at all. People also got more sleep. This greater autonomy was especially important for mothers. In a world where men did little by way of family work, women could combine child care with contributing to the family income. It was far from easy. Sometimes women would give their infants "Godfrey's Cordial", a mixture of sugar syrup and laudanum, to knock them out for a while. But home-working allowed for the combination of paid work and family work in a way that the factory system did not. As factories spread, female labour-force participation fell.
In 1920 Max Weber, a German sociologist, argued that the separation of the worker's place of work from their home had "extraordinarily far-reaching" consequences. The factory was more efficient than the home-based system which had preceded it—but it was also a space in which workers had less control over their lives, and where they had much less fun. Today's pandemic-induced shift back to the home could have similarly far-reaching effects.